Jim Clark, the Scottish driver who became an American idol

Final part: Legend died at Hockenheim 40 years ago today, but his legacy and popularity live on in the United States.

JIM Clark's impact on America was tangible, even quantifiable. Scores of children were named after him. Thousands of reams of paper extolled his qualities – after his Indy victory an entire magazine documenting, or mythologising, his home and work lives appeared on grocery store magazine racks across the land. As many museums as could justify it inducted him into halls of fame. Tens of thousands of dollars have been – continue to be – spent by garage-filling memento collectors.

Clark, who died 40 years ago today in a crash at Hockenheim, remade American racing. He is responsible for the shifting of car engines from in front of drivers to behind them. He is one of only three race drivers – and the only non-American driver – to have appeared on one of the 4,450 or so covers to date of Time magazine.

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Some suggest his renown was down to a Ford publicity machine that sent Clark's Indianapolis 500-winning car to be displayed at Ford dealerships nationwide. Others know Americans responded to Clark's brilliance as a racer and his demeanour as a man. Even non-fans noticed when a prime-time television show profiled him in autumn 1965.

Some form of "such a gentleman" inevitably comes from people who recall Jim Clark. California racer Parnelli Jones, who famously beat him at Indianapolis in 1963 then was runner-up to him in 1965, used the phrase four times in a 22-minute conversation. Jones also used this phrase: "God, he was a great race car driver."

Susan Jordan, who with husband Dick named their newborn son James Clark Jordan in 1976, said: "He had a lot of class. That was something race drivers didn't have in those days."

Pockets of people on either coast remember sports car racing at Riverside or Laguna Seca, California, or Formula 1 at Watkins Glen, New York, or sports car and saloon racing at Sebring and Daytona, Florida.

North Carolina furniture maker turned model-car builder Frank Dalton was a dedicated sports car fan who discovered Formula 1 in the pages of Road & Track magazine. He said he believes Clark's American legend owes to the writing genius of the late Henry N Manney III, the magazine's European correspondent. Manney's race reports were sufficiently rich they imparted culture, argot and – if you'd read them you'd swear – sounds of the races he covered. And always, always in those prefeminist days, a survey of the crumpet on hand.

"I only saw Jim Clark race once and didn't know it," said Dalton. "I didn't understand why this little boxy piece of s*** Cortina 1600 cc was racing against a supercharged Alfa Romeo that looked like a Ferrari GTO. Why it was so fast is because Jimmy Clark was driving it."

Before Manney, Road & Track's earliest reference was a profile of Clark as an up-and-comer. It called him one to watch. It also called him English.

Clark crashed out at his first US Grand Prix attempt, in 1960 at Riverside in California. He moved up to midfield with a slipping clutch the next year, when the USGP took place at what would become its best home, Watkins Glen. By 1962 he had found the front, in a Lotus 25, winning the USGP for the first of three times, including a famous and only victory for the BRM H16 engine in 1966, and one that supposedly involved a coin flip with team-mate Graham Hill – Clark lost the flip but won the 1967 race anyway.

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Jean Argetsinger's husband Cameron put Watkins Glen on the racing map as a successful and appealing venue. As race organisers, the Argetsingers held a party in their home the night before each USGP.

"Everybody in the room in a big, old farmhouse, 40 or 50 people, everybody at the party wanted to be around Jimmy Clark," she said. "You would see the whole room move that way. He was courteous and approachable. He had star quality to women. A lot of drivers were pretty flirty. He was low-key, understated, and he was so good looking. I had one woman friend who cried when he died. Well, we all cried. He was special." Argetsinger called Clark not only a personality of that period, but the personality of the time. "He was a superstar," she said. "People did cry when he died, men and women."

Artist Mary Oliver Hoppert grew up in the Watkins Glen area and attended sports car races with her father from the time she was three. She won party attendance through her aunt's frequent bridge games with Jean Argetsinger.

"I can remember sitting in the garage, where chairs were set up, and they were showing movies of races, Formula 1 and sports car races. I can remember sitting behind Jim Clark and Colin Chapman (Lotus team owner]. I thought, 'Whoa! here I am in the same room as these two people.' I thought of (Clark] as a warm individual who was a great race driver. He went to work, did his racing thing, and on the other side I could see him raising sheep. It's what you imagine when you think of Scotland."

Television viewers could have looked for Clark's all-too-brief appearances among the cut-up bits of the Grand Prix of Monaco broadcast weeks after the fact by ABC Sports on its magazine programme, Wide World of Sports. But for the full attention of the masses, it took Indianapolis. More than a quarter of a million people massed each Memorial Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to make the 500-mile race there the most heavily attended single-day sporting event in the world. It was America's richest, most storied, utterly over-the-top event, somehow unembarrassingly known as The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. It needed no other reference than "the 500". The Speedway photo department has a retail division, where, one worker says, "not a week goes by" that someone doesn't request a copy of a photo of Clark. The spruce-up that reconfigured the track to hold the US Grand Prix from 2000 to 2007 included the appearance of several outsized banners commemorating Indy greats. Clark's face is among those that beam at visitors circling the track's perimeter. If you can earn an invitation into the private luxury suite of track owner Mari Hulman George, you'll find a photo covering a wall: Clark leading the field into Turn One.

