5/3/1940 - 4/8/2021
Record updated 27-Sep-21
Best know in Australia and New Zealand, McRae was one of the best F5000 drivers around. He won the Tasman series on three occasions and the Australian GP (pre F1) four times. His F1 Championship career lasted just one lap in Frank Williams' Iso-Marlboro-Cosworth IR01 in the 1973 British Grand Prix. With deteriorating mental health, he passed away in a secure care home at the age of 81.
McRae was born in Wellington, New Zealand. He left University in 1963 with a degree in engineering. While still at university he started building his first car which he called the McRae 220S.
His first International race came in 1968 in the Tasman Series driving an old 1500cc Brabham BT6. He entered the series again in 1969 with his own spaceframe car the McRae S2. Once again powered by a 1.5-litre twin-cam Ford engine it was outclassed by the 2.5 litre cars. Never the less he acquitted himself well finishing 6th at Levin. That year in 1500cc single seater racing in New Zealand he won the National Formula Championship. For winning the Championship he was awarded the Driver to Europe scholarship which enabled him to race in six F2 rounds in Europe. Driving the ex-Courage Brabham-FVA BT23C for Frank Williams, his best result was a 4th at Zolder.
In 1970 he graduated to F5000. Driving a Begg-Chevrolet FM2 and a McLaren-Chrevolet M10B he won the New Zealand Gold Star. He also drove the McLaren in the Tasman Series, run to F5000 regs, taking two wins. Racing the McRae S2 and a Brabham BT18 he finished second in the National Formula Championship. He then took his McLaren M10B to compete in the European F5000 Championship. He finished on the podium four times before taking a win in the last round at Brands Hatch.
He took the Tasman Title in 1971 with three wins and won three F5000 races in England. In September however he wrote the McLaren off at Hockenheim emerging unscathed, he needed a new mount.
In 1972 he joined the Leda Team to race their Len Terry designed LT27. He started the year well, winning the second and third rounds of the Tasman Cup. Two more victories saw him take the title for a second year. McRae then came third in the European F5000 Championship, taking two wins at both Brands Hatch and Silverstone, and other victories at Nivelles and Oulton Park. Not content he then won the US F5000 Championship with three victories at Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen and Elkhart Lake. During the year John Heynes bought Leda and renamed it McRae Cars Ltd and the LT27 was renamed the McRae GM1. In April he took part in the International Trophy at Silverstone, a mixed F1 and F5000 race. He finished 8th, the first of the F5000s. With 12 wins from 28 races it was a fine season.
His nickname of “Cassius” came from his self confident manner akin to Cassius Clay. This also made his relationship with other drivers somewhat strained at times.
For 1973 he won the Tasman Series for a third time, driving the McRae GM1. He took a win at Mallory Park but little else in F5000. He drove an STP Eagle-Offy in the Indy 500, qualifying 13th. He retired in the race which was won by Gordon Johncock. In a race that also saw the fatal crash of Swede Savage he was awarded Rookie of the Year honours.
1973 all saw the whole of McRae's Grand Prix career. It amounted to one lap in Frank Williams' Iso-Marlboro-Cosworth IR01 in the 1973 British Grand Prix.
Late in the year he introduced the F5000 McRae-Chevrolet GM2 and one month later he won the Australian GP at Sandown Park with it. John Heynes sold McRae Cars Ltd to Penske as they needed premises in England to build the Penske F1 car and John McCormack bought the design of the McRae GM2 and renamed it the Talon MR1.
Hoping to retain his Tasman title in 1974 he drove the GM2 but the car was not up to the task and two seconds contributing to 7th in the final standing was all he could manage. In the US F5000 Championship he even switched to a Lola T332 for some rounds but still couldn't make it onto the podium.
In 1975 he took victory in the Lady Wigram Trophy but once again failed to finish on the podium in any of the other races that year. At Surfers Paradise in the Australian Gold Star Championship he destroyed the GM2 in practice and switched to a Matich A50 finishing 4th in the race.
He then concentrated on the CanAm series with a modified GM3 but his results were disappointing.
In 1978 he did win the F5000 Gold Star Australian championship with the GM3 switched back into a single-seater configuration and the Australian GP for the fourth time (1972, 1973, 1976, 1978), equalling Lex Davison’s record (1954, 1957, 1958, 1961). The Australian Grand Prix did not become a round of the F1 World Championship until 1985
McRae continued until the end of the eighties but without success. After an unsuccessful foray into CART in 1984 and 1987 and a drive at Bathurst in 1986 he retired from driving.
In the late 80's he returned to New Zealand and was building magnificent Porsche Spyder Replicas but little or nothing was heard about him, until in 2003 the media reported about an incident with a cross-bow. It happened on September 1st and involved an Australian rock band called Stylus. McRae, having been diagnosed with paranoid delusions in the late 1990s, had not been taking his meds. When the band arrived at their Grey Lynn practise room where they were recording their debut album they found their recording gear trashed.
The bass guitarist, Paul Matthews, approached McRae, a fellow tenant in the building, and was threatened with a crossbow. Matthews said that McRae had been saying things before about being scared of computers and how they were spying on him. Matthews and fellow band member Dave Rhodes then locked themselves in their practice room and called the police. McRae barricaded himself into his room. The band then left the building but McRae stayed put.
After a four hour stand off and repeated requests to come out, tear gas was fired into the unit by the Armed Offenders Squad and a dog was used to apprehend McRae, causing injury. McRae was taken by ambulance to Middlemore hospital.
Always a difficult man to work with, his mental health continued to deteriorated over time and he passed away in a secure care home with only a few possessions. He had no children.