Born in Alhambra, California, Ronnie Bucknum started racing in sports cars in 1956. He was one of the most talented drivers to emerge from the Southern California sports car racing scene. At Laguna Seca in June, 1960, Bucknum drove brilliantly in an underpowered A.C. Bristol and defeated all the Corvettes, winning the main event for Production Cars. He won Sports Car Club of America titles in 1959, 1960, 1962 and 1964, scoring 44 wins in 48 races.
However in March 1964 he was apporached by a representative of Honda and flew to Tokyo to climb behind the wheel of the first Formula One car, make that the first single seater, he had ever sat in in his life. "It was the most frightening experience I've ever had," he said "and personally I thought I was pretty bad." Honda didn't think so and signed him to spearhead their Grand Prix challenge. Honda engineers had seen him racing a Porsche 904 at Sebring and felt that his lack of an international racing pedigree had its attractions since he could test and race the car without raising undue attention or expectations.
Finally, at the 1964 German GP, the RA271 made its debut, as did Bucknum, driving a single-seater race for the first time in his life! However, Bucknum did well just to survive this daunting debut when the car suffered a steering failure while 11th.
Two more races were safely completed, with Ronnie actually holding 5th at Monza before the V12 overheated. Honda then signed the vastly more experienced Richie Ginther to head their 1965 challenge and embarked on a winter of testing at Suzuka, during which the unlucky Bucknum again suffered a steering failure, crashed and this time broke his leg. This set him back when the season began and he predictably played second fiddle to his team-mate. He scored his only World Championship points at Mexico City in 1965 where he finished fifth, eclipsed by teammate Richie Ginther's outstanding drive as he swept aside the opposition to record Honda's first Grand Prix win.
Bucknum's Honda F1 adventure was really just the start of his racing career which really began to blossom. He was invited to join the Ford team for 1966, finishing third at Le Mans with Hutcherson. Honda still thought well of their man and once two of their 3-litre cars were available, he returned for the end-of-season American races.
After more sports cars in 1967, Ronnie went racing in Can-Am and USAC the following year, winning the Michigan 500 in just his second oval race driving an Eagle. Only Nigel Mansell and Juan Pablo Montoya can claim a similar rookie performance. Bucknum drove in 23 USAC Championship Car races between 1967 and 1970, including the Indianapolis 500 in 1968, 1969 and 1970. He finished in the top ten 10 times.
Subsequently he raced sports and Trans-Am cars for Roger Penske and teamed up with Sam Posey in the NART Ferrari in long-distance events in the early seventies, by which time the Marine crew-cut had been replaced by collar-length hair and a beard!
Bucknum died in San Luis Obispo, California, following complications from diabetes at the young age of 57 in April 1992.
His son Jeff has forged his own career in sports and GT cars, making his debut in the Indy Racing League in 2005.