It was a typ­i­cally fine-but-blus­tery Manawatu day as the ex­cited 14-year-old school­boy — who should have been at school — ped­alled, head down against the wind, into the Palmer­ston North city cen­tre, with an au­to­graph book tucked into his rear car­rier–mounted sad­dle­bag. He’d been ea­gerly an­tic­i­pat­ing this day all week: the real-life in­spi­ra­tion be­hind his boy­hood dreams was only min­utes away. The South­ern Cross restau­rant, lo­cated near the Palmer­ston North city square, would be an oth­er­wise strange des­ti­na­tion for a young lad en­tirely dis­in­ter­ested in eye fil­let steak or chicken parmi­giana, but, to­day, he was vis­it­ing for an en­tirely dif­fer­ent rea­son. Up­stairs, amid a few hun­dred peo­ple all there for the same rea­son as him, some ta­bles had been ar­ranged length­wise. Seated at the ta­bles, spaced com­fort­ably apart and armed with pens and smiles for the queue of pa­tiently wait­ing au­to­graph col­lec­tors and well-wish­ers, sat a group of For­mula 1 greats: Jim Clark, Bruce McLaren, Piers Courage, and

Pe­dro Ro­dríguez.

It was Thurs­day, 6 Jan­uary 1968, the day be­fore prac­tice got un­der­way for the sec­ond round of the 1968 Tas­man Se­ries at the nearby Levin rac­ing cir­cuit, and Clarke, McLaren, Courage, and Ro­dríguez were on pub­lic-re­la­tions duty, pro­mot­ing the forth­com­ing week­end’s big race meeting. Young Lynn Rowan had al­ready been to see lower-level car rac­ing at Levin and reg­u­larly mar­velled at the speeds and the brav­ery of the For­mula 1 driv­ers that he’d watched on his mum and dad’s black-and-white tele­vi­sion set over the past cou­ple of years. “I rec­og­nized Bruce McLaren as soon as I walked into the room, with his boy­ish face and big smile,” re­calls Lynn al­most ex­actly 50 years later. “I’d seen in the news­pa­per that the pub­lic could come to the South­ern Cross and meet some of the driv­ers, and get an au­to­graph, so I was into that.”

Lynn still has that en­try from 6 Jan­uary

1968 in his au­to­graph book, with the words ‘Pe­dro Ro­dríguez’, ‘Bruce McLaren’, and

‘Piers Courage’ writ­ten leg­i­bly enough for their fa­mous names to be rec­og­nized. While Jim Clark’s pres­ence that day re­mains clear in Lynn’s mem­ory, Jim Clark’s sig­na­ture, sadly, doesn’t ap­pear on the still-pris­tine au­to­graph page, be­cause, by the time Lynn got to Jim’s place along the table, he’d dis­ap­peared for a few min­utes — per­haps for a ‘com­fort stop’.

It was an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for a young bloke who’d de­vel­oped an in­ter­est in car rac­ing to meet those leg­ends of For­mula 1, and one that Lynn re­mem­bers with great clar­ity to­day, now at 64 years of age and liv­ing in Welling­ton.

As you’d imag­ine, hav­ing shaken their hands and had a ner­vous chat with them, these four men im­me­di­ately be­came Lynn’s he­roes as he fol­lowed their progress through the race­tracks of Europe. Their sub­se­quent progress was, how­ever, quite the op­po­site of that which a young boy would want for his he­roes. Within 42 months of his shak­ing their hands and col­lect­ing their au­to­graphs, all four of his he­roes — Clark, McLaren, Courage, and Ro­dríguez — had, one by one, been vi­o­lently and hor­rif­i­cally killed while rac­ing.

