Mike Spence participated in 36 grands prix. He was killed in practice for the 1968 Indianapolis 500 when he crashed his Lotus 56 turbine car and was struck on the head by the right front wheel.
Michael Henderson Spence was born in Croydon, Surrey, and lived in Maidenhead. Spence overcame polio as a child fortunately with no ill effects.
His father and uncle owned a company named Coburn Engineering Ltd which managed a garage in Maidenhead and in 1957, after his Army service was finished, Mike joined the company.
He had always harbored dreams of becoming a racing driver and began competing in 1959 at the age of 22 in his father's Turner 950 sports car. Having shown some talent, he tried an AC-Bristol before buying a Cooper T52 Formula Junior car in 1960 entered under the Coburn Engineering Racing banner. After consistent top 5 finishing in the early season he won the Stanley Sears Trophy in May and the North Staffs M.C. event in September. He also won the first heat at the Lotteria G.P. at Monza.
On the back of his good performance in 1960 he bought a new Emeryson Formula Junior. He also made his F1 debut in the non-championship Solitude GP in Germany in 1961 in a works Emeryson-Climax. He raced the same car later that year in the Lewis-Evans Trophy at Brands Hatch, finishing second and the Commander York Trophy at Silverstone, which he won.
For 1962, Spence entered his own Formula Junior Lotus under the guidance of Ian Walker's team. Mike prepared the car himself in the evenings after finishing work. He scored many top three finishes and a big win at Reims.
For 1963 he was taken on by the Ron Harris-run Team Lotus on a three-year contract. He drove in the Formula Junior team, but the car proved difficult to handle and Mike's confidence dropped. However, things gradually came round when the car was made more competitive. Late in the season he made his Grand Prix debut in Italy after Trevor Taylor was injured. In a Lotus 25, he was running seventh, when the engine expired.
In 1964 Lotus started the year with Jim Clark and Arundell in F1, although Spence had an F1 run in the non-championship Syracuse GP. He raced mainly in F2 winning the British F2 Championship for Team Lotus, however in July Arundell had a serious accident in the F2 race at Reims and Spence became Clark's number two. Joining Clark from the British GP onwards, he finished sixth in Italy, ran second early on in the United States GP at Watkins Glen and finished fourth in Mexico.
Peter Arundell had made quite an impression in his few starts but was still not fully fit, so Colin Chapman kept Spence in the team with Jim Clark for 1965. Spence won the Race of Champions and performed well on other occasions. However with Arundell fit to return for 1966, Mike was out of a drive, but left on a high by winning the non-championship South African GP on New Year's Day.
In 1966 he was signed by BRM but seconded to drive for the semi-works Parnell Racing team using old Lotus 25s fitted with 2-litre BRM V8s. He loved sportscar races as well and drove a private Ford GT40 in the Nurburgring 1000 Kms, finishing 12th overall with Richard Bond.
He was promoted to the works BRM team in 1967 alongside Jackie Stewart to help sort out the troublesome BRM H16 car. He did superbly to bring it to five points finishes with his best placing of fifth in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, three places behind Stewart on the only occasion that both the complex BRM H-16s finished in the points together.
He also raced the fabulous winged Chaparral with Phil Hill, which was quick but fragile, suffering repeated transmission failures, but at Brands Hatch in the BOAC 500 the car had its great day, crushing the Ferraris. He also raced in the 1967 Can-Am Challenge at the wheel of a McLaren M1B-Chevrolet, finishing 3rd twice. He looked poised for great success in 1968 with the new BRM P126 V12.
In 1968, Mike Spence had been racing for ten years and with the new V12- engined BRM P126 he was a front running force in both the early season British non-title F1 warm-ups, the Brands Hatch Race of Championships and Silverstone International Trophy. Now married and running a prosperous garage business at Maidenhead, everything seemed in place for success.
Yet fate would decree otherwise. After Jim Clark's death, Colin Chapman invited Spence to join the Lotus turbine at the Brickyard a week prior to the first qualifying runs. He took the Chapman designed, STP-Lotus Turbine around the Indy Speedway on a windy day for a practice lap of 169.555 mph, the second fastest lap ever. He was planning to leave Indy the night of his crash with Graham Hill for Madrid and the Spanish Grand Prix to return later for the Indy 500 race itself. Before the day was over with just 48 minutes left in practice, he decided to test the turbine of his teammate, Greg Weld. Spence apparently lost control in the 1st turn, slid 300 feet, and hit the wall at a 45-degree angle. Observers believed that the partially loose right front wheel bent back and ripped off Spense's helmet, found with the chin strap still fastened and with the tire marks on it. The car bounced 390 feet farther along the wall and bounded another 290 feet to the middle of the track.
The chief observer, Walt Myers, said that Spence was going too high on the turn every time around the track and that he had turned on the yellow light to warn Spence. In Spence's rookie driving tests, Chief Steward Harln Fengler had warned Spence about "unconventional cornering." Problem: coming in too low.
Spence had made 162 mph the lap before the crash. He and Graham Hill had both topped 169 mph that day in their Turbo cars - the first time two cars had ever made such high speeds in one day. Hill had driven 171.208 mph.
Spence never regained consciousness. Physicians were preparing to operate when Spence died about four hours after the crash, of head injuries. His wife, Sandy, was in London at the time. They had no children.
Colin Chapman had lost two good friends: Jimmy Clark in April in the Formula II race at Hockenheim, Germany, and now, Mike Spence. Clark had planned to drive for Granatelli in 1968, and Mike Spence had replaced him. Chapman turned over his operation (for this race) to Granatelli, his partner; said he wanted nothing more to do with the 1968 Indy race; and accompanied the body to England. Granatelli remarked that Mike Spence was not only talented, but that "he was pure brilliant."
The next morning after the accident, the turbines were gone from the garages. USAC impounded for a thorough check. Nothing was found wrong with the three remaining cars and Joe Leonard, Art Pollard, and Graham Hill drove them in the race, finishing 12th, 13th and 19th, respectively.