The Flying Scotsman

Just a brief diversion from politics today.

Today would have been the 80th birthday of James “Jimmy” Clark, perhaps the greatest Formula 1 driver of all time.

A big claim?  Perhaps.  There are eight drivers who’ve won more than Clarks’ 25 F1 contests;  there are others who’ve won more than his two F1 World Championship titles.   Nobody may ever dominate the sport like Michael Schumacher did in the 2000s.

Clark in his ’67 Lotus/Cosworth – one of the great engine-chassis combinations in F1 history.

But Clark was notable for a couple of things.  First, he was one of the most prominent racers at a time when an F1 race wasn’t a whole lot safer than flying a bombing mission in World War 2.  In Clark’s second F1 race, the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, two drivers were killed.  Clark was also involved in one of the most horrific accidents in modern F1 history; at the 1961 Italian Grand Prix at Monza – with its steeply banked curves that were the inspiration for the Hot Wheels tracks you may remember from your childhood – German driver Wolfgang Von Trips tangled with Clark in a turn and veered off the track, killing Trips and fifteen spectators.   So surviving long enough to win a significant number of races, much less multiple championships, was no mean feat.

It only seems like Crosstown during rush hour. Ugly crashes like these – in the days before rupture-resistant fuel tanks and full roll cages – were pretty normal fifty years ago.

Second:  Clark excelled in just about every kind of racing car imaginable: in addition to being the premiere F1 driver of his era, he won the ’64 British Touring Car championships, was a competitive Rally driver, placed in the money at Le Mans twice out of three attempts, and even drove in a NASCAR race (the 1967 American 500 at Rockingham).  He competed several times at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in an Aston Martin DBR1:

Clark in his Le Mans Aston Martin DBR1.

And, most notably, he competed in five Indy 500s; in ’64 and ’66, the cars crapped out in the first 40 laps (they were British cars, after all).  In the other three – ’63, ’65 and ’67 – he never finished below 2nd place.   He came within a whisker of winning in ’63, his rookie race, but for a controversial decision not to black-flag Parnelli Jones’s car, which was gushing oil.   He earned “Rookie of the Year” in perhaps the most specactular rookie turn in Brickyard history.

After going out with suspension failure in ’64, he came back and won in ’65, leading in 190 out of 200 laps – the first foreign-born driver to win the Memorial Day Classic since the 1910s.

Clark’s 1965 Lotus 38 – the car with which he won the ’65 Indy contest. It looks like a glorified go-kart – don’t you love that single roll bar that doesn’t even come up over the driver’s head? But this was the first car to finish the 500 miles at an average of greater than 150mph.

And while many drivers have surpassed his total wins, total points and total championships records, he holds one that can only be tied – he won 100% of the possible championship points in ’63 and ’65 (tying Alberto Ascari’s record) – and two that may he never be beaten (he held the lead in nearly 72% of the laps he raced in ’63, and he holds eight “Grand Slams”  – races where he held the pole position, won the race, and led the entire race).

How talented was he?  Most F1 drivers are as persnickety about their cars’ setups as three-star chefs are about their kitchens.  Clark was famous for jumping into cars pretty much as-is, running a few laps, and molding his style to the car’s setup, and never really changing anything.   And going on to win.

Aside from talent, the big draw with Clark – for me, at least – was that he spent pretty much his entire F1 and Indy career with one team; Lotus.

And Lotus built the most beautiful F1 cars ever.  Bar none.   Certainly compared to today’s F1 cars, which are engineering marvels that, unthinkably in ’60s terms, rarely kill their drivers, but look (and sound) like vacuum cleaners.

A moment of silence, please.

It was a time when British engineering may have been troublesome to keep running – but dammit, it looked good!  Whether it was fictional spy cars…:

You knew it was coming.

or tanks,

A British “Chieftain” tank, which served from the sixties into the early 2000s. It may have been marginally more reliable than an E-series Jaguar – but it was what a tank should look like. Modern tanks, with their squared-off Chobham armor may run and shoot rings around the Chieftan – but the Chieftain’s design says “Tank. James Tank”.

or aircraft,

A Bristol Buccaneer of the Royal Navy. That is one beautiful plane – one of many the Brits built, starting with the Spitfire, and ending about the time the Brits stopped building their own aircraft. I need to do a series on British design someday.

or prestige roadsters,

An E-series Jaguar. In its natural state – sitting still.

Clark’s dominance coincided with the great, and final (?), age of British engineering dominance.

17 thoughts on “The Flying Scotsman

  1. The Avro Vulcan bomber was also a great looking plane.

    Unfortunately for USAF, it always kicked the B-52’s ass every time we had bombing competitions. It pains me to admit that, but I gotta give kudos when they are due.

    Now that that is out of the way, the Vulcans have been retired, while the mighty BUFF keeps flying. So, in your face, Avro!

  2. Mitch, as this is a fun piece I hope you won’t mind a bit of diversion.

    Once a year, every March since 2011, I have observed a celebration of the single greatest greasing any leftist twerp ever received.

    Yes friends, it’s once again time to turn our gaze upon the teh awesumnez that is Eric “Big E” Pusey’s prime time debut against Twila Brace on Fox 9:

    I hope, especially, that dg stops in to get a steaming mug full of her fearless MPP leader in action.

  3. I still remember rebuilding an MGB Roadster in British Racing Green. Great car, absolutely fun to drive, and completely British. In other words, it spent 80% of its time on the lift getting repairs, but when it ran…

    I still remember the very experienced guy who sold me the car and helped me rebuild it. He tried very hard to convince me not to do that project. One of his points: “This baby’s got two batteries because it’s a British system and otherwise it’d never run.” That wasn’t quite true — the batteries were 2 six volt batteries in series — but it was true about the electrical system. How screwed up were the British designers at the time? They put the batteries right behind the seats and made them just about impossible to get to, while the quality of the components and the quality of the design just about guaranteed you’d fry the battery at the first hint of electrical problems. And electrical problems were semi-weekly events.

