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Trio at the Top

Television (Full Length) – 2001


The Director's Perspective

It's a rare privilege indeed for a documentary maker to be able to make a film about his or her personal heroes. But in this case I was triply blessed. Trio At the Top is about the golden age of New Zealand motor racing when Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme and Chris Amon were simultaneously competing in the three top arenas of motor racing- Formula One, Indy Cars and the Can Am Sports car series.

Any one of these competitions is a huge undertaking and they each have different disciplines. It's a bit like competing in the Rugby World Cup, the Rugby League World Cup and the FA Cup at the same time- and winning! As if that weren't enough they also won the Le Mans 24 hour race - Europe's toughest race.

One of the motivations for making this documentary occurred one Christmas Day. My (at the time) 10 year old Godson was playing with his new Formula One Computer game. He could choose which team to drive for and he chose Ferrari. I asked him why he didn't want to be the McLaren driver because the team's founder, Bruce McLaren was a New Zealander and grew up just down the road from where we were. He said he didn't know that. I had to put that right!

At the time, I was an amateur racer - driving a sports car in local competition. I was an OK driver but I learned very quickly that those who make it to the top have a certain something that sets them apart from the rest of the field. Sure, it takes a certain amount of bravery, determination and self confidence to win but there is another quality that is less easy to define. The top drivers seem to have a whole ‘other' spectrum of senses. It sounds a bit ‘Zen' but it's about becoming ‘as one' with the car.

I certainly didn't have what it takes but, in the making of this documentary, I got to meet, interview (and get autographs from) a lot of those who do. Men like Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham and Chris Amon.

Aside from getting to meet my boyhood heroes, the most memorable time was when we filmed the sequences at the Goodwood circuit in England. It was here that Bruce McLaren had been killed during testing in 1970. Stirling Moss had crashed here in 1962. He spent 38 weeks in a coma and never drove Formula One again.

By 1970 the cars had become so fast that it had become too dangerous for both drivers and spectators to hold race meetings there and the circuit was only used for testing. The place certainly has a very palpable spirit.

These days it is only used for sedately paced historic race meetings and its owners have recreated the atmosphere of the 1950s to 1970s - right down to the period advertising signs (on certain days and for certain events digital watches and cell phones are forbidden).

Our liaison person at the circuit had been there the day Bruce had been killed in 1970. He was only a boy at the time and he didn't see the crash but saw the column of smoke. What is more he had a liking for Kiwis so he just left us to our own devices.

Being a smell-of-an-oily-rag shoestring documentary crew from New Zealand we had no special rigs or camera vehicles. But we had a cameraman with nerves of steel (Mike O'Connor), a director who fancied himself as a racing driver (me) and an unsuspecting rental car provider (AVIS).

So off we went to film driver's-point-of-view shots of the circuit. It was an eerie feeling exiting pit lane and knowing all the greats who had gone before. My cameraman Mike was also a long-time motor racing fan. One of his first jobs as a trainee cameraman for the BCNZ was to film coverage of Bruce McLaren's funeral in 1970. So making this documentary also had particular significance for him.

Even ‘red-lining it' in the budget Toyota could only get up to one third of the speed of the cars of that era; in editing we had to speed up the shots to make them look even remotely fast. But just for brief a moment, Mike and I were right back there in the Golden Age when the Kiwi Trio were at the top. 

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