There’s little doubt in most of our minds, is there not, that the ‘60s produced the greatest generation of racing drivers we’ve ever had the pleasure to see in action. These fellows were not only excellent drivers and mature men – rather than callow youths – but also car builders and team owners. Truly, they were a remarkable breed.
Consider the list. You have to start with the combination of Jim Clark and Colin Chapman, a superb driver and irascibly brilliant designer who revolutionised the sport while racing against the likes of Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren, Dan Gurney and John Surtees. All of these guys were excellent drivers and racers, multiple champions who went on to build and race their own cars in a variety of major formulae.
Brabham won the World Championship in his own cars and built a successful string of Indycars, F2 cars, FB/Atlantics and F3 cars. McLaren built successful F1, Can-Am and Indycars and spawned one of F1’s greatest, most enduring teams. Gurney and All American Racers built a beautiful and successful run of F1, Indy and IMSA GTP cars while Surtees won the first Can-Am title as well as multiple motorcycle titles and an F1 world championship. Each of Brabham, McLaren, Gurney and Surtees were special men who wrote elegantly large chapters in the sport’s history.
And in America, in addition to Gurney, there was AJ Foyt and Parnelli Jones, Indy 500 winners, who also went on to build and race their own cars. Foyt called his Coyotes and raced them through the late ‘60s and ‘70s. Foyt and Parnelli’s Indycars were equally successful through that time and of course Parnelli built and ran an F1 car for Mario Andretti for a few years from 1974-76.
Then of course there was Jim Hall, the Chaparral man, an excellent driver and winner of many American sports car races who raced F1 cars briefly in 1963 before returning to the USA to focus on his revolutionary series of Chaparral Can-Am and long-distance sports cars. Nothing quite like them had been seen before, nor since.
And there’s Roger Penske, a very respectable driver who founded Penske Racing in 1966 with Mark Donohue as his number one driver as well as team manager and chief engineer. Penske and Donohue were a rare combination, racing many different types of superbly prepared and presented cars with considerable success and setting a new standard for the sport. Team Penske continues today as race winners, championship contenders and standard setters in both NASCAR and IndyCar.
Nor we can forget that Mario Andretti was also a child of the ‘60s who went on to establish himself as one of the most versatile and enduring drivers in the sport’s history. And personally, I have to add Bobby and Al Unser, very dissimilar brothers who were superb racers, multiple Pike’s Peak and Indy 500 winners, and also Johnny Rutherford, a hard-driving sprint car driver who broke into Indycars in 1963 and eventually won three Indy 500s, two with McLaren’s M16C/Ds and his third with Hall’s last Chaparral, the 2K.
NASCAR also enjoyed some of its greatest drivers through the ‘60s and ‘70s. Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison were great drivers and real characters, and all of them were involved at some stage of their careers as car builders or team owners.
Today, Petty and Pearson remain unchallenged as NASCAR’s most successful drivers with 200 and 105 wins respectively. Allison (84 wins) and Yarborough (83) are ranked fourth and fifth ahead of Dale Earnhardt (76 wins). The only modern interloper is third-ranked Jeff Gordon who has won 92 races so far. Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson has 66 wins to date.
Looking back and reflecting on what each and every one of the great drivers from the ‘60s I’ve listed achieved, there’s no question in my mind that they were motor racing’s greatest generation. Given the many changes in the world and in motor racing over the past 50 years it’s difficult to imagine their like ever occurring again.