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The Unknown American

March 17, 2017 In the News

HERBERT MACKAY FRASER

RACING DRIVER

1927-1957

The unknown American

By John Lamm

Now that Liberty Media has bought Formula 1, it’s thought the U.S. company will bring more Grand Prix racing to the States.

A new Formula 1 season is about to begin, once again with no drivers from the U.S.  Time, perhaps, to consider the American drivers who raced in that sport.

We know of Phil Hill, Dan Gurney, Mario Andretti, Peter Revson, Richie Ginther, Mark Donohue, Eddie Cheever, Alexander Rossi and more, but what about MacKay Fraser?

Bet you’ve never heard of him.

The factory-backed Lotus 11 raced by Mackay Fraser and Jay Chamberlain in the 1957 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Formula 1 drivers dying in racing accidents was frightfully common in the 1950s.  Some died in their open-wheel cars and others bought it in sports racers. Newly crowned 1958 World Driving Champion Mike Hawthorn was killed in a road accident.

Countries grieved for their lost drivers.   England for Hawthorn and Peter Collins.  Italy for Luigi Musso and Eugenio Castellotti.  France for Jean Behra.  Spain for Alfonso de Portago.  But Americans never grieved for Herbert MacKay Fraser, the first of its racing sons to be named to a post World War II Grand Prix team.  Likely hadn’t even heard of him.

I once asked Phil Hill if he knew Fraser.  Yes, of course he did.  He was there the day the young driver died.  And he helped bury him in France.  Phil took up the story:

Mackay Fraser (with helmet) and Jay Chamberlain (with mustache) at Le Mans in 1957.

“MacKay Fraser came looking for a job at International Motors in what I guess was 1953. There was always a rumor he had plenty of money from his mother, and did have enough cash to put himself in some decent race cars.

“Obviously there was a tremendous amount of talent packed away in MacKay Fraser. You can’t be as competitive as Mac was against the world’s best without a lot of raw talent, but what he didn’t have in those dangerous years was the stuff it took to lengthen his odds of living through it all.

“I found his motivations for racing to be suspect. We were in a very dangerous business at the time, with drivers dying left and right, so it only seemed a little reasonable to question why we did this crazy thing.

“And yet, here was Mac, rocketing ahead in his career, unable to address the very things I question about myself. He wouldn’t come back from a lap and analyze why he did this or why that happened. He just did it.

“He did it well enough that by 1957 he had worked his way into a tryout with the BRM F1 team at the French Grand Prix, which was held at the difficult Rouen circuit.

“Although his car eventually broke, Mac was able to hold on to fifth spot for a while. BRM figured that was enough to earn him a place on the team. Although I knew him quite well, I don’t know if money played any part in BRM’s decision to choose Mac, but I do know no other Americans, with or without money, had done this since the war.  His first race as a team member would be the English GP at Aintree in two weeks, July 20.

In 1956, Mackay Fraser co drove this Lotus 11 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Colin Chapman.

“There was a great rivalry between the French circuits of Rouen and Reims. Because the former had been awarded the country’s GP in 1957, the latter was given a sports car race, a Formula 2 event and a non-championship Fl event on the weekend between the points-paying French and English GPs.

“Mac had raced quite a bit for Lotus, and even co-driven with American Jay Chamberlain to a win in the 1100-cc class at Le Mans that year. He would drive for Lotus again at Reims.

“Needless to say, Mac was excited about his upcoming BRM team drive, but first had this F2 drive at Reims. Sadly, on the straight after the infamous Dunlop curve and before the La Hovette crossing, Mac went off and was killed.

1957 French Grand Prix at Rouen. Mackay Fraser in a Type 25 BRM just ahead of Peter Collins in his Ferrari.

“No one knows exactly what happened. Denise McCluggage and I were watching the F2 race, and when we heard of Mac’s accident–and not knowing he was dead–went searching for the hospital to which he’d been taken. We had a terrible time getting the correct information about where to go, and when we finally arrived at the clinic, a young doctor looked at us with surprise and said, ‘Why, he’s dead!’

“Once when my wife, Alma, and I were in Europe with John Lamm, we stopped at the old circuit of Reims. Caught up in the nostalgia of the moment, I decided to try to find Mac’s grave.

“I had a map of Reims, and a rough idea of where to find the cemetery. Somehow my brain homed in on the place as if I was being drawn to it. The cemetery attendant knew of the old grave of a race driver, over there, somewhere, and pointed to hundreds of headstones.

“But the magic worked again, and I seemed to know the basic direction. We had trouble finding the actual grave because the headstone was hidden behind a thicket of gold dust plants. But I pushed them aside, and there it was:

HERBERT  MACKAYFRASER

RACING DRIVER

1927-1957

“We were the same age when he died.

The wreck of Mackay Fraser’s Lotus at Reims, with Stuart Lewis-Evans, Luigi Musso, Peter Collins, Juan Manuel Fangio and Mike Hawthorne in the background. Photo – Henry Manny III

“A telegram was sent to Mac’s mother about his death, but all we ever heard back was a wire saying, ‘I AM SORRY TO HEAR OF THE DEATH OF MY SON.’

“He’d left his wife Marga little money, so Mac was buried in what was essentially a pauper’s grave. A year or so later, Jo Bonnier collected money from the drivers to give the site perpetual care, and the place is still well looked after.

“It all seems so sad now to look back on MacKay Fraser’s death. To think that the first American nominated to a Grand Prix team after the war is lost to our national racing history, almost anonymous behind shrubbery in a cemetery in Reims, France.

“Or, was it sadder that we drivers were so willing to turn our backs on those frequent deaths and put them aside because next week we had another race in another  country?

“I guess it’s not important anymore.”

Le Mans, 1957. Mackay Fraser and Jay Chamberlain were 9th overall and 1st in the 1100-cc class in this Lotus 11.

*Main photo by Jesse Alexander.

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John Lamm started his automotive journalism career in 1965 as a racing photographer for Autoweek magazine. After a tour in Vietnam, he joined Motor Trend in 1969, then Road & Track in 1975, where he worked for 37 years. He has also written for Car and Driver and Automobile magazines. Credits include 10 books and Lamm has been honored with the International Motor Press Association’s Ken Purdy and the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor awards for writing. Lamm’s photo archives include hundreds of thousands of images ranging from an 1893 Benz Victoria to many of the latest automobiles. He is on the organizing committee for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion and been a judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance for two decades. Lamm lives in San Clemente, California with his wife, Scheri.

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4 Responses

  1. Jeffrey Conover

    Great article, once again bringing light to a name I have yet heard of during a very deadly era. Going by what I could find, it appears he got the, very fast, right hander after the pits wrong, went off the track sideways, and then began to flip when the tires caught the dirt. He was thrown from the vehicle while it was flipping, inducing his injuries which he succumbed to.

  2. Rich Barbieri

    You’re correct that I hadn’t heard of him. The article was both interesting and well written.

  3. wayne wachtell

    I read about Mac Fraser in the 1990s that had a short biography of every Grand Prix driver up to the moment it was published! it was the first that I ever heard of him! trying to find out more was difficult even wrote to Denise at Auto Week but no response ! found bits and pieces but this is the best story on Mac Fraser that I have ever read! and on some web site there is a picture of his grave that I found! so I really appreciate this site and the story it tells! I always wondered why he was buried in France ! now I know ! I have always been interested in the 50s/early 60s Formula 1 drivers and the races! what I found here is really great! thanks !!!!!!!!!!!!

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