By John Spilker
Five weeks after trouncing the competition at the Indianapolis 500, Jim Clark received a recognition no other racing driver is ever likely to enjoy.
On July 7, 1965, Jim Clark was featured on the cover of Time Magazine, then the largest and most influential news magazine in the world. Undoubtedly, the cover was the result of being the first foreigner to win Indy in almost 50 years.
Sure, drivers are on the cover of magazines all the time. So why was this cover out of the ordinary? I believe Time recognized Jim Clark as someone who not only was the best in his sport, but saw him as someone who was transforming the sports world.
Time informed its influential readers that Jim Clark was a new breed of a sports personality. He was a handsome farmer, a highly-paid athlete, astute businessman, and a world traveler who on occasion had tea with the Queen. Like the Beatles, he was chased by girls. And if that wasn’t enough, he had a model girlfriend who timed his laps. For Americans, he had moved car racing well beyond the image of the hotrodder in greasy overalls. Clark was the prototype of a global professional athlete we would see more of in the coming years.
The stars were well aligned in Clark’s favor when he won the Indy 500. His rise to fame occurred at a time when the auto industry was king and motor racing was growing fast. Better still, half the U.S. population was under 40 and eager to buy its first car.
Today’s business world is ruled by computer tech. But back in 1965 General Motors, Exxon, and Ford dominated. With the car culture firmly rooted, it was no coincidence that auto races like Indy attracted record crowds in excess of 250,000 spectators. And the baby-boomer generation was starting to flex its buying power. Lots of engines were revving on and off the track.
Little wonder the big auto companies were trying to drive a connection with auto racing. Several American cars were named after famous race tracks including the Pontiac LeMans, Corvair Monza, and Dodge Monaco.
Time devoted its highly prized cover to more than celebrities. That was the job of its sister publication Life Magazine. A former Time Managing Editor said, anything within the red borders of the Time cover “is worth knowing”. Above all, the magazine revered “innovation and ingenuity” and followed the dictum of Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle that history is the biography of great men.
The Time cover was typically graced by world leaders, dictators, generals, Nobel scientists, and artists deemed ahead of their time. In 1965, only one other athlete made the cover of Time — football legend Jim Brown, who remains one of the best ever, The Beatles wouldn’t be featured on the cover until 1967 with the release of the groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s album. Until then, millions of record sales and screaming girls weren’t enough for Time.
The Time cover shows a pensive, “inner-directed” Jim Clark — not the smiling person we were used to seeing. The cover was designed by Austrian painter Henry Koerner, an artist noted for magic realism — a realistic view of the modern world that also possesses magical elements. Time could have simply run with a Sports Illustrated-style photo of Jim Clark in the Indy Winner’s Circle. Instead, it focused on the deeper Jim Clark sitting in his car (probably in the French countryside).
The caption is also interesting —The Quickest Man in the World — not the fastest. Quick implies speed, but it also suggests intelligence or brilliance. The fastest driver could simply be the most reckless. The article emphasized that he was anything but reckless. He was the professional’s professional.
The article describes a person who thinks and feels at a different level. Clark explains his driving style: “I’m putting myself through that corner. The car happens to be under me and I’m driving it, but I’m part of it and it’s part of me.”
Don Frey of the Ford Indy teams called Clark “the epitome” of a racing driver. “His greatest asset is his imperturbability. When he was five or ten years old, a gyro began spinning somewhere inside him and he became his own standard maker. He’s inner-directed. He lives in his own world.”
The article doesn’t lead with Indy. Instead, it focuses on the start of the 1965 French Grand Prix at Clermont-Ferrand (about a week after Indy) where Clark was forced to race in his four-year-old backup car after an accident caused by a mechanical failure damaged his primary car. After one lap, Clark already had an insurmountable lead. “C’est formidable!” said one Frenchman. “c’est terminé,” said another.
By the end of the race, “the only thing (Jim Clark) could see in his rearview mirror was his own face,” Time wrote.
Clark was portrayed as a natural athlete, “His reflexes are so fast that he could probably pluck a fly out of midair.” He was described as shy and “can’t get it out of his head that he is a celebrity.” He didn’t cash in his celebrity status. “I don’t want to be bandied about like some blooming soap powder.”
There’s only one place in the world where he finds peace. “Actually, the only time I’m relaxed is when I’m behind the wheel,” he said.
As far as I can tell, no other driver until Ayrton Senna in 1994 was on the cover of Time. And he only made if after his tragic death. By then, Time was just another news magazine struggling for relevance as the digital world was taking shape. Today, the magazine’s circulation has dropped by at least a third and it is owned by a Silicon Valley billionaire — Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com fame, who has the money to keep the magazine going.
The article doesn’t tell Jim Clark fans anything they didn’t know. But it does offer a small glimpse of why he was deemed the best and how he was leading something bigger than himself. I found a copy on eBay for a few dollars. I also got an electronic copy for free from my local library going through Inter-Library Loans.