Morning Qualifying – Plucked from Obscurity edition

Introducing Mr. Ronnie Bucknum and the Honda RA271

It’s the early 1960’s, and you are Southern California’s hottest young sports car driver. One day, unbeknownst to you, one of the motor industry’s most powerful men is in attendance at one of your victories. He invites you to race one of his production cars overseas, and being further impressed with your effort, offers you the #1 driver position on his newly formed Formula 1 team. Sounds preposterous, right? And yet, that’s exactly the circumstances under which Soichiro Honda offered that job to Ronnie Bucknum.

Bucknum started racing in SCCA sports car races in 1956. He quickly took the sport and by 1959 won the first of his 4 national sports car titles. Legend has it that Mr. Honda was in attendance at his race at Dodger Stadium (held in the parking lot) and was so impressed at how Bucknum and his MGB out ran a field full of Cobras and Corvettes to victory that he decided that he would be the man for his F1 effort.
Bucknum rides the Karussell during the 1964 German Grand Prix

Honda invited Bucknum to Japan where he first raced a S800 to victory at Suzuka. Bucknum was then asked to test Honda’s new F1 car. Bucknum, who’d never driven any type of open wheel race car, was justifiably frightened and thought he’d botched the opportunity. Honda disagreed with Bucknum’s self-assessment and offered him the job.
It turns out that Honda’s organization had been watching Bucknum for some time.   Earlier in the year, Bucknum’s performance at Sebring in a Porsche 904, had impressed Honda’s engineers. They were looking for an American with the talent to perform at the top level, but without the name recognition that could inflate expectations.  They also wanted someone who wouldn’t be intimated by a larger stage.  Bucknum fit the bill.
Ronnie Bucknum at Watkins Glen, during the 1964 US Grand Prix. Photo by Bernard Cahier/Copyright The Cahier Archive

If this were a Hollywood story, Bucknum and Honda would have roared off to glory and lived happily ever after.  In the real and very harsh world of 1960’s Formula 1, Bucknum and Honda would struggle with reliability issues through most of the 1964 season.  Bucknum broke his leg while testing before the 1965 season, leaving the door open for Richie Ginther to be Honda’s #1 driver.  And while Ginther would guide Honda to an unexpected victory at the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix, Bucknum would only score points once in 11 Formula 1 starts.  From there, Ronnie Bucknum would earn drives for the Ford factory team with his best effort finishing 3rd at the 1966 24 Hours of LeMans.  Then, he’d return to the US and continue racing in Can-Am, Trans-Am, USAC Indy cars and sports cars with varying degrees of success for another decade.  Ronnie Bucknum died from diabetic complications at just 57 years of age in 1992.
There is a temptation to apply a wins and losses metric to this story, and somehow judge Bucknum in a negative or tragic light.  That is an utterly wrong way to look at Ronnie Bucknum.  How many of you, faced with an opportunity that is also a giant step into the unknown, would have the courage and confidence in your own ability to say “yes”?  Ronnie Bucknum is a model example of the maxim, “nothing ventured, nothing gained”, and worthy of the Hooniverse’s birthday wishes on what would have been his 75th birthday.

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  1. tonyola Avatar

    Not every one who reaches for the sky gets to bask in the auroral glory, but there's something to be said for having touched the clouds. Godspeed, Ronnie.

  2. muthalovin Avatar

    Better plucked from obscurity than fucked by obscurity, I always say.

  3. BGW Avatar

    I've found it interesting that Ronnie's son Jeff has had a similar career arc- very good sports car racer, fell flat when racing open-wheel Hondas, then back to an under-the-radar sports car career.

  4. JoeDunlap Avatar

    Very nice tribute to one of the pioneers, Scroggs. Well done.

  5. Van Sarockin Avatar
    Van Sarockin

    That's a wonderful remembrance. Thanks.

  6. luisthebeast Avatar

    Getting into F1 is an achievement onto itself, but being unknowingly selected for it is something else.