    I rebuilt a similar era Porsche 911. By comparison, the 911 was a paragon of reliability, and proved that, while I could drive the 911 around and pretty much survive with just that car (survive San Diego in a 911 in the late 80s? more like thrive), with the MGB you needed to also own a Chevy or you’d never get to work.

  4. nerd;

    One of my buddies in high school had a 65 MGB. You are totally correct about the constant repairs. In the winter, that stupid little four popper in it, took forever to put out heat, especially on those sub zero days we had in the early 70s winters.

    I used to be a Norton motorcycle guy. My 73 850 Commando SS, was a fun bike with that sound that defined British bikes. Unfortunately, they had some of the same mechanical issues as British cars did.

  5. I think one thing that made yesterday’s race cars look so much better is the lack of advertising slapped on every square inch.

    Yeah, once in awhile you’d see a Firestone sticker but c’mon…what do Domain name brokers, or energy drinks, or Cheetos have to do with racing?

  6. I became aware of Clark by being a fan of Jackie Stewart, another “Flying Scot” who could hold his own with Clark in F1, F2 and at Indy. Stewart was a close friend of Clark’s and wrote movingly of his death and the effect it had on him. Stewart had his own close calls and was an outspoken advocate of greater safety in the sport (it’s incredible how cavalier things were back in the day). Stewart retired in ’73, still at the height of his career, with the deaths of Clark and several other friends hanging heavy over him. He had announced his retirement at the beginning of the year, but after winning at Nürburgring (one of the scariest tracks in the circuit) toward the end of the season he decided his luck was up and quit after 99 Gran Prix races.

    I grew up in Indianapolis, so racing was a part of my life for a time. I loved the photo of Clark’s Lotus Indy car; in my memory that is what “Indy cars” will always look like. I also liked seeing Parnelli Jones’ name; it reminded me that he was one of the first to try a turbine engine in his Indy car. It sounded like a roller-skate going by you in comparison to the roar of the Offenhausers most teams were running.

    Today football seems more dangerous than auto racing, but the carnage in the 60s and 70s was incredible. At Indy alone I recall the spectacular ’64 crash that killed Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald, as well as Art Pollard’s car sliding upside down in the back stretch when he was killed during time trials, and the huge crash at the start of one race where the nose-cone of Salt Walther’s car was sheered off; the sight of his feet sticking out in the debris (he lived) was the second scariest thing I saw at Indy. The most scary thing was watching Swede Savage’s car explode in ’73, disintegrating around him and leaving him, still strapped to his seat, in the middle of the track, batting at the invisible flames as he died. Ah, Jimmy, Swede, Art, Dave and more – we remember. And Jackie, thank God you walked away.

  7. To know what it was like back then, check out this 20 minute “real-time” documentary of the ’64 crash, made from TV and radio coverage of the day. It is almost surreal to see the crash in front of your eyes while the announcers continue unaware of what has just happened. This isn’t that odd, though, if you’ve seen Indy. The track is huge and line of sight for most fans is restricted to the turn of the section of track in front of them. It is literally a mile from one end to the other.

  8. *slow, methodical clap..with approving stare and nod*

    Of course there is the old joke about Lucas Electrical components: Mr Lucas was known as “The Prince Of Darkness”.

  9. And…….

    Maybe not as widely accomplished, but I’d love to see you give the same blog treatment to Juan Manuel Fangio, Mark Donohue, and Ayrton Senna.

  10. And pt2:

    Clark’s dominance coincided with the great, and final (?), age of British engineering dominance.

    While they might not be DOMINATING, I would say Jaguar, Bentley and McLaren have shed the travesty of the 70s and 80s engineering that was epitomized by British Leyland.

    Top Gear (RIP) has an amusing episode where they did one of their wacky comparisons and this particular mission was to find 3 cars built by the British Leyland conglomeration to perform the tests. One of their better episodes IMHO.

  11. What? No mention of Nicki Lauda and Nigel Mansell? Mansell who lost his Indy 500 debut because he was too much of a gentleman and did not get on the gas until too late to capture the flag? Who said stopping for gas at Indy was like stopping for a “spot of tea”?

    Helped my buddy rebuild an old Spitfire 1200. Nothing like grinding your knuckles into a dashboard getting into (sorry forgot which) gear.

    And of course the best bumper sticker I ever saw was on an old Mini Woody: “Parts Falling Off this Car are Made with Genuine British Quality”.

  12. Well, Bentley is owned by VW and Jag is owned by Tata. McLaren though, is a completely different animal. My friend owned one – absolutely loved it and service he received was second to none. They even upgraded his CPU to a newer version, free of charge.

  13. What? No mention of Nicki Lauda and Nigel Mansell?

    Wasn’t their birthday. Juan Fangio, either.

    Helped my buddy rebuild an old Spitfire 1200

    One of my dream cars – where “dream” equals “masochistic maintenance nightmare”.

  14. Touche

    One of my dream cars

    For you, masochistic part would not be the maintenance but getting in and out of the car. As a matter of fact, I would like to see that, to get a good laugh. I could reach the front tire and the ground from the seat. But is was fun to drive.

  15. Back when my late next-door neighbor was restoring Brit sports cars, I talked with him about the possibility of working on either a Triumph Spitfire or an Austin-Healey Sprite. He mentioned a friend of his who was also 6’5 who wound up moving the driver’s seat into the “back seat” area and extending the steering wheel.

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