Tim Mayer

Cooper thought he was the next F1 star: he could have become a hero with McLaren, Tyrrell or Penske… But Tim Mayer was killed just after his 26th birthday. Adam Cooper tells the story of a man who seemed to have it all

He only started one grand prix, but when he was killed in practice for the Longford Tasman race in February 1964 Tim Mayer stood on the verge of a great career. Not only did the lanky, personable American already have a seat in the Cooper Formula One team for that season, but further down the line he could have counted on admirers in the forms of Bruce McLaren, Ken Tyrrell and Roger Penske for support.

The history books list Tim’s father as a stockbroker, but that doesn’t tell the full story. In fact Edward B Mayer — he had no middle name but invented the initial as everyone else seemed to have one — had a distinguished service record. He joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1916, and later served with the American Expeditionary Forces. Injured after being shot down, he became a flying instructor and was decorated by the British, French and Italian governments.

He returned to the States as a First Lieutenant and in May 1919 married Benita Guggenheim, oldest daughter of Titanic victim and notorious playboy Benjamin. The heiress died just eight years later, and in ’32 Edward was married for a second time, to Marion Scranton. Her family had close ties to the top of the Republican party, not to mention a Pennsylvanian city named after them.

The couple had three sons, Worthington Scranton (known as Tony, he was killed in a road crash in 1982), Edward Everett and Timothy Andrew. Edward Mayer Snr died aged 59 on June 10 1955, bizarrely as a result of the war injuries that had troubled him all his life. Only 17 when he lost his father, the youngest son clearly inherited some of his dad’s sense of adventure. Tall, athletic and possessed of an easy charm, Tim made friends easily.

“We were very different!” says middle brother Teddy, three years his senior. “He was a very confident young man. And he was quite ambitious, I would say, but a little bit lazy. He was someone that everybody liked, and he was always looking for excitement.”

In the autumn of 1956 Tim went to Yale to study English Literature, although he had no clear career path in mind at that stage. On Valentine’s Day 1957 he met the woman who was to become his wife — Garril was the sister of Tim’s college friend Porter Goss, who in 2005 would be appointed Director of the CIA.

“Tim and my brother were in the same class,” she recalls. “I had come by train so my brother could drive me home for the weekend. There was a blizzard, so we waited at the fraternity house for the roads to be ploughed. Tim was there and we spent the evening talking about English Literature, funnily enough.”

The attraction was instant: “He was clever and amusing, a gentleman and a genius.”

The couple were married in September 1959, as Tim started his final year at Yale, and after Garril had started at Bryn Mawr College. By then an early passion for fast cars, shared with Teddy and developed on the country roads of Pennsylvania, had blossomed. Tim purchased an Austin-Healey and, having acquired a racing licence when he turned 21 in February that year, began competing in SCCA events. His first event was at Marlboro, Maryland, and by his third race he was winning. “I was more technical than he was,” says Teddy, who studied physics before going to Law School. “So I helped him out as and how I could. It was very obvious that he was quick.”

The car was prepared at a garage in New Jersey, and it was there one day that the Mayers bumped into a camera-toting, racing-mad youth who offered to help with the long drive to a race in the Mid-West. His name was Tyler Alexander, and it was only when the car broke down on the trip that he revealed he was actually an aircraft-standard mechanic. Working for another driver in the paddock, he soon became a close friend.

Sufficiently encouraged by Tim’s results, the Mayers traded up to a Lotus 18 Formula Junior for 1960, and in between his college commitments Tim began to learn the ropes. He picked up some second places, but progress was halted when the car was totalled at Louisville in August.

Meanwhile, having graduated from Yale that summer Tim took Garril to Switzerland, so he could continue his studies at the University of Geneva. But not long afterwards the draft caught up with him and he was obliged to join the US Army. Fortunately the country was between major conflicts, and after basic training in Fort Dix, New Jersey, Garril joined him in Guaynabo in Puerto Rico, where he taught English to local recruits.

The army was sympathetic to Corporal Mayer’s racing ambitions, and he was able to fit in races around his leave, although he didn’t compete as much as he would have liked.

The damaged Lotus was replaced by a Cooper, and Tim began to achieve success in 1961. He also raced a Cooper-Monaco sportscar, acquired from fellow Pennsylvanian Roger Penske. Other members of the road-racing community the brothers