Merle Brennan was a Can Am and sports car racer who was a throwback to another time, a racing driver who was also a mechanic who built his own cars and competed on his own terms.
Merle was born at an irritating stoplight straddling Highway 99, a tiny town named Turlock. Maybe that's what bred the speed into him. The killer road down the spine of California broke stride at Turlock's single signal. Once past it, a driver enjoyed a smooth, unbroken line to more exotic locales.
Maybe Merle Brennan spent his life protesting that one damned stoplight next to the tracks in old downtown Turlock.
Such devotion to smooth speed did not go unnoticed. He became so good a race driver that Bill Harrah once seriously considered him as the standard bearer of the corporate colors. Harrah had a longtime personal relationship with Il Comendatore himself, Enzo Ferrari. That relationship paid off when Harrah was awarded the Ferrari distributorship for the western United States.
Former Nevada State Assembly majority leader Gene Evans, D-Elko, approached Harrah about Brennan. Evans, then a Harrah's public relations executive, recognized a perfect marketing opportunity: Harrah's Reno Hotel-Casino, Ferrari sports cars, the legendary Bill Harrah, his more legendary auto collection, and Merle Brennan, local phenom.
Harrah agreed that Brennan was very good, but said no. "If I put him in a car, he's so competitive, I think he'd kill himself," Evans remembers Harrah saying. Harrah hired Ken Miles. Merle said later that he understood.
Perhaps Harrah was right in sensing that Merle Brennan was not an organization man. Maybe that's why Merle understood. Had Merle Otto Brennan become a corporate race driver, it could have diluted his focus. To compete at the highest levels, concentration means everything. Harrah earned a justified reputation for doing things in a first class manner, but his employees were expected to come from the same cookie cutter. If you didn't look the part, you didn't get the part, qualifications often notwithstanding.
Merle certainly possessed the appearance for the role, but perhaps not the proper corporate temperament. Jet pilot lean, he was one of those guys whose looks improved with age. When you ran into Merle at a restaurant, a racetrack or the sales floor of his old Jaguar dealership on Gentry Way, you felt a bit uncomfortable. He never intended it, he was just sort of born with it. In politicians and spiritual leaders, we call it charisma. In Hollywood, it's called star quality.
Merle triggered that vague degree of discomfort you feel around any powerful person. You just knew he was someone uniquely blessed, one of that fraction of one percent who can do a common thing uncommonly well. That presence of pure talent begets emotions of admiration, and worship is never relaxing.
As Brennan's sports car racing laurels mounted, Harrah was often chided for not providing the big bucks corporate sponsorship which would elude Merle his entire life. Harrah admitted that maybe he had made an error. Merle Brennan just understood.
Now that he is dead, perhaps we can share that insight. The last race of the 1978 CanAm (Canadian-American Challenge) series was run at the fabled Riverside Raceway in southern California. The motorsports elite showed up for the dance. Promoter Les Richter, the NFL Los Angeles Rams' hall of famer, had placed the CanAm on a double bill with the finale of the International Race of Champions (IROC). The best of Formula One, NASCAR and Indianapolis were thus on hand to tool around the road course in pretty Chevy Camaros for the benefit of Roone Arledge and ABC's Wide World of Sports.
Before it was bulldozed for condos, Riverside offered a magnificent road course with grandstands at strategic points. Jim McKay and Jackie Stewart occasionally stepped out of their air conditioned trailer to deliver a comment for ABC Sports. Anheuser-Busch was busily test marketing an apple-amber "light alcohol" brew called Chelsea (later quickly withdrawn from the market under criticism that it would pave the way for kids to — gasp! — drink beer.)
The CanAm series reached the height of its renaissance that year. After the 1960's glory days of Mark Donohue, Peter Revson, Bruce McLaren and Denis Hulme, it fell into disrepair and finally, defunction. Its second incarnation included future Formula One world champions Alan Jones and Keke Rosberg, multiple LeMans winner Jackie Ickx and American road racing legend George Follmer.
Riverside was packed on that sweaty, dusty southern California October Sunday. Nevada was well represented by a large fan contingent and future State Sen. Randolph Townsend's Shadow Racing Team, led by French Formula One star Jean-Pierre Jarier. I supervised a camera crew filming the event for television syndication and stringing reports to news media.
When the CanAm started, the usual suspects led the early running: Australian Alan Jones hotly pursued by Jarier, Elliott Forbes-Robinson in Paul Newman's Budweiser Lightning and somebody else. A surprise.
"Who the hell is that in the old car?" my director screamed at me as an oddball privateer bearing few markings flew past. "He just moved into the top five!"
Budweiser chugged its Lightning. Alan Jones smoothly romanced his Lola. Jarier chased his Shadow. But all eyes were on Merle Brennan in his antique, hand made "Brennan." The 50-something man with the gray hair and chiseled features was burning some screamers around the snaky course, picking off the backmarkers one by one until he challenged the lead group. The old man was still competitive with the best drivers in the world. (His car broke about halfway through the race.)
Merle Brennan was a throwback to another time, the race driver as wrench who built his own cars and competed on his own terms. Back in the glory days of the 1960's, some NASA engineers asked Road Atlanta for pit credentials. They wanted to observe Mark Donohue's CanAm car (his Porsche 917, driven by Townsend to a 1975 Sports Car Club of America Western-Pacific Division co-championship), "because it did what it was designed to do so perfectly well."
Donohue was a master engineer as well as a driver, rarest of the rare. By 1978, only two Indianapolis 500 Champ Car drivers even set their own carburetion (A.J. Foyt and Eldon Rasmussen).
Merle Brennan ran in that company. At his funeral last Thursday, a checkered flag of black and white carnations draped his coffin. I was told the man inside still wore his familiar silver driving suit and gloves. Before the service came the expected comment: if only he had been able to get the big bucks backing, what could he have accomplished?
An accident at Laguna resulted in Merle contracting Alzheimer's disease, which contributed to his premature death.
Merle Brennan competed on his own terms. He lived and died as a sportsman, not a salesman, and therein lies a lesson for us all.