NZ Classic Driver
MIKE SPENCE: OUT OF THE SHADOWS
Richard Jenkins ISBN 978 0 9576450 9 7 Reviewer’s own copy
With far safer circuits, car structures and driver equipment, the number of racing drivers lost during the second half of the 20th century is unthinkable today. Some seasons stand out as worse than others for driver fatalities, such as 1958, 1970 and particularly 1968, some at the top of their game – think Jochen Rindt and Jim Clark. Others had not had time to establish themselves but showed promise that was cut short. One of those drivers was Mike Spence.
Award-winning author (for his 2019 biography of Richie Ginther), Richard Jenkins, has now taken Spence ‘out of the shadows’. From a solid and successful grounding in sports cars, saloons, Formula Junior and F2 with teams run by the likes of Ian Walker and Ron Harris, Spence got his first championship F1 drive with Team Lotus in 1963. He joined the team for 1964 and 1965, backing up Jim Clark after Peter Arundell was seriously injured at Reims. This stint ended when Arundell returned to the team. Sadly, Spence never regained his previous form and spent the 1966 season with Parnell Racing before joining the BRM works team for 1967. The following year’s V12 BRM showed promise but sadly it was Spence’s last season.
During his last couple of seasons, Spence combined his F1 racing with some decent drives in sports cars, doing well in a couple of CanAm rounds and joining the Chaparral team for 1967, taking part in seven world sports car rounds with Phil Hill. Unreliability meant too many retirements but the pair won the British round at Brands Hatch, Spence’s biggest international victory. And he proved to be a surprise package by his impressive speeds as a rookie in qualifying for the 1968 Indy 500. Chapman had asked for him to replace Jim Clark in the race and BRM agreed to release him. Sadly, Spence didn’t get to race the Brickyard. He qualified his own Lotus 56 turbine very well, and at the last minute Chapman reluctantly agreed that Mike should try out Greg Weld’s similar car to help its driver with setup. He crashed into the wall on his first lap in the car and was killed.
Across 138 large pages, Jenkins tells the story in a thorough manner, backed up by a very complete results section. The book is full of photos, although in my copy at least, quite a few of the monochrome photos are rather ‘muddy’. A real strength of the book is the length to which the author must have gone to seek out people to interview about their recollections of Mike Spence, from his widow Lynne to fellow drivers, team personnel and business partners. The general view was that he was a delightful man, very talented at testing as well as racing, certainly better than his results suggested, although perhaps not sufficiently forceful at times. Sir Jackie Stewart makes some interesting observations about the difficulty facing any Lotus team-mate of Jim Clark’s because of the latter’s relationship with Colin Chapman.
This is a very readable account of a driver who may well have been on the cusp of some real racing successes. £27 (www.performancepublishing.co.uk) | Review by Mark Holman