Graham McRae, who died aged 81 years, in Auckland on Tuesday August 04, was perhaps the best engineer/driver – this side of Bruce McLaren anyway – to ever leave New Zealand and try his luck on the world stage.
He certainly strode like a colossus over the world that was Formula 5000 in its heyday, winning the Tasman Series three years in row (in 1971 in a much-much-modified McLaren M10B, then in 1972 and 1973 in his own Leda/McRae GM1s).
The Wellington-born driver also won the L & M US F 5000 championship in 1972 and finished third in the British F5000 championships that same year. A rare feat for a driver – period – and an even rarer one by a driver in a car bearing his own name.
That McRae – nick-named Cassius for his ability to talk himself up – was the real deal can never be doubted. By the time he found himself being courted by F1 team bosses however he was 32-years-old and very much his own man.
There were defnititely some successes in his later years -winning the Australian Grand Prix for a third time (in 1978 aged 38 and still driving a car – the GM3 – he designed, built and even ran himself – was obviously one.
Others however, became fewer and farther between; to the point where, he accepted the offer of a ‘day job’ in Melbourne; building a fleet of Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon-based ‘AUSCARs’ for local legend Bob Jane’s Thunderdome.
It was at this time, too, that McRae was approached by a group of well-heeled Porsche racers who wanted to create a ‘one-make’ series around a replica Porsche Speedster. The deal ended in acrimony but having built a prototype McRae decided that it was finally time to return ‘home’ and look at producing the cars on a limited basis.
Beavering away in a small industrial unit behind the shops in Milford on Auckland’s North Shore might have seemed a world away from the glitz and glamour of his past life but – on the surface – anyway, McRae appeared happy in his work.
Sadly though just as his life appeared to have established some sense of normality his mental health deteriorated and he had to go into care.
Gone, now, but not to be forgotten, I will always remember Graham Peter ‘Cassius’ McRae as the bright, enthusiastic ‘car guy’ who wore his achievements and legacy lightly and who I finally met when I did a story on his Porsche Speedster project for the Auckland Sun newspaper back in 1988…..
As he told me when I asked him a question about his ill-fated F1 aspirations; “If there was a class of racing where you had to build your car as well as drive it, I’d have definitely been the World Champion at that!”