A life and times with McLaren: Tyler Alexander - Part One
Look at any of the old black and white snaps of the earliest days of McLaren, and you’ll doubtless spot the same three figures – team boss Bruce McLaren, his loyal deputy Teddy Mayer, and principal mechanic Tyler Alexander.
Tyler, a rugged, no-nonsense Bostonite, was a genuine McLaren lynchpin – he shepherded the team through its first F1 successes, its dominant wins in CanAm and its Indy 500 victories; later, he contributed to the successful careers of great world champions, Ayrton Senna, Mika Hakkinen, Kimi Raikkonen, and Lewis Hamilton.
He finally hung up his headphones at the end of the 2008 season, but has remained the team’s most loyal friend,still visiting old colleagues and acquaintances at MTC on a weekly basis.
His new book, ‘Tyler Alexander: A Life and Times with McLaren’ lifts the lid on his entire motorsport career, providing a gritty and honest account of a life spent in the pits and paddocks of the world. It’s a must-read, and to mark its publication, we bring you these exclusive extracts, which lift the lid on Tyler’s unique life.
1960’s and first work with Bruce McLaren
Early in August, a trip to England was organized, as Penske and Mecom had been invited to Brands Hatch for the Guards Trophy sports-car race. Mecom had bought a Lola GT car for Pabst to drive, which means we had a place to work at the Lola factory in nearby Bromley.
For my first visit to the UK, we stayed in the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane. Looking out of the hotel-room window, one of the first things we noticed was some blokes butting tar down on the roof of a building, all of them dressed in suits and ties. It certainly seemed fairly strange to us, particularly to me as a complete stranger to those shores. It was my first introduction to English formality and customs.
The first real challenge for us was learning how to drive from the center of London to Bromley. Getting from there to Brands Hatch wasn’t quite so bad, because we could at least follow someone from Lola…
…While we were at Brands Hatch, Teddy Mayer has asked if I would help build Timmy’s Tasman car. It seemed that Teddy and Timmy had done a deal with this guy – who just happened to be Bruce McLaren – to build two cars to run in what was called the Tasman Series. These races were to start in January 1964, with four weekly races in New Zealand, then a two-week break before three races, a week apart, would be held in Australia. A week after that the last race would be held in Tasmania.
The next step changed my life and upset John Mecom Jr. To this day, I feel sorry about leaving John’s team and staying in the UK. I’m not sorry for what I did, but I do regret not having the chance to actually tell John what I was planning to do, and why I had to do it. I had been given an opportunity to work with some interesting people, so I said to myself, “What the hell – let’s just get on with it.”
The Tasman cars were based on a Formula One car, since Bruce was driving for the Cooper F1 team. Bruce changed quite a bit of the car to suit what he wanted and to better align with the nature of the Tasman races, which were not very long. One change that resulted was the replacement of the Cooper car’s side fuel tanks with one under the driver’s seat. The cars were built in Cooper’s F1 workshop in Surbiton. The floor there was two-thirds concrete and one-third hard-packed dirt. You can guess which bit of the floor we were told to use. The real dirt floor part was quite common at the time.
Wally Willmott, a good friend of Bruce’s, came over from New Zealand to help build Bruce’s car. The Mayers had me, sometimes known as “The Ugly American.” But unlike some of the English, we at least weren’t wiping our asses with wax paper, and I knew what a shower was. As soon as I got the chance I brought a showerhead with rubber hoses back from the States to attach to the British bathtub taps. And once the Cooper blokes – a very talented bunch, I might add – realized that I could weld and machine things (and work just as hard as they could, without getting upset by their suggestions and comments), I started to fit in.
I stayed in Teddy’s rented house on an island in the river Thames, just by the village of Thames Ditton. I remember you had to pay two (old) pence to cross the bridge to get to his house! It was at a Sunday lunch party there that I first met this McLaren chap. There must have been something about him. I remember thinking this guy with one leg a bit shorter than the other (the result of an illness in childhood) seemed to know a lot about motor racing, and perhaps I’d better tag along to find out more about it myself. I wasn’t wrong. I learned a lot of things in a very short period of time working with Bruce, Wally, and the Cooper F1 mechanics.
1967 Laguna Seca Can-Am race
When the weather on race day turned out even hotter than usual, Bruce decided he wanted some water poured onto him during the race. This was to be done at the hairpin just before the pits, the timing based on some sort of hand signal. Don Beresford and I went down the corner. The plan was that Don was going to throw the bucket of water, but, at the last minute, he gave it to me! Chris Economaki of National Speed Sport News, wondering what was going on, had followed us to the corner. I don’t believe Chris was alone in getting a photo of me throwing the water onto Bruce. Fortunately, the water went up the windscreen and onto Bruce as planned, and not into the inlet tray of the engine. When several other teams started to do the same thing, officials brought a stop to it because the exit of the corner was getting quite wet…
…Engine trouble meant neither driver finished the final race at Las Vegas, but Bruce’s two wins were enough to make him the 1967 Can-Am Champion. (Denny had won three of the races, but his retirement from the other three meant Bruce’s pair of second places gave him 10 more points.)
