Two Sides of the Coin
McLaren’s effort on both sides of the Atlantic
IT IS little more than ten years Since the first European constructor seriously designed a car to run at Indianapolis and took on the Americans at their own very specialist style of oval track racing. Almost predictably, the enterprising man who took this major step was Lotus chief Colin Chapman and not only did he spark off a virtual revolution in USAC car design, but his driver Jim Clark nearly won the Indianapolis 500 on his first attempt in 1963 and then led it almost from start to finish in 1965. Wilbur Shaw had won the race in a Maserati during the 1940s, but since that time the only other point of interchange between the worlds of road racing and oval racing had been when the Indianapolis cars came to Monza in 1957 and ’58. They were big, garish and powerful, driven by some of the hardest and most determined around and they had no trouble beating their European counterparts on both occasions.
In the mid and late 1960s, Lotus ran at Indianapolis with a variety of interesting machines, turbines in 1968 and turbo-charged Ford-engined cars the following year. Both had four-wheel-drive but USAC’s ban on such systems in 1970 sent Chapman away for good to concentrate on Formula One. Dan Gurney’s Eagle team, drawing on the expertise gained with their 3-litre Eagle-Weslake chassis, became a regular Indianapolis competitor and Jack Brabham made some serious attempts before retiring from racing at the end of 1970. During the latter half of the 1960s, Bruce McLaren’s youthful team was busy establishing itself as a regular Grand Prix organisation as well as virtually dominating the Can-Am sports car series in North America, although taunts from rivals slightly “niggled” McLaren and his men when they were told “We know you’ve won all the CanAm races, but it would be a different story if you tried taking on the real American racers in USAC”.
By the end of 1969, McLaren’s had built up a strong American base near Detroit from which they operated their Can-Am cars under the direction of Tyler Alexander, originally mechanic to the late Tim Mayer, and one of the founder directors of McLaren Racing. They had facilities for preparation and engine maintenance, so the decision was taken to “have a crack at Indy” in 1970. Gordon Coppuck designed the first USAC McLaren, the M15, utilising a good deal of Can-Am components in the process, and the bright orange cars first appeared at the Brickyard for official testing in May. Originally Chris Amon was designated to drive, but he never felt at home at Indianapolis and his place was taken over by Peter Revson. Amon’s failure to come to grips with the particular and specialised problems of the 2.5-mile oval emphasised that Indianapolis was a totally new environment for a road-racing driver. Although Jim Clark’s sheer natural ability and versatility stood him in good stead when he first visited the American classic, McLaren Racing have largely maintained a policy of using American drivers well-versed in USAC technique.
With the same regularity and professionalism that has been the hallmark of their Formula One operation McLaren Racing have competed in USAC ever since 1970. They also established links with Roger Penske and the factory agreed to sell him a McLaren M16 in 1972, proving just how fair they were in terms of offering the same equipment as the works team used when this car, driven by Donohue, won at Indianapolis. If there was any chagrin over this result, the McLaren works team hid it well. But they reaped their rewards for high standards of persistence and preparation in 1974; not only did Emerson Fittipaldi win the World Driver’s Championship in a McLaren M23, but McLaren Racing won the Constructors Championship and Johnny Rutherford won the Indianapolis 500 in the works M16C/D.
