June 2, 1970, was a Tuesday. As usual, I arrived at the newspaper office around 5 a.m. to start working my way through the stack of paper filed overnight by the Associated Press sports wire teletypewriters.
Ideally, I’d have that process finished, and also have a pretty good start on the design of that day’s sports section, so the rest of the staff could get busy editing and writing headlines as they arrived around 6 a.m.
My recollection is that it wasn’t too long after they arrived and took their seats that I cleared another batch of dispatches from the AP machines and started going through them. Moments later, someone asked me what was wrong. I’m not sure if I said something or if my posture changed but I remember saying that the narrow green paper I was holding carried the news that Bruce McLaren had died.
McLaren was testing a new race car at the Goodwood circuit in England. At around 170 mph, the front section of the rear bodywork came loose and immediately blew off the car, sending the car out of control and causing the fatal crash.
McLaren’s death 50 years ago didn’t mean a lot to our newspaper’s other sportswriters, but it hit me hard. We had a 7-man sports staff and while we all had to cover a variety of local, regional and national sports, we each also had a specialty. For Vern, it was major league baseball. For Bill, it was golf and the NFL. For Joe, it was bowling.
For me, it was motorsports, and just a few months before his death, Bruce McLaren and I had found ourselves sitting together on a couch as we awaited the start of a press event at McLaren-team sponsor Reynolds Aluminum Great Lakes headquarters in Detroit. McLaren was in town to help create interest in the upcoming Canadian-American Challenge Cup race at Michigan International Speedway.
While waiting for the official program to begin, we introduced ourselves and discovered that we’d both suffered from the same childhood hip disease. Treated at Shriners Hospital for Children in the United States, I’d spent 18 months on crutches with a bend-knee brace while my left hip recuperated.
Treated in his native New Zealand, McLaren, who was 10 years older than me and thus his treatment was based on decade-older medical procedures, had spent nearly 3 years in a crippled children’s facility in casts and traction and eventually in a wheelchair before he was allowed to walk.
We’d both emerged with shortened left legs and a limp when we walked, and with a determination not to let it slow us down. While we might not be able to play the traditional ball sports, McLaren could build and race cars and I could write about sports.
One of the first things young sportswriters learn is that there is “no cheering in the press box.” We are taught to be objective observers, but sometimes human nature is stronger than human nurture and we cannot help but cheer — silently — for some people.
I felt such a bond for racing-driver, car-builder, team-owner, husband-and-father Bruce McLaren — bad hip and all. Fifty years after his death, I still do.