For a team that rightly plays on a proud tradition, those responsible for McLaren’s Indy 500 debacle would have done well to read the reflections of a man who really understood how life played out at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the infamous Month of May.
Tyler Alexander was a crew chief and straight-talking stalwart from the beginning of Bruce McLaren Motor Racing. The American was right there when the small team from Colnbrook decided to tackle the 500-mile classic for the first time in 1970 and quickly learned that this was a race like no other.
‘It would take us a couple of years to really understand what you need to do at Indianapolis – and how to do it,’ he wrote in a *memoir published shortly before his untimely passing in 2016. ‘Having learned things the hard way [in 1970], we realised that the Indianapolis race track was not just an oval with four corners. It took us a while to appreciate and accept just how complex it really is to be quick around Indy.’
If McLaren thought they had a difficult time last week, that was but a minor irritation compared to what occurred in 1970. During practice, vibrations from the 4-cylinder Offenhauser shook open a front-mounted breather cap as Denny Hulme reached 180mph on the back straight. Methanol coursed past the cockpit and immediately burst into a haze of heat when it reached the hot turbocharger.
Hulme’s leather gloves were already saturated by a fuel that burns with an invisible flame. When he eventually hurled himself from the still-moving car, the fire crew rushed past, unaware that the driver was on fire. It was small consolation that the excruciatingly painful burns were largely confined to the Kiwi’s hands.
Bruce McLaren, having been on hand to see Peter Revson (who substituted for Hulme) and Carl Williams retire and finish ninth respectively, returned to England that night. On the following Tuesday, Alexander was about to depart Indianapolis when the call came through the Bruce had been killed while testing the latest McLaren CanAm car at Goodwood. The entire team was knocked sideways after the loss of such an inspirational leader, brilliant engineer, talented driver and genuinely nice man.
McLaren Racing returned in 1971, Revson taking pole and finishing a close second. Interestingly, in view of McLaren and Fernando Alonso’s limited Indycar effort, the team realised the importance of, at the very least, also competing in the 500-mile oval races at Pocono and Ontario. McLaren’s first win at Indy in 1972 would come courtesy of the M16B entered by Roger Penske and driven by Mark Donohue, the works team continuing to struggle despite Revson having qualified second.
Signs that the reality of Indy was hitting home came in 1973 when McLaren abandoned CanAm and hired Johnny Rutherford for the full Indy season (Alexander: ‘I always thought that the other races were just practice for Indianapolis’) while Hulme and Revson focussed on the 500-mile races – and F1, of course. As if life was not difficult enough, the Indy 500 that year was held over three days because of rain, Rutherford’s pole coming to nought with a fuel leak after Revson had hit the wall.
It seemed to be more of the same in 1974 when Rutherford qualified 25th. But then the accumulated experience of driver and team began to pay off as the Texan known affectionately as ‘Lone Star JR’ moved into second and hounded AJ Foyt until an oil leak accounted for the veteran.
McLaren’s desperate struggle last weekend played out almost exactly 45 years after Rutherford’s iconic orange McLaren M16C/D crossed the Yard of Bricks for the final time. ‘A great relief for all of us,’ was the succinct summary from Alexander, who would understand the present team’s disappointment - if not naïve methods bordering on arrogance.
As Tyler might have grunted: ‘It’s all in the goddam book!’
*A Life and Times with McLaren (David Bull Publishing)