THE LEGENDARY GRAHAM ‘CASSIUS’ MCRAE — PART TWO
Graham Mcrae headed to Europe following the Tasman Series in 1970. He had won again at Surfers Paradise, backing up his Teretonga win but, with a string of mechanical problems, didn’t dent the scoreboard anywhere else.
Mcrae realized that getting a footing in European Formula 5000 (F5000) was the key to his successful future. With Tom Clark’s help, they bought a new M10B Mclaren, but the fast-lane hotbed of European competition meant that the learning curve would continue. Mcrae was guilty of overdriving on occasion, bringing about retirements when a more disciplined approach would have brought better results. There was also a large crash, necessitating a new chassis and engine.
It was all about gaining experience and learning — something at which Mcrae excelled. Riding his rapidly acquired race craft, Mcrae rounded out his second European season on a high, with a second place and two wins.
Mcrae was to use this new driving maturity and the preparation skills that he’d gained to devastatingly good effect in the next couple of years, beginning with the 1971 Tasman championship. It was the start of a sublime run, when it seemed that he had the Midas touch with everything he drove. There was never any question about Mcrae’s supreme natural speed, but it was now tempered with the ability to conserve his equipment when necessary.
Mcrae ran a triumphant campaign in the 1971 Tasman Series. It was a case of young local boy made good, in commanding fashion. Fellow countryman Graeme Lawrence had won the series the previous year, but, apart from a dominant performance at Levin, he hadn’t really been a front runner — more an accumulator, from good steady drives. For the next three years, Mcrae stamped his authority on the Tasman Championship in no uncertain terms. In 1971, there were what he described as “Kamikaze drives”, and some engine failures, but, in the final report, he was head and shoulders above the opposition.
For the 1971 European season, Mcrae was hot property, and the Mclaren team
installed him as their works driver with the M18 Mclaren. Trouble was, it was a total pig of a car compared with the beautiful M10B.
Mcrae recalls, “The handling was abysmal, and the car spun and rolled twice, once with no oil in the transmission.”
Mclaren offered to fly out Mcrae’s M10B Tasman-winning car, which he used for several races, and then to design another: “I used this car and the ideas from the Mclaren M19 and BRM P160 Formula 1 cars to formulate the design concept for the Leda GM1, which we built in late 1971.”
Man and machine in the winning zone
In Mcrae’s words, the deal was that they would build the car that he conceived, and it would be known as the ‘Leda LT27’. Malcolm Bridgland from Malaya Garage provided the space/ finance, and Len Terry drew up the design to Graham’s specifications. The original car was known as the ‘Leda GM1’ in deference to this. Mcrae lived in a hotel in Bournemouth during the design and construction phase.
The deal started off well. However, the good vibes between Terry and Mcrae soured not long afterwards, for reasons that were unclear — although which probably centred on money. (When I ask, Mcrae fixes me with that look that says ‘I’m not going to reveal that, but if I write my book, I’ll tell the inside story.’)
Anyway, around the middle of 1972, during the original car’s blazing run of glory, Mcrae and London insurance broker John Heynes bought out Bridgland and set up Mcrae Cars Ltd at Poole in Dorset. From July 1972, the car became known as the ‘Mcrae GM1’. During 1972–’73, a small team built 14 customer Mcrae GM1S. Production ended in October 1973, when the factory was sold to Roger Penske, as his base to build his prototype Formula 1 (F1) car.
Using the super-reliable Swiss Morand-built carburettor Chevy engines, Mcrae set out on the most rampaging run of success in his career.
He recalls, “The Morand engine builders had superb attention to detail and did things like boring out the carburettors, making them bigger and increasing the flow.”
The Leda GM1 was the quickest piece of kit on the scene, and, with Mcrae’s ruthless speed and aggressive driving, this was the hottest act in town during the 1972 Tasman Championship. Mcrae dominated his home track of Levin again, and also repeated his victory at Wigram in Christchurch. He continued his rolling-thunder ascendancy in the Australian races of the series, with wins again at Surfers Paradise, Queensland, and the Australian Grand Prix (GP) at Sandown Park, Melbourne, plus a fourth at Warwick Farm. He finished 11 points clear of Mike Hailwood in the Surtees TS8, who was one point up on Frank Gardner’s Lola T300.
From there, Mcrae took the STP (Scientifically Treated Petroleum — a supposed performance-enhancing fuel-additive product created by Andy Granatelli)– sponsored GM1 to the land of the Stars and Stripes. He based himself at a place called Irvine near Costa Mesa, down the coast from LA. He was basically running his own show, with backing from STP and towing his entourage with a Chevy station wagon. Joe Wright was his spanner man, and the team numbered three with the gofer.
I ask Mcrae what his best memory is of that successful 1972 US L&M Formula 5000 Championship–winning campaign. He says, “It was landing in San Francisco, driving down to Monterey for the first round at Laguna Seca, putting the car on pole, leading all the way, and collecting US$20K.” Not a bad day at the office! Mcrae repeated his winning ways at Elkhart Lake; Wisconsin; and also Watkins Glen, NY, to win the series.
The Mcrae juggernaut seemed unstoppable at this juncture, and, indeed, Graham was catching the eye of some of the elite F1 and Indy heavy hitters. He came close to winning the British/european F5000 title as well that year, finishing in third place, after an overtaking-under-the-yellow-flag penalty cost him valuable points. It was a great season in anyone’s language, and Cassius was to continue his winning streak into a third consecutive victorious Tasman Championship in 1973. Using an updated version of his GM1, now a Mcrae GM1, he again dominated the series, winning at Levin, Wigram, and Sandown Park, with second at Surfers Paradise and third at Warwick Farm. Mcrae’s total of 40 points was well clear of John Mccormack’s Elfin MR5 Repco on 29 and Frank Matich on 27.
At this illustrious point in his career, it seemed that the trajectory of Mcrae’s star was on the verge of breaking into the elite spheres of F1 or Indy, and the associated fame that went with that.
Economic challenges rein in the Mcrae juggernaut
Somehow, though, this was the turning point in Mcrae’s fortunes, which began a slow, steady decline, except for a brief renaissance while Mcrae was racing in Australia in the late 1970s. Why did this happen? Money, or lack of it, was a factor. Apart from Iberia Airlines sponsoring his Mcrae GM1 in the 1973 European and US series, Mcrae struggled to get sponsorship. Maybe he upset some potential sponsors or teams that he could have raced for, being too open and frank in expressing his opinions of the car’s shortcomings. This might have closed some doors.
In fact, 1973, apart from the Tasman Series win, was a year of lost opportunities for Mcrae. His Indy 500 drive with Granatelli’s STP team looked promising, with Mcrae winning Rookie of the Year and starting from 13th position. He slipped to 16th position, driving conservatively and staying out of trouble.
Mcrae recalls, “Granatelli was fuming, though, and gave me the word to wind it up. The fuel cock then jammed and burned out the exhaust valves, which caused the manifold to crack, ending my race.” He was still classified in 16th place. Mcrae started the 1973 British GP in an Iso Marlboro Williams. It was the year of the big pile-up, triggered by a young and impetuous Jody Scheckter. After a surprisingly good start, Mcrae’s race came to nothing, due to jammed throttle valves, bringing his retirement after one lap.
There were no further offers of international rides, although Ken Tyrrell rang and asked him to be on standby when Jackie Stewart had his ulcer. In 1976, Brabham (Bernie Ecclestone) also asked him to be on standby, as Reutemann was stranded for a time in Argentina because of a coup taking place. Unfortunately, nothing came of these possibilities.
Mcrae’s 1973 European/us F5000 assaults with the Iberia Airlines GM1 did not bring the golden run of the previous two seasons. Competition was stronger in the US, with Mcrae facing better-financed teams, such as series-winner Jody Scheckter’s Trojan and the new Lola T330, particularly in Brian Redman’s hands, that were more than a match for him. His US season was punctuated by a series of blown engines, and running in both continents meant that car preparation was stretched. Mcrae managed a single win at Mallory Park in the European season, but the floodgates were no longer open.
In the latter part of the year, Mcrae focused his energies on designing and building the Mcrae GM2 F5000. The US regulations required a deformable structure, and the new car was built to conform to this format and to improve the marginal cooling of the GM1. Its first outing was very impressive, winning on debut at Sandown Park in the Australian GP in November ’73. The same month, Mcrae won the second round of the New Zealand Gold Star series — known that year as the ‘Black & Decker Championship’ — at Pukekohe. However, luck deserted him
The Mcrae juggernaut seemed unstoppable at this juncture, and, indeed, Graham was catching the eye of some of the elite F1 and Indy heavy hitters
in the 1974 Tasman Series, with two second places at Teretonga and Sandown Park being the highlights — slim pickings after his three consecutive Tasman-title wins.
The US F5000 programme in 1974 was the last time that Mcrae fronted a reasonably competitive campaign in North America. An eighth overall finish in the series wasn’t too shabby, given his lack of finance and sponsor. This might have been a fifth place had a late race-tyre deflation not caused him to lose a certain third place at Las Vegas, where he was running ahead of Al Unser.
The year was also complicated with a deal Mcrae made to license the use of the GM2 design to Jack Mccormack, who built five clones of the car, known as ‘Talon MR1S’. But the deal turned sour for Mcrae, for reasons that are unclear and that he prefers not to reveal to me during our interview. A possibility may have been that he was promised a drive in one of the new Talons, but, when the buck stopped, it turned out there wasn’t a seat for him. Sam Posey was the man behind the wheel in the States, and fellow Kiwi Chris Amon drove the works Talon in the 1975 Tasman Series.
Last Tasman Series race win
Running the GM2 in the final Tasman Championship in 1975, the script for Mcrae was much the same as the previous year. The car was fast — on pole for all the New Zealand races — but it was fragile, and the lack of budget was telling, with a niggling saga of problems that ended Mcrae’s run in the majority of races.
The one shining beacon was his Tasman race victory at Wigram, with a performance that recalled his earlier days of supreme authority. The car held together and was running beautifully. Once the challenge from Warwick Brown ended with a blown head gasket, Mcrae hammered home to a commanding win. Unfortunately, this did not signal a change in fortunes. The retirements ran on, and the season hit a new low when he wrote off the GM2 in private practice at Surfers Paradise. Mcrae managed to lease Jon Davison’s Matich A51 for the race, and, starting from the rear of the grid, managed a fourth-place finish. However, the event turned out to be his last Tasman race start.
Final F5000 years — 1975–’79
Using a Lola T332 replacement, Graham competed in the 1975 US F5000 Championship. At several rounds, there were flashes of his renowned speed in various heats preceding the main events. A fourth in a heat behind JP Jarier at Watkins Glen and a second to Al Unser, ahead of Warwick Brown, in a heat at Laguna Seca were the minor upbeat moments. Again, however, Mcrae didn’t have the resources in money, personnel, or equipment to challenge the heavyweights in the main contests, his best finish being an eighth place and 17th overall in the series standings, with only seven points as his reward.
Mcrae spent much of 1976 building his new F5000 challenger, the Perspex glass cockpit– windowed GM3. He says that he developed the exposed-perspex driving compartment in response to spectators’ complaints about no longer being able to see the driver at work. The GM3, like all Graham’s previous cars, was a beautifully sleek racer that suggested that maybe he could get back on terms with the front runners.
Regrettably, the slow downward spiral of
Mcrae’s fortunes continued. His timing for the debut of the GM3 — the car he hoped would reignite his flagging career — was a calamity. He managed one race with it — the final round of the US F5000 Championship at Riverside — retiring from midfield. Then the rules were changed for the following year, with the US F5000 canned and replaced with a sort of silhouette poor man’s Can-am, sports car– bodied version of the F5000. Mcrae had to dig deeper into his depleted coffers and convert his new machine into one of these hybrids.
It was known as the ‘GM9’, but Mcrae couldn’t afford decent engines; his ’77 attempt at the ‘new’ Can-am, with no sponsorship, was a very low-key exercise. Against the likes of the pro teams from Carl Haas and Paul Newman, his privateer effort was a hopeless rear-of-the- grid, trying-to-nurse-the-car-home scenario. Against the odds, he did manage a surprising best result of sixth place. The writing was on the wall, though, and, at this juncture, Mcrae wisely bailed out of running his own show in the US. He brought the car back to Australia in GM3 F5000 format, to run it in the last gasp of the V8 dinosaur class that was still hanging on there.
Renaissance man’s last F5000 stand — Australia 1978–’79
It was to be the last successful stand in Mcrae’s racing career. Aged 38, he was still driving well and the tide of fortune was to turn in his favour one more time. Basing himself in Melbourne, and with Ampol sponsorship, Mcrae was able to put a competitive and reliable Mcrae GM3 together for the last couple of years F5000 racing in Oz. In ’78, he won his fourth Australian GP and went on to win the Gold Star Championship, even though it was only a three-round affair. He was also competitive in the Jan ’79 Australian International F5000 series — though without achieving any notable results.
The end of the racing road
With the end of F5000 racing in Australia, Graham had one last punt in the US in the early ’80s, with the GM3 converted back to the GM9 sports car Can-am format. The car was painted in the pink livery of the casino chain Circus Circus. Mcrae hovered around the top 10 most outings, unable to match his starring role on the US F5000 scene a decade earlier. As usual, lack of funds to prepare and develop the car was the culprit in preventing him advancing any further up the results sheet.
The expense of building, preparing, and racing a car of his own design was becoming beyond Mcrae’s resources. His racing became much more spasmodic in the later ’80s, and, as he slipped further down the food chain, the quality of the offers had less potential. He did
Basing himself in Melbourne and with Ampol sponsorship, Mcrae was able to put a competitive and reliable Mcrae GM3 together for the last couple of years F5000 racing in Oz
In my view, Mcrae was the fastest and most gripping driver to come out of this country in the early to mid ’70s, with the possible exception of Chris Amon
two seasons of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) Indy car racing in 1984 and 1987, but, as he describes it, “I was struggling to qualify for lower grid positions, with poor teams, not able to provide a competitive car.”
Following a one-off drive in a Group A Volvo at Bathurst in 1987, Graham decided to hang up his helmet.
Specialist sports car building
Mcrae returned to New Zealand in the late 1980s and turned his innovative engineering mind to starting a business building beautiful, accurate replicas of the 1954–’55 Porsche Speedster. He imported a genuine Porsche 356 Speedster from Vintage Speedsters in California, using it to create the moulds from which to manufacture the production kits. The hardware underpinning his exquisite replica roadsters was derived from the two-litre Porsche 914, with five-speed gearbox.
Mcrae set the highest of standards in producing technically perfect replicas of the original 1954–’55 German sports car. In 2000, he registered his company as the New Zealand–based ‘Mcrae Cars Ltd’. It was a slow and exacting process, but quality was everything to him, and, by 2003, he had produced 38 cars. These vehicles are now highly prized, with one reportedly having sold recently for $160K.
Mcrae continued building his handcrafted versions of the Porsche 356 Speedsters and 550 Spyders, as featured recently in this magazine, until he had an unfortunate personal crisis in 2003. The details of that don’t need repeating here, although many will remember the sad news. Once Mcrae was back on track, he brought the curtain down on his specialist car building operation. Possibly the demands and stresses of creating highly detailed and exquisitely engineered replicas had become too much. Graham had always been a perfectionist in everything he did.
Lost Kiwi racing hero
Graham more or less dropped out of sight after that, although he did appear as a sort of ambassador during the 2007–’08 F5000 Tasman Cup Revival Series. He was interviewed in Australia and appeared enthused about the revival of his beloved muscular stockblock, V8-powered open-wheelers. He always felt that they were the ultimate race machines of their era.
Following those public sightings, Mcrae slipped into obscurity, emerging only for a historic racing dinner at one of the Hampton Downs revival events. The sad reality was that, despite all his racing endeavours and his car-building enterprises, he had ended up in a financially precarious situation. That strain had had a further impact on his personal wellbeing, and he had become a little eccentric, shying away from public attention.
I have a strong sense of disappointment about the way, over the past decade or so, some of the media/social media and the historic racing fraternity have seemed to turn a blind eye, or critical eye towards, one of New Zealand’s fastest and most successful racing drivers. Just because it hasn’t ended well for Mcrae personally is, I believe, no reason not to acknowledge his great achievements and bestow the accolades that this man richly deserves — of the type that we regularly shower on others whose CV is nowhere near as impressive. To have a roll of honour that includes winning the 1972 L&M US F5000 Championship, taking the 1971, 1972, and 1973 Tasman Championship crowns, coming third in the 1972 British/european F5000 Championship, being the Australian GP winner in 1972, 1973, 1976, and 1978, and winning the 1978 Australian Gold Star Championship is a very impressive resume.
In my view, Mcrae was the fastest and most gripping driver to come out of this country in the early to mid ’70s, with the possible exception of Chris Amon. This story is a small attempt to try to redress the balance. Mcrae was always my number one, and to have had this opportunity finally to meet Graham ‘Cassius’ Mcrae, and hear his story, has been one of the great rewards for this writer/fan!
Left: Tasman champion for the third consecutive time in 1973, Mcrae celebrates at Sandown Park, Melbourne (photographer unknown)
Right: Wigram, 1972 — Graham in command with the Leda GM1 on route to victory (photo: Terry Marshall)
Bottom left: Painting of Mcrae during the 1972 Tasman Series (painting by Michael J Nidd)Below, top to bottom: Cover of the March 1972 Motorman magazine, featuring Graham Mcrae’s 1972 Tasman Series–winning Leda GM1; Graham’s Mclaren M10B during the Australian segment of the 1971 Tasman Series; Graham on the grid at Sandown Park for a Tasman Series race, 1972 (photo: Rod Mackenzie)
Above: A Mcrae GM2 lookalike, built under license to the GM2 specifications and raced here by Chris Amon in the 1975 Tasman Series (photo: oldracephotos.com)
Above: Last days of the Mcrae GM2, 1975 Tasman Series, Oran Park, Australia (photo: Doug Eagar)
Above: Mcrae GM2, 1975 (photo: Terry Marshall)
Right: Ampol advert for Mcrae’s victorious third consecutive Tasman Championship
Above and above right: Tasman champion, the man, and victorious Mcrae GM1 1973 (photographer unknown)
Below: GM9 Mcrae, 1977 Can-am series (photographer unknown)
Above: Yellow Mcrae GM3 during the Australian International Series, January 1979 (photographer unknown)
Right: Graham Mcrae and Mcrae GM3 during the 1978 Rothman’s International at Oran Park (photo: Geoff Russell)