"I think everybody, everybody who's a race fan, remembers how Clark came here in 1963 and was very instrumental in making the Lotus one of the cars to beat, he and Dan Gurney both," said Speedway photo director Ron McQueeney. "There had been Formula 1 drivers here in the past, but they weren't quite as successful as Clark in 1963, when he nearly won, and he led a lot of the race in 1964 before his tire gave out, and he won in 1965. He was very popular, well liked."

McQueeney said his department doesn't exactly track driver popularity, but basically only two racers challenge the popularity of Clark at Indianapolis. They are Texan AJ Foyt, who had a record 159 USAC wins and drove in the Indy 500 for 35 consecutive years, and Italian immigrant Mario Andretti.

"He was kind of quiet, not a smart ass or a jerk," Foyt said. "He would always take time to say hello to you. I think that made him fit in with American people. Other F1 drivers were too damn good for them. He wasn't a prima donna.

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"He was a good, average guy. You would never have thought he was an F1 driver. He was the best F1 driver I ever met, even by today's times. He was a great race driver. I rate him right at the top. One of the best that ever sat in a race car. How I rate a driver is: was he good in everything he got into, and some of the stuff he drove was not that good, but he'd get in and he raced the hell out of it. He didn't crash it. These days, guys go fast for a few laps and wreck it. You never saw Jim Clark do that. He always knew he was in control."

Foyt, who won, among other things, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours of Daytona, the 12 Hours of Sebring, and the Indy four times, also won the Daytona 500 and three USAC stock car championships. He said he saw Clark's one stock car drive, at Rockingham, North Carolina, in 1967, in which Clark started 24th and reached 12th before the car quit.

"It wasn't that good a car," said Foyt. "He did a hell of a job."

Andretti, the 1978 World Driving Champion, was Rookie of the Year at Indianpolis in 1965 when Clark won the 500. Andretti won the 500 in 1969.

"I remember as a young driver how much I wanted to get to know him," said Andretti. "I was in awe of someone like him. He was a perfect gentleman. He was very intelligent and articulate. He was the ultimate professional. He commanded that respect. I never, never ever from anyone heard a derogatory thing said about Jim Clark. It was always praise about the man. He was an example in so many ways of someone who did things well. He wasn't boastful; he was modest. He let results speak for themselves. He's one of the true, true icons of our sport. He'll never be dismissed or forgotten."

A schoolboy when Clark raced at the Speedway, Richard Childers had access to Gasoline Alley through his mechanic father. "I only met the man once, in 1966," said Childers. "I was just a kid, 12 or 13 years old. He was very friendly. He signed an autograph and talked about my interest in auto racing. He probably talked to me for 15 minutes."

Childers said his later racing career profited from Clark's example. "He gave me a sense of how important it was to be meticulous," said Childers. "He was very meticulous. That team would take extensive notes during testing. My dad told me they had never seen clipboards in Gasoline Alley before the Lotus team turned up. I kept notes on every track I ran."

Dedicated 500 follower Donald Davidson, an Englishman, arrived in Indianapolis in 1964. He quickly made his knowledge of the race useful and became Speedway historian. "I was astounded when I showed up in 1964," said Davidson. "I was amazed by how popular he was. People were already naming babies for him; there were lots of Jim Clarks around. Americans are proud of their heroes."

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Scottish race driver Allan McNish learned of Clark's American appeal as soon as he arrived to race.

"The first time I came to America, in 1997-98 and to 2000, there were not many Scottish racing drivers around," he said. "I was quite quickly drawn into conversation about him. Americans appeared very, very fond of Jim Clark. They appreciated the natural talent and car control."

Clark's best-known girlfriend was a blonde English model called Sally Stokes. Their fix-up first date was the London premiere of the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton movie Cleopatra, where they walked the red carpet and Clark was interviewed on live television.

Although Stokes married another race-car driver, Dutchman Ed Swart, and for the past 27 years has lived in Southern California – three doors from retired racer and 1963 Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones – her regard for Clark remains undimmed. His photo sits among an array of family pictures in the Swarts' living room.

"When I go to the East Coast, or to Monterey and Elkhart Lake, the vendors always have a lot of books and paintings and things," said Swart, who is hopeful her US citizenship will be granted in time for her to vote in the 2008 presidential election. "I'm always thrilled to see that, but I'm slightly biased. I say to them, 'But he drove a long time ago,' and they tell me 'We put out what the customers request, and they all ask for Jim Clark.' It's very comforting and inspiring that the American public wants to know about the greatest driver ever."

Frank Gilbert listened to the 500 each year on radio so he knew who was who. But until he and wife Janelle started a collectibles shop, The Mail Room, a half-mile from the Speedway, he didn't understand the depth of feeling for Clark. "We're going into our 22nd year in business," said Gilbert. "I'd be willing to bet that in 21 years not a month has gone by but someone called or came in and asked about a Jimmy Clark item.

"When people talk about him, they talk different about him," added Gilbert. "They'll talk about Eddie Sachs (killed in 1964 in an accident that nearly kept Clark from returning to Indy], the older folks who come in, and they'll laugh about what a funny guy Eddie was. But the tone changes when they say Jimmy Clark. I can't find the words for it. People sound like relatives but they never met him. He was a phenomenon. How do you explain why people care about someone? There's something that wasn't fulfilled that should have been. He should have come back."