Simon Taylor Full throttle
‘He never knew why he was the fastest. The talent just arrived unbidden at his fingers and his feet’
As with the shooting of JFK and the attacks on the Twin Towers, most enthusiasts can remember where they were when they heard the news of Jim Clark’s death. On 7 April 1968 I was at Brands Hatch covering the BOAC 500. No mobile phones or laptops then – I had my usual spiral notebook and Biro – but somehow the news filtered through from Germany into the old press box under the main grandstand.
Like a wave, silence rolled across the room. It seemed odd that the GT40S and Porsche 907s thundering past the window hadn’t fallen silent too. The one man we thought had risen above the dangers was dead.
As darkness fell I was still at my Good Companion portable, hammering out my 4000 words on the six-hour BOAC race for Autosport. Then I got my 850 Mini out of the now empty car park, drove back to my flat, and started the dismal task of trying to express the world’s sense of shock and loss in an inadequate obituary.
Fifty years later, on the anniversary of his death, he has been celebrated anew, not least in his home town of Duns (p118), near to the farm that he loved. And in the imposing surroundings of the Mountbatten Room at the Royal Automobile Club a tribute dinner drew a host of people who knew, loved, worked with and understood the enigma that was Clark. In the car he was the supreme master, focused, confident, unbeatably quick and yet so smooth that he looked almost slow; and out of the car he was shy, indecisive, ill-at-ease, biting his nails. He never seemed to know why he was the fastest. The talent just arrived unbidden at his fingers and his feet.
Between each course during the dinner I had the privilege of interviewing some of the notable guests while the rest of the room listened. From Jim’s early days there were his neighbour Ian Scott Watson, who lent him his DKW and then his Porsche and Elite to go racing; and rally star Andrew Cowan, his schoolfriend who drove with him across the fields before they had their driving licences. Jimmy’s cousin Doug Niven told us about the work of the Jim Clark Trust, which has established a fine museum at Duns.
Clive Chapman described his father’s friendship with a man who in all his F1 career, his two World titles, his 33 poles and 25 wins in 72 Grands Prix, only drove for Team Lotus. After Jim’s death the grieving Colin swore he would never again get that close to one of his drivers.
His chief wrench Cedric Selzer described how easy he was to work with, never blamed anyone when it went wrong, thanked them when it went right. Mechanics love to work for a winner. Jackie Oliver told us how it felt stepping into Jim’s F1 shoes at Lotus straight after his death.
Dario Franchitti wasn’t born when Jimmy died, but throughout his racing career he was his inspiration. Sally Stokes, Jimmy’s long-time girlfriend who in many ways knew him better than anyone, shared her memories. She lives in California now and had flown in specially for the dinner. And we learned that FIA President Jean Todt has a picture of Jim Clark on his office wall.
Then I got Jackie Stewart up on stage and, in 20 minutes’ conversation, he took us back to a time when you could be best friends with a rival F1 driver from another team. It wouldn’t happen today. Jimmy and Jackie shared a flat together, travelled together, holidayed together. Jackie and Helen were devastated when he was killed, and it was his needless death that started Jackie on his crusade to make circuits safer.
One lovely anecdote underlined Jimmy’s hesitancy out of the cockpit. Said Jackie: “We were sharing a hire car on our way to Daytona, driving across flat endless Florida, and we came to a railway crossing. Jimmy stopped, looked left, looked right. The expanse was empty to the horizon. Then he said, ‘Do you think it’s OK to cross?’”
And yet: the finest racer of his era, and one of the half-dozen finest of any era.
Below: Clark with longtime companion Sally Stokes and, bottom, the days when F1 rivals were also friends – Stewart, Clark and Graham Hill