29 March 2007

Why Jimmy Clark Died

At the conclusion of the recent SCM Insider’s Tour to the Goodwood Festival of Speed, five-time Le Mans winner Derek Bell came by during dinner to pay his regards to our group and to share some of his tales with us. April 7, 1968, was Derek Bell’s first professional race, an F2 event at the old Hockenheim circuit in Germany. It was also World Champion Jim Clark’s last.

Bell related his navigator’s words after a six-time-endo in a rally car, which went something like, “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a (expletive deleted) good crash!” He also confirmed a story involving his being strapped to a gurney after a fiery shunt during the filming of “Le Mans.”

“The driver accelerated, the wheels on the gurney weren’t fixed, and I started to shoot out the rear doors. I managed to grab a bar before the cart went completely out. The nurse screamed, the driver slammed on the brakes, and the cart and I were thrown back into the ambulance.

“Of course, in the end, speed didn’t matter. I arrived at the French hospital at noon, just as everyone was leaving for lunch. They smeared a little cream on my burned face, said goodbye, and went off for a baguette and glass of chablis.”

Lord March’s Grand Party
This was my first Festival of Speed. As a celebration of motorsports of all types, it is without equal. The event organizer, Lord March, has the space on his magnificent estate, the taste, the historical relationship, and the financial wherewithal to create an event that exudes friendship and sophistication from start to finish.

Where else is it possible to stand just feet from a 2006 BMW Sauber F1 car turning 23,000 rpm, then see a GP rider do a 30-second burnout on a 2006 Honda CBR1000RR, followed by a 100-foot wheelie? Where else can a vintage Saab 96 careen down a muddy rally course and spray gravel on enthusiastic fans? (For photos and info, go to www.goodwood.co.uk).

Each car and bike present, from the 1886 Benz three-wheeler to the Le Mans-winning 2006 Audi R10, represented a memorable moment of motoring history. Most often, each was driven by the man who sat behind the wheel—or the bars—during its moment of glory.

Along with the cacophony of pistons and gears, there was a sense of fun to the event. The Wacky Racers, a group of cartoon cars brought to life, ran the hillclimb to the delight of fans young and old. And each day saw a different F1 car temporarily immortalized in a sand sculpture. There were also vendors galore, selling everything from the high-end art of Nicholas Watts to close-out Jaguar racing shirts for $10 (I’ll let you guess what my daughter Alexandra got as a souvenir).

The SCM Insider’s group had the added bonus—arranged by tour organizer Steve Austin—of observing the action from the Stewart Pavilion, a classy enclosed structure with tasty catered food (tasty and British: normally an oxymoron when it comes to things gastronomical).

The SCMers on the tour included Stan and Merle Bauer, James Carroll, Mark Colbert and Debbie DeSantis, Ambassador Theodore and Heidi Gildred, Jim Malone and Delaney Sturgeon, Mitch and Kim McCullough, Wendie Standish, Ed and Linda Yates, and Dick and Starr Zeder.

When you go, be prepared to do some walking, and carry an umbrella as well as sunscreen, the weather in Britain being what it is. But also be prepared to see more significant motorsport history—from the cars and bikes to those who piloted them—than you can see at any other event.

“Be Careful When You Lap Me…”
Bell shared one final story with our SCM Insider’s Tour group at dinner, a sobering tale of the realities and mysteries of motor racing. It helped to put the feats of the weekend in perspective.

“I have a theory,” he said, “as to what really happened to Jimmy that day. One that’s never really been told. All this stuff about a deflating tire causing him to lose control is, in my opinion, just nonsense. Here’s what I believe happened.

“I spoke with Clark at dinner the night before the race, and asked him how his car was going. Of course, I was in awe, being an absolute amateur by his standards, and him a World Champion.

“He replied, ‘Be careful when you come to lap me.’ Me lap him, I thought? I asked what he meant, and he said, ‘I’ve got a problem with the power cutting in and out. If they don’t get it fixed, I won’t be good for anything tomorrow.’

“That night, I remember hearing his mechanic running the car up and down the public road in front of the hotel we were staying at, trying to solve the problem. And I remember how the car would run at full tilt, then suddenly cut out, then resume full power again.

“Next day, the race was in the rain, so our speeds were down. The slight right-hander where Clark left the road was wide enough so that two drivers could go ’round it side-by-side, without being too crazy. Yes, there was spray and all of that, but in terms of what professional racers are used to, it wasn’t bad or even particularly dangerous.

“Of course, the way the story is most often told is that Clark had some sort of puncture, his tire deflated, he lost control, veered off the track and met his end. I’ll tell you why that is nonsense.

“First of all, racing tires rarely pick up punctures in the wet. Second, racing tires don’t suddenly just go flat—‘phffft’—making the car uncontrollable. If they do start to deflate, any driver will recognize what is going on, and be able to control and then stop the car.

“I believe Clark was fully committed into the turn, and that the faulty metering unit caused him to suddenly lose power. That would cause the rear end of the car to swerve. While he was correcting for that, full power instantly came on, shooting the car off the track before Clark could correct. And that was the end.

“I recently had a chance to speak with the mechanic who was servicing Clark’s car that day, told him my theory, and he concurred. He said that they never did get the fuel metering unit to work properly, and the car would suddenly cut out and then resume power without warning.

“I asked the mechanic why the crashed car wasn’t examined, and he said that German laws and lawsuits over fatalities being what they were, the Lotus team immediately bundled the car up and got it out of Germany before the authorities could get involved.”

Bell concluded by saying, “I’m not sure this is exactly what happened, but I can tell you that for these past 38 years I have never believed that something as simple as a slowly deflating punctured tire could cause the death of one of the best drivers we have ever known.”

2 Reader Comments

  • 1
    Phil Denofrio Island Lake, Il February 11, 2015 at 17:05
    He was my hero, and at the time I thought a once in a lifetime driver. This theory has bought me a little more closure. A heck of a lot more sense then the tire theory. It's still an awful tragedy to have lost an extremely talented driver.
  • 2
    Bill Los Angeles February 11, 2015 at 17:20
    Rather remarkable to hear Derek's comments about the death of Jimmy Clark. I remember the day, it's nice to get some insight to this unfortunate event!

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