Mike Spence at the wheel of his BRM during the 1968 International Trophy race at Silverstone. Considered by BRM team manager Tim Parnell to be one of the most technically saavy drivers of his time, Spence was tragically killed at Indy later that year testing the Lotus turbine car.
Photo: Ferret Fotographics
Following the sudden and tragic death of my father Reg, my move into team management was both swift and unexpected. I took over the Reg Parnell Racing team in 1964 and later became manager of the Owen Racing Organisation. In those roles, I had the pleasure in dealing with some remarkable drivers in Formula One motor racing. Three of these drivers, whose lives were sadly cut short, made an impression on me for very different reasons.
Mike Spence, who joined us from Team Lotus in 1966, was, without any doubt in my mind, the most technically brilliant of all drivers. If we were testing a car or setting one up in qualifying for a race, after a couple of laps on the track, Mike would come in to say that this or that was wrong or some changes were needed with settings. The mechanics worked on the car to his stipulations and off he went again. You could bet your bottom dollar that the following laps were instantly quicker. A great technical man and a terrific asset to the team. I don’t really think that Colin Chapman wanted to lose him; he appreciated what a good test driver he was. He had brought Mike in at Team Lotus following Pete Arundell’s accident at the 1964 French Grand Prix at Reims. Some 18 months later, Pete had recovered and resumed driving so there was no room for Mike at Lotus, what with Jimmy Clark being the number one. Their loss was our gain. It was that knowledge of his testing abilities that gave way to Colin Chapman calling me and asking if he could have Mike to drive in the 1968 Indianapolis 500. Lotus had an entry for Jim Clark. The life of a top-line driver, or for that matter any racing driver, could be over in an instant in those days. Although a great driver and a double world champion, Jimmy, was not spared, following his accident at Hockenheim. Rookie Mike, driving the Lotus STP turbine cars, labeled “the flying doorstops” because of their wedge-shape design, had gone well in the qualifying for the 500. He had clocked the fastest lap of the day at over 169 mph. However, later in the day, tragedy struck when Mike took out a teammate’s car to shake it down. He lost control and struck the wall in Turn One. He died in the hospital a few hours later, from the terrible head injuries he had sustained. Not only a loss to our team, but to motor racing as a whole, as we were all denied the spectacle of a great talent.
Become a Member & Get Ad-Free Access To This Article (& About 6,000+ More)
Access to the full article is limited to paid subscribers only. Our membership removes most ads, lets you enjoy unlimited access to all our premium content, and offers you awesome discounts on partner products. Enjoy our premium content.