INDIANAPOLIS, Saturday, Sept. 29, 2001 - Thirty years have flown by since Peter Revson stunningly captured the first Indianapolis 500 pole for McLaren in 1971. Boston-born Tyler Alexander was in charge of that car as chief mechanic. McLaren...
INDIANAPOLIS, Saturday, Sept. 29, 2001 - Thirty years have flown by since Peter Revson stunningly captured the first Indianapolis 500 pole for McLaren in 1971.
Boston-born Tyler Alexander was in charge of that car as chief mechanic.
McLaren is back at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the SAP United States Grand Prix on Sunday. This time it is a Formula One race, the cars dash up the main straight in the opposite direction as cars in the Indy 500, and the McLaren drivers are two-time World Champion Mika Hakkinen of Finland and David Coulthard of Great Britain.
On Saturday, Hakkinen came within 237-thousandths of a second of presenting Alexander with another record pole run, this one for the F1 road course. Only the brilliance of four-time World Champion Michael Schumacher deflated Hakkinen's attempt. Schumacher took his second straight F1 pole at Indy with a fast lap of 1 minute, 11.708 seconds at 130.769 mph, while Hakkinen followed closely at 1:11.945, 130.339.
"He's pretty daunting, yes," Alexander said of Schumacher. "He never lets up. He's pretty good at what he does. He's very professional about it. He's a tough competitor. "It's always nice to beat him, which we have a few times. They (Ferrari) have a very good operation at the moment, so it's up to us to catch back up again."
Alexander is the one F1 tie to history of the Speedway when the late Tony Hulman still was president of the track and the Indianapolis 500 was the only race each year at the facility.
Alexander still works for West McLaren-Mercedes as special projects manager. He admits to being "just a little over 60" and thinks Hakkinen still can claim his 20th career victory before he departs the team next month for a year away from the high pressures of F1 racing. The USGP and the Japanese GP on Oct. 14 complete the 2001 schedule.
"I think so," Alexander said. "It might take a little bit of luck. We have a chance to, sure. We have to finish, of course. We'll see.
"He (Hakkinen) is quick, and now he wants to stop for a while. Well, that's just one thing you have to deal with one day at a time and wait and see what happens. We have somebody else (another Finn, Kimi Raikkonen), a young guy who has a lot of potential, and it is up to us to work with him and him to work with us to get the best out of the whole thing. I think it will work out fine."
Alexander has been a part of McLaren, off-and-on, since the late New Zealander Bruce McLaren formed the team in the late 1960s. Over the years, Alexander has been associated with some of the world's greatest drivers, including Johnny Rutherford, Mario Andretti and Ayrton Senna.
"I was involved in racing in America," he said about his formative sports car years with Texas oil millionaire John Mecom Jr., "and through that we were going to all the SCCA races, and I met all the people I've sort of known ever since - Roger Penske, Revson, Teddy Mayer, Jim Hall, Hap Sharp, Dan Gurney, a bunch of people.
"And Teddy went to England with his brother Timmy, and I kind of followed on later, and that's when we started Bruce McLaren Motor Racing."
Over the years in Formula One, McLaren has scored 133 Grand Prix victories and earned eight Constructors' World Championships.
In 1969, McLaren decided to build a car to race in the Indianapolis 500. It was tested in the fall of that year at the Speedway, and the following May, Revson and Carl Williams drove McLaren Cars entries in the race. Williams placed ninth and Revson 22nd.
"We built a completely different car the following year, and it started to come together," Alexander said.
"It was a lot for us to learn. It was something very new to us. And I still remember, it was an enormous amount of work, because we were trying to learn how to cope with this place, which is a reasonably exciting, daunting place to come to."
Penske's first driver, Mark Donohue, finished second in 1970 and returned the following year in privately owned McLaren as a favorite to challenge Al Unser for victory. He appeared to have the pole won with a fast speed of 177.087 mph, but then Revson turned a shocking and record 178.696 average to snatch away the coveted inside front-row starting position.
"Peter was pretty good, and we got everything right just at the right time," Alexander said.
"I guess, if I remember correctly, we kind of spoiled Donohue's thought about being on the pole. He was almost to the point of celebrating when it was announced that Peter was quicker than he was. So it was pretty good, very exciting stuff."
Revson placed second in the race to Unser's second straight win. Then Donohue won in 1972 for the first Indy win by a McLaren chassis.
Rutherford, who had gone through nine years of nondescript finishes, joined the Gulf McLaren team in 1973 and finished ninth in the rain-shortened race. He won the next year and repeated in 1976 to provide the McLaren factory team two victories.
"It was one of those things where we had thought for a while if we could finish this damn race, we could win the thing, because we had been quick all the time," Alexander said.
McLaren phased out of the Indy picture in 1979, and Alexander returned to Europe as chief engineer as Team McLaren merged with Ron Dennis' Project 4. Alexander joined Mayer in 1984 and nearly won the CART championship with Tom Sneva driving. Alexander popped up once more at Indy in 1987 with Carl Haas as part of aborted Beatrice F1 team and Mario Andretti. That was the year Mario won the pole with a record 215.390 mph run and led 170 laps, only to have his ignition fail near the finish.
Alexander stayed two more years with Haas before Ron Dennis and McLaren beckoned once more to come to England and work with the brilliant Ayrton Senna.
"I could have stayed at Carl's place," he said. "It was great, and Carl was a fantastic guy, but it was an opportunity to work with Senna, so I took that. A super guy, he (Senna) really was a nice guy. He was really good."
Alexander has stayed with McLaren since. In addition to Hakkinen, Senna and Coulthard, other McLaren drivers in recent years include Gerhard Berger, Michael Andretti and even Nigel Mansell for two races.
"It's always neat to come back here," Alexander said. "I've done a lot of things here. I've spent a lot of my life here. And it's nice.
"The facility is nice. It's organized properly. It's probably where the Formula One race in this country should be. The facility is here, and the people have the means to operate it properly."