As Richie Ginther crossed the line in Mexico City in 1965 to score Honda’s maiden victory, the Japanese team had extra reason to celebrate: back in fifth place was team-mate and fellow Californian Ronnie Bucknum in the sister car. It would be his first and last time worrying the points scorers.
When Honda first appeared in F1 during the ’64 German Grand Prix, the choice of driver was generally met with ‘who?’ In one of the most seemingly bizarre decisions in motorsport history, a team had wilfully picked a driver out of obscurity on the grounds that since the team had no experience, neither should the man behind the wheel. But then there was always the get-out clause that should the car under-perform, there was a perfect scapegoat.
Yet for all his lack of ‘pedigree’. Bucknum wasn’t without talent. Born in April 1936, the former construction surveyor became embroiled in West Coast road racing after a friend took him to a local meeting. He witnessed his second-ever event as a driver, winning on his debut at Pomona in 1956 aboard a Porsche 356 Speedster. From there he kept on winning, aside from a quick break on getting married. Armed with Rene Pellandini’s AC Ace-Bristol. he scored well against the faster Porsche Carreras and then switched to a Doane Spencer-prepared Healey and later an MGB for Hollywood Sports Cars (Ginther having previously raced for the équipe). Occasional outings in Max Balchowsky’s Ol’ Yeller brought in more results, as did runs on the ovals in Modifieds.
Soon after signing on with Carroll Shelby, Bucknum was approached by Honda in March ’64. Shortly thereafter he was flown to Tokyo, where he drove the first formula car he’d ever sat in. He would make his F1 debut at the Nürburgring, where his race ended with steering failure at the Karussell! By the following round at Monza he was ninth fastest in qualifying but took off last. By the second tour he had caught and passed four cars, then picked off a few other stragglers before arriving on the main pack. He passed Bandini, Ginther, Brabham, Bonnier and Ireland, all in one lap. Then his brakes failed. By the end of the season he’d shown flashes of real promise. But then Ginther arrived for ’65 and he was totally eclipsed.
In total Bucknum did just 11 grands prix (the final one being the ’66 Mexican) before returning home to a successful stint in Trans-Am, Champ Cars (he won the ’68 Michigan 250 in a Weinberger Homes Eagle) and sportscars, before gradually fading from the scene. He died in April 92, aged just 56. But the Bucknum names lives on in motorsport through his son Jeff, who made his Indy 500 debut this year.