At a time when there has been a lot of criticism about the value for money some allegedly professional teams appear to be offering to their major sponsors, McLaren Racing stand out as a worthy example of just how to justify a sponsor’s outlay. We recently took the opportunity to discuss with McLaren directors Tyler Alexander and Phil Kerr the relative merits of participating on both sides of the Atlantic, and just which category gives the team most satisfaction. Alexander shares the view of his co-director Teddy Mayer in that America remains a great market for potential sponsorship, the enormous publicity which is derived from participation at Indianapolis justifying the backing they receive from Goodyear. In addition, if the team was “courting” another American sponsor, then the attraction of competing at Indianapolis would be a major factor in any decision. As Alexander remarked “Indianapolis is the big thing—the rest is just practice.” In fact that’s a remark which has rather more truth to it than one might think as people tend to remember the Indianapolis 500 winners but rack their brains unsuccessfully to recall the winners of the USAC Championship. Just to emphasise what he is talking about, Alexander added “Indy pays somewhere in the region of 240,000 dollars whereas Pocono (one of the other two 500-mile races in the USAC “Triple Crown”) only pays 90,000 dollars.” Nevertheless, there is one underlying fear shared by both ends of the McLaren operation, the effect that the current monetary inflation is having on racing budgets. “We’re only running nine or ten races on the USAC calendar now,” Alexander continues, “and this means that the cars are really under-utilised. We could usefully compete in some more races during the course of a season, although we don’t want to get back to the situation of twelve or so years ago where we had almost 30 events in the calendar.” The four-cylinder Offenhauser motors employed by most USAC competitors have hardly earned themselves a reputation for reliability, although Alexander emphasises that the performance of a team’s USAC engines is directly related to the efficiency of the team’s engine department. The Offenhauser motors are purchased as a kit of parts from Drake Engineering so it’s very much down to the individual team how effectively they complete the assembly and race prepare the engines. Drawing comparison with the cost of maintaining Cosworth DFVs for Formula One racing is not really fair but McLaren do not consider USAC appreciably more expensive from this point of view— “Perhaps as costly as running a badly prepared DFV would be the best way of describing it,” explains the team’s USAC chief.
A worry shared by Alexander and his team’s number one USAC driver, 37-year-old Johnny Rutherford, is just how to inject some new interest into this spectacular form of American racing. With cost inflation spiralling, each year it becomes increasingly difficult for fresh teams to break into USAC and McLarens fear a situation where the formula prices itself out of business. A strong body of opinion leans towards USAC changing its regulations, or at least relaxing them slightly, while Alexander is adamant that Indianapolis should be run for Formula 5000 cars on the basis that “you’ll never notice they’re going about 20 m.p.h. slower than the current Indy cars because there’ll be no Offy-powered runners to show them up. I think this big thing people have got about running close to the 200 m.p.h. barrier at Indy is rubbish. I believe the spectators come along for the racing and I don’t think they’d notice such a small drop in speeds.” By contrast, Rutherford felt that such a move might not be wise, speculating that the cost of preparing stockblock motors for such a high-speed race, in which sustained running at full throttle was required, would eventually prove prohibitive. Phil Kerr took very much the same point of
view when we tackled him on the subject of a “world wide” formula in an effort to bring Europe, America and Australia into line with each other. “I agree with Keith Duckworth’s feeling about this; racing engines are cheapest in the end,” he said. “Formula 5000 would suddenly become so competitive that the level of engine failure would rise alarmingly.”
This question of revising USAC engine regulations, perhaps based on a 6-litre stock, is something which all the McLaren Racing directors have considered carefully. Their expertise in engine preparation would enable them to develop such a unit in their Detroit facility, but on the other hand they would be left with a large number of redundant Offenhauser engines on their hands. On the face of it, and in the short term, such a step would have very expensive consequences for McLarens. But Phil Kerr takes up the question of USAC expense from this point: “What you must remember is that our entire USAC programme this year was run at a deficit, this deficit being balanced out by the profits of the Formula One operation. If we had a sponsor in USAC, then we might well have come out with a small profit. But only Indianapolis pays big money and all the other USAC races are loss leaders. In a sense you could say that we won Indy to finance the rest of the USAC programme.” Kerr agreed with Alexander that cost could cause the USAC calendar to shrink down “to three or four races” and admitted that while he didn’t really want to see this happen, it would be acceptable from McLaren’s point of view if it did. “We wouldn’t have to maintain a number of staff in America for so long, although it would be necessary for those three or four races to be compressed into a short time to make a worthwhile saving.”
