Arise Sir ‘Mad Mike, ‘Bruce McLaren’s legacy is yours

| Photographer Credit: Terry Marshall

I’ve written before about the late, great Bruce McLaren and the role he played on putting New Zealand motorsport – indeed New Zealand as a whole – on the ‘world’ map.

I’ve also written about drifter Mad Mike Whiddett and about what he has done – again, both here and on the world stage – for a new generation of motorsport fans.

So – or at least I think anyway – it’s about time I wrote a column in which I compare and contrast the achievements of each and suggest that, finally after 49 years, we have someone worthy enough to take over the mantle of ‘global Kiwi motorsport great’ from Bruce.

A big call you say. It certainly is. A controversial one too. But, again, in my humble opinion, no-one has done more since Bruce to fly the flag for the sport and country he loved so much than the guy who originally earned his nick-name on the local Freestyle Motocross circuit, and whose first foray into four-wheel competition was in burnout comps.

I was – just – too young to have watched Bruce McLaren in action, but thanks largely to his drive, personality and both openness and willingness to engage with the press (and because of it the general public) he left behind a legacy second to none.

In a buttoned down day and age when All Blacks were dour, colourless ‘men of few words’ who ‘let their playing do the talking,’ Bruce was the polar opposite, always up front, always ready with a spoken, written or even taped word or three, unerringly polite and very much aware of the value of a simple ‘thank you.’ (Which you can see for yourself in these video clips).

Having a mate like prolific wordsmith Eoin.S. Young obviously didn’t do any harm. But when I broached the subject with Eoin before his death in 2014, he told me that the core ideas of whatever column, article or opinion piece that wore the By Bruce McLaren by-line, were always Bruce’s own.

As was the gist of the famous – and eerily prescient – quote, which, in its fullest was taken from the eulogy Bruce wrote and which was published in his first book ‘From the Cockpit,’ about young American teammate Timmy Meyer who was killed in an accident at a round of the Tasman Series at Longford in Tasmania in 1964.

“Who is to say, he (Mayer) had not seen more, done more and learned more in his 26 years than many people do in a lifetime? To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy.

“It would be a waste of life to do noting with one’s ability, for I feel that life is measured in achievement, not in years alone.”

Despite an early and debilitating brush with a rare hip disorder, Perthes disease, Bruce, by all accounts was one of those perennially smiling, perennially happy people who always saw the best in everyone and everything.

He was also, again, from what I have read, and from contemporaries have told me,  a natural leader with a charisma and confidence – again – rare at the time amongst other local sportspeople and politicians, let alone this exotic (to NZ anyway) new breed of globe trotter, the ‘racing driver.’

All this, PLUS he could drive like an angel and had an ‘engineer’s brain’ hard-wired to get the most out of a car, be it in terms of lap times, race wins and/or championship titles.

Until Sir Peter Blake came along, in fact, I don’t think New Zealand had had an international sportsman who could and seemed to actually enjoy engaging with his fellow human beings, be they captains of industry, fellow Kiwi mechanics on their OE, or ordinary, everyday fans like you and I…………

Which made his sudden and I have to say violent death at the age of just 32 as a result of rear wing failure while testing one of his latest Can-Am cars (an M8D) at the Goodwood circuit south-west of London, arguably even more difficult to comprehend.

Think about it for a moment. In just 11 years in which he worked as a professional racing driver McLaren won four F1 Grands Prix (Including one in a car bearing his own name), the New Zealand Grand Prix, the inaugural Tasman Series (1964),  the Le Mans 24 Hour race (with compatriot Chris Amon in a car, the GT40,  he helped Ford develop in 1966) plus the Can-Am series twice.

He had also successfully created a road car (the M6) and at the time of his death the McLaren team was in the process of putting together an assault on the Indianapolis 500.

What he could have achieved had he lived doesn’t bear even thinking about in fact. Because despite all the success, I have a feeling – as I do about the equally star-crossed John Britten – that Bruce was only just beginning…….

