The Unforgettable Jim Clark
He was nibbling his nails the first time I saw him – just as they said he would be. Not absently-mindedly but seemingly with aggression, palm turned upwards, free hand inspecting frequently. He wore black sunglasses, square of frame – Rayban Wayfarers – fawn slacks and no shirt. His shoulders were as broad as a boxer’s, yet he was short, even by my schoolboy standards.
And he walked with that amazing twinkle-toe lilt, springing upwards, like a Scots sword-dancer, with every step. Jackie Stewart did likewise, we noticed – although his feet were splayed outwards. (Was this their secret, we wondered? Were these gaits the key to all that brilliance?)
Jim was lilting now towards the Lotus camp – to the tent which shaded his Lotus 32B-Climax. The air was surprisingly still, the tempo unhurried. There was no Colin Chapman in Australia – just Jim and the boys, led by Ray Parsons, the Team Lotus Cortina/Elan/F3 driver. Standing there, on the Warwick Farm lawn, it all seemed like Fun in the afternoon Sun, not practice for the International 100.
Yet a Clark performance it was. First there were the powder-blue Dunlop overalls, clean and freshly-ironed. Then, for protection against flying stones, Clark tied a checkered handkerchief around his mouth and nose. Next were the Pioneer goggles, heavily taped from the mid-point upwards. Finally came the legendary helmet, the dark blue Bell Magnum with the white peak. Clark stepped sideways into the red seat, pulled on a pair of his own-make red gloves and fitted the goggles over the famous eyes. Down the side of the car, on flanks of emerald green, ran the neat yellow lettering: Team Lotus.
That afternoon, in Australia, I watched him qualify on the front row, alongside the Brabhams of Graham Hill and Frank Matich.
And then, on Sunday, I saw him win. He followed Hill for the first phase of the race – while he adapted to a car without third gear – then passed his friend under braking for Creek Corner. “Copybook Clark” the headlines said the next day.
A few years later, still in Sydney, I joined a small band of people saying goodbye to him at Kingsford Smith Airport. The last Tasman race had been run; Jim was flying to Indianapolis via Chicago to test the new Lotus 56 turbine Indy car. After drinks in the VIP lounge he disappeared through Customs; the crowd disbanded. Clark had gone for another year.
Or had he? His Qantas 707 halted at the threshold, then taxied back. I was standing with my father in the Arrivals hall when Clark re-appeared, stewardess at this side.
“Plane’s been delayed,” he said. “Come and have a drink.”
I asked him about why he’d used a dark blue peak (instead of white) in the 1964 Dutch and 1966 Mexican GPs. (He said he’d broken the white one and that had been all that was available.) I asked him about the wet race he’d just driven at Longford in the Lotus 49 (“It was crazy. Only Piers Courage had the right tyres”) and about his chances in the F1 season to come. I remember him talking wryly about soon having to drive a Ford Taunus down to Monaco for a Ford publicity stunt and, yes, I remember him describing what it had been like to have been hit in the face by a bird at Reims, 1966. “It felt like a bloody great crow…” I recall him saying. I told him that I wanted above all to work in motor sport – perhaps as a journalist. “Just work hard and never give up,” he said. “That’s the key.”
At the time, though, my appreciation of Clark’s talent, of his standing, was too youthful. For me, live motor racing began with Clark – and the fact that he was so statistically successful was hardly the point. I revered his character, his way of speaking, the way he presented himself, his home town of Chirnside, his shyness, his desire to drive anything, anywhere, his honesty, his respect for others. I revered everything about Jim Clark.
Jim was not only a good person; he was a genius amongst his peers. The Standard. When someone else won a race, they said, “So what happened to Clark?” When you arrived late for practice, and you wanted to know the lap times, you asked, “So what’s Jim doing?”
I am not alone; I know that. Mention Jim Clark to your average racing person and even the most ardent Michael or Ayrton fan will say, “Yes. Jim Clark. He was another.”
As we record yet another anniversary of his passing, then, it is tempting to mark April 7 with some solemnity. Equally, so many people still want to talk about Jim – to learn about him.
Here, then, are some views of people who knew him well – colleagues to whom I have spoken over the years in order to glean just a little more about the man and the driver who just might have been the very best we’re ever going to see. Read more…