Turning to McLaren’s very successful Grand Prix team, Kerr emphasised that, notwithstanding the team’s Indianapolis success, Formula One was the more lucrative category of the two. “I think from the point of view of any team, the World Championship must be the achievement which is valued the highest. The income from Formula One is consistently better because some of those other USAC events pay peanuts in comparison with even a European Formula Two race.” Kerr admitted that the amount of commercial sponsorship received by the McLaren team from Marlboro, Texaco, Yardley and Goodyear is not enough to cover the Formula One expenses on its own although that is in no way meant to convey the impression that it doesn’t make a very significant contribution. But even with sponsorship, the premium is still on success. “We couldn’t manage with income or sponsorship on their own. We need both to make a profit,” asserts Kerr, “and profit is not a dirty word. It would obviously be nice to make a bigger profit so we could put more into reserve and thus put ourselves in a stronger position to do a better job next year.”
Unfortunately financial ideals are near impossible to realise in the economically strangled times which England currently faces. Most commercial organisations have been forced to scrap or postpone plans for expansion and diversification and racing-car constructors are no exception to this rule. McLaren Racing set out primarily to be a very efficient racing team and decided from an early stage in their history to leave commercial racing-car production to others. Even when the success of Bruce and Denny’s Can-Am cars brought demands for replicas from private owners, it was Trojan who carried out their construction. Not until they were established and successful constructors, reasoned the young directors, could the decision to diversify into other areas be safely carried out. Now McLaren Racing has earned itself the right to that exclusive tag of “successful constructor” but they find themselves in an economic climate, where to expand would be the wrong thing. But with their name and expertise, surely they would be in an enviable position to start customer production ? Phil Kerr is very cautious about this: “Whilst I agree that Lola and March have done very well this year, they’ve done well because they are established and they are good at their job. They’ve sold a lot of racing cars, but they’ve sold them at the expense of some other, smaller constructors. Their buyers have become more selective.”
Nicholson-McLaren Engines is an example of the diversification which the Colnbrook team would eventually like to continue. John Nicholson’s nearby premises not only maintain the works engines, but also do a lot of servicing for other teams including the Embassy Lolas and Dave Charlton’s Lucky Strike McLaren M23. “Eventually it is our intention to diversify our activities further,” continues Kerr, “and I think it will certainly be connected with cars and engineering. But we are a young company essentially and I think we’re young enough to spend a couple of years marking time until the economic situation steadies.”
This cautious and well-reasoned attitude may come as a surprise to those observers who think all Grand Prix teams finance themselves from bottomless crocks of gold provided by philanthropic sponsors. Quite clearly the expenditure required to operate a serious Grand Prix team is substantial and Kerr is adamant that criticism of the money spent by top line teams is unwarranted. Whilst admitting that it costs “somewhere in the region of half a million pounds” to operate a Grand Prix team for a year, he does make interesting and valid points when accounting for that expenditure.
“Admittedly you cut your suit according to your cloth, but there are some expenses you just can’t get away from. You’ve got to prepare engines properly, you can’t get away from that. It’s largely irrelevant from certain viewpoints whether you’re running a Formula Ford or a Grand Prix car. Take the airlines, for example. That’s something you have to pay for, they’re only interested in the size and weight of the car. Whatever you spend on anything else, you’ve still got to pay for hotels, mechanics’ wages, the transporters. People should not criticise Formula One for being expensive because it is covering an enormous amount of ground, racing in a total of 15 countries. It would also be wrong to run away with the idea that the cars are becoming prohibitively expensive. The increase in cost of production stems from two basic factors, the increase in the cost of material and the increase in labour costs. They are affected by the same constraints that put up the price of a bag of sugar, for example.”
None of these points should be taken as an indication of any sense of depression amongst the McLaren Racing ranks. On the contrary, they look forward to 1975 with a feeling of justified optimism, knowing on the one hand that they are the ones to beat but sure in the knowledge they will be competitive on both sides of the Atlantic. Team spirit runs high at McLarens, the company fostering a great feeling of loyalty towards its employees who in turn feel closer to those charged with their responsibility. McLaren designer Gordon Coppuck remarked “I feel we’re a bunch of not very talented people who make a successful team when put together,” sentiments which probably reflect rather too modest an assessment of himself and his colleagues.—A.H.
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