But let’s not get bogged down in the what may or may not have beens. There’s a simple headstone in a small, sheltered garden area at Goodwood dedicated to Bruce who is described fittingly on it, as ‘Engineer, Constructor, Champion and Friend.’

I’m writing about Bruce and his fellow Aucklander Mad Mike Whiddett this week because over the weekend just passed, Whiddett and his latest Red Bull-backed drift creation, the Lamborghini Huracan-based-Nimbul (aka ‘Slambo which you can check out below) were once again special guests at the ‘Lord of the Manor,’ Lord March’s Goodwood Festival of Speed.

Whiddett was the first drifter to be invited to bring a car along (in 2014) and have a go at the world-renown Festival of Speed meeting and, after literally blowing everyone away with his signature, rotary engine shrieking/tyre smoking runs up the Good Lord’s hay-bale lined, ‘driveway’ in  his original rotary-powered Mazda RX7 he has been back every year since.

Yes, I know that the Goodwood Festival in just that, a ‘Festival’ rather than a championship or even individual ‘race’ meeting, the like of which Bruce McLaren both cut his teeth on here in New Zealand and went on to excel at in the UK, US and indeed around the world.

But that world is now a very different place, with the definition of success is now so much broader.

As I have pointed out in previous columns Ken Block is arguably a hell of a lot ‘better known’ not to mention ‘appreciated’ for his skills behind the wheel of a converted WRC rally car (Gymkhana 5 has now clocked up over 101 million views) than one of the pukka rally aces it was originally built for.

Mad Mike’s success comes by the same – or at least a very similar – measure. Though his win in the Formula Drift Japan series last year finally proved to the odd doubter out there that he can not only drive like an angel but also battle like the devil himself in the red-hot crucible of true drift battle competition, he and Ken Block really are kindred souls.

You only have to look at the stats. Mike’s Crown Range vid on YouTube has now been viewed almost 6.5 million times. The Red Bull Drift Shifters vid is not far behind with over 3.2 million views. Then there are the vids of Mike blasting around Highlands in his final Formula Drift US build, the MX5-based Radbul (1.6million views) and – bringing us handily back to Goodwood and Lord March’s annual speedfest) an in-car from Mike’s first ever run ‘up the hill’ in 2015 (1.5 million views).

Like Bruce McLaren, Mad Mike is a genuine global figure, as comfortable in Dubai as he is Dannevirke or Dargaville, but unlike Bruce, Mike has been able to do it all from here, rather than have to move ‘up-over’ like Bruce, Denny Hulme and Chris Amon did ‘back in the day,’

That has benefits for both parties; stability and the chance to spend quality time with wife Toni and kids Lincoln and Jett while still able to pursue his career, for Mike, and the ability to be able to see and (if you must) touch his cars and/or join him in celebrating the mix of art, sport and money which is drifting today at the regular Drift Force grass roots days he and Toni run at Hampton Downs during the year.

As a proud life member of the Bruce McLaren Trust I feel I have a duty of care to help preserve the legacy of Bruce McLaren, a man who, had he lived, I am absolutely sure would have enjoyed the same sort of ‘national treasure status’ (you, know, Knighthood, face on a $5, $10 and $20 bill etc etc) Sir Edmond Hillary did.

It’s probably 10 or even 15 years before Mad Mike finds himself in a similar place, but to even suggest that – say – 10 years ago, when Mike was just getting started in the drift game, would have been preposterous.

Now, however, I’m so sure I’m prepared to put my name to the proposition. With drive, determination and – always – a ready smile and infectious desire to share his passions and good fortune with others, Mad Mike Whiddett is helping put NZ motorsport back on the global map.

And for that  Bruce McLaren would – I believe – be both impressed and very proud, not to mention more than ready to pass the baton on….

Ross MacKay

Ross MacKay is an award-winning journalist, author and publicist with first-hand experience of motorsport from a lifetime competing on two and four wheels. He currently combines a day job editing NZ4WD magazine with contract media work, weekend Mountain Bike missions and towing his 1989 Nissan Skyline drifter to grassroots meetings around the North Island.

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