THE AUTOGRAPH HUNTER
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
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.