At the end of the season, Colin Beanland and I took Bruce’s car to Roger Penske’s shop in Pennsylvania. Roger had bought the M6A for Mark Donohue to drive in the 1968 Unites States Road Racing Championship (USRRC) series, and then the Can-Am championship.
When we were leaving, Donohue said, “How can you guys sell the car that just won most of the races and the championship?” As we were going out the door, I turned and said to Mark, “Oh, I don’t know – I guess we’re just going home to build a better one.” He made a note of this in his book, The Unfair Advantage, as he couldn’t believe what he’d just heard!
I have been asked several times how I and other people felt after winning the 1967 Can-Am championship. I think in the 1960s and ‘70s we thought about things differently. I don’t think we were preoccupied with a bunch of pondering about ourselves. We were a pretty close-knit group of people who certainly enjoyed winning, as anyone would. But I cannot recall even thinking, never mind talking among ourselves, about what sort of mental effect winning might have had.
Don’t get me wrong here: The people at the factory and those of us at the race track were happy as hell we had won the championship. But we also accepted that this was only just the beginning of more hard work and late nights to come.
The fact we were doing something we liked was the main thing. The objective was to try and do it better than the other people. I guess these days it’s known as being focused. We didn’t actually used the word focused then, but when you think about it, I guess we sure as hell were.
Start of the Indy Car program, 1969
With the Indy Car program ramping up along with Can-Am, it was decided at the end of 1969 to establish a proper facility in the United States, where we could build and maintain the cars and engines. Teddy, Bill Smith Jr., and Bruce set up McLaren Engines on Eight Mile Road in Lovinia, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit…
…The relationship between Bruce and myself at this point was interesting and inspiring, partly because I was staying at his house, and because we both thought along somewhat similar lines. You could talk to him and, almost all of the time, understand what he was on about. He was very god at putting his finger on problems with the car and knowing what he wanted to do to fix them.
Bruce was also capable of doing things pretty much on his own. Everyone had faith in him. A good example was when he designed a hillclimb car for Patsy Burt, one of Britain’s most successful female drivers. Bruce sketched what he wanted on scraps of paper, got John Thompson to make the tubular chassis in the fabrication department, and used the suspension from one of the other cars. The hillclimb car was built by Mike Barney. I think it took just a couple of weeks, and although officially known as an M3, we dubbed it the “Whoosh Bonk” car. The name came from Bruce’s explanation of what he wanted, “You make this, you do that, put it all together, and whoosh bonk, there’s your car.”
I think McLaren also made a few cars for other hillclimb people. I know we also built a camera car and sometime race car for the John Frankenheimer film Grand Prix in 1966. Driven by Chris Amon, it used a couple of different engines during the course of the filming, which no one really noticed. The film was and still is a classic, with lots of real race-car noise.
Bruce would come out with classic comments such as, “If it looks right, it probably is right, and if it looks wrong, it probably is wrong.” But even with all his talent and knowledge, Bruce was not an egotistical person, and gave credit when and where it was due.
I certainly learned a lot about motor racing by being around Bruce and working with him on his car. I don’t think I have changed a lot, as I have always thought that passion, trust, focus and decision were important. But I also learned from Bruce and Teddy just how important it was to work with a first-class team of people who were not afraid of a bit of perseverance.
1970 Indianapolis: Hearing of Bruce’s death
Bruce and Teddy flew home right after the race, which was won by Al Unser. Bruce wanted to be available to test the new Can-Am car, as the series would be starting in a couple of weeks.
I was in the Howard Johnson’s motel restaurant not far from the Speedway, having breakfast with Dan Gurney, when I was called to the telephone. It was Teddy. Bruce had been killed that afternoon at Goodwood when the rear wing and bodywork came off the new Can-Am car, causing it to lose all rear downforce.
The shock of what Teddy had just said – and the look on Dan’s face when I told him – tended to take your breath away, at least for a moment of two. Of course, the next thing that pops to the surface of one’s mind is: “What the hell do we do now?” The first thing was to tell the guys who were still packing up at the Indy garage what little I knew.
Next was sorting out a flight to return to England as soon as I could. My trip back, with my mind in a kind of kaleidoscope of confusion, sure as hell prevented me from getting any sleep.
Of course, the factory was in a terrible state, with the feeling of doom and gloom as the shock, sadness and uncertainty all came to the surface. The reality of it all was that the guy you would follow anywhere – or, as Howden Ganley once said, “single file across the Sahara Desert” – was now gone. The world of motor racing can be tough. It’s time like these when you have to get ahold of yourself and keep people together – in this case, the people who helped to make Bruce McLaren Motor Racing the team that it was. It was now time to use the things that we had all learned from Bruce, without showing personal sorrow.
…It was then that Teddy stood up in front of everyone at the factory and said, with no fuss or preamble, but in standard Mayer-speak, “We all realize that something not very pleasant has happened, but we have a company called Bruce McLaren Motor Racing, and it has a Can-Am race in two weeks – so best we get on with it!” And, by Christ, we did. I think just about everyone came in to work the following day. Those who had learned a great many things from Bruce were now the ones who knew it was up to them to get their shit together to keep BMMR going…
…Like many other racing people, Bruce McLaren was more than just talented; he was also versatile. His achievements, especially his contributions to the development of motorsport, will never die. Bruce’s long-term plan was to win and expand his team carefully.