Jimmy Clark, the like­able Scots­man who was a dou­ble world cham­pion, was dead within three months of Lynn see­ing him in Palmer­ston North, killed in a For­mula 2 ac­ci­dent at the Hock­en­heim cir­cuit in Ger­many on 7 April 1968, at 32 years of age. Driv­ing a Lo­tus, Clark lost con­trol when — be­lieved but never proven — a tyre failed, and he suf­fered a bro­ken neck and skull frac­tures on im­pact and died be­fore reach­ing the hospi­tal. Only 14 months later, on 2 June 1970, at the Good­wood Cir­cuit in Eng­land, our own ge­nius en­gi­neer and bril­liant driver Bruce McLaren — with four wins and 27 podi­ums in For­mula 1 and ab­so­lute dom­i­na­tion in the Can-Am sports car se­ries to his eter­nal credit — was trag­i­cally killed at the age of 32 while test­ing a McLaren Can-Am car. Less than three weeks af­ter hear­ing the ra­dio broad­cast about his hero Bruce McLaren, Lynn read that Bri­tish driver Piers Courage, aged 28, had been killed at Cir­cuit Zand­voort in the Nether­lands on 21 June 1970. Courage had been driv­ing a Wil­liams — us­ing a De To­maso chas­sis — in a For­mula 1 race. Ei­ther a sus­pen­sion or steer­ing com­po­nent failed — it was never as­cer­tained which — as he ap­proached a high-speed cor­ner, and the car hit an em­bank­ment and dis­in­te­grated. If the im­pact wasn’t bad enough, a wheel came back and hit Courage’s head, break­ing his neck and caus­ing fa­tal head in­juries that killed him in­stantly. Just as well, be­cause, when the car caught fire, the mag­ne­sium pan­els cre­ated an in­ferno that would have been un­sur­viv­able. The sole sur­vivor — thus far — of Lynn’s group of he­roes was the like­able Mex­i­can driver Pe­dro Ro­dríguez, but, only a year later, on 11 July 1971, Lynn heard the news that he, too, had been killed. Ro­dríguez, who had col­lected two wins and seven podi­ums in For­mula 1, met his death dur­ing a sports car race at Nurem­berg in Ger­many. As Ro­dríguez was edged into a wall at high speed by a com­peti­tor, his Fer­rari 512M burst into flames, and he died shortly af­ter be­ing ex­tracted from the wreck­age. He was 31 years old.

Lynn Rowan — im­pres­sion­able school lad — had, in the space of a three-and-a-half years, learnt of the sud­den and tragic death of all four of the fa­mous men that he’d seen and talked to that day in 1968 at the South­ern Cross.

I thought about Lynn, and ev­ery­one else who watched mo­tor rac­ing dur­ing the 1960s and ’70s, as I watched Bathurst a few Sun­days ago. Fol­low­ing mo­tor­sport is a big part of my life, as it is for so many oth­ers. Here we all sit to­day, in front our big screens with our sur­round-sound sys­tems, which make the events we’d love to be at in per­son seem al­most as if we re­ally are there, and al­most as if we’re rid­ing on board with our he­roes — such is the qual­ity of mod­ern in-car footage and film pro­duc­tion. Yet, un­less I’m wildly dif­fer­ent from the rest of you, I never re­ally give a thought to the no­tion of one of these guys I’ve watched and ad­mired year in and year out be­ing badly hurt — or, God for­bid, los­ing their life.

It’s unimag­in­able to me that the many mo­tor rac­ing characters I’ve grown to like over many years, and re­gard as friends — such as the ef­fer­ves­cent Daniel Ric­cia­rdo in For­mula 1, our own boy wonder Scotty McLaugh­lin in Su­per­cars, and so many oth­ers — could lose their lives do­ing what they love to do and what we so en­joy watch­ing them do. Unimag­in­able. How would we cope, watch­ing on tele­vi­sion as, one by one, these guys died sud­den and fiery vi­o­lent deaths in their rac­ing machines? I couldn’t. I re­ally be­lieve I couldn’t watch mo­tor rac­ing if that were a prob­a­bil­ity — if it weren’t just a pos­si­bil­ity but a prob­a­bil­ity that many would, sooner or later, be killed do­ing it. I was gut­ted for poor Davey Reynolds — and dis­be­liev­ing that the team didn’t man­age the sit­u­a­tion and make the de­ci­sion to swap Davey out of the car for a fresh driver and fit Luke Youlden in dur­ing the sched­uled pit stop; Luke would al­most cer­tainly have brought the Pen­rite-spon­sored Ere­bus car home in sec­ond or third spot rather than 13th — but, you know what? Davey was only bug­gered — he wasn’t killed; he wasn’t in­jured. He would have beaten him­self up for what hap­pened but been back to his funny, happy-go-lucky self a day or two later. Thank good­ness for the safety im­prove­ments that have been made in mo­tor rac­ing dur­ing the 50 years since Lynn Rowan was a 14-year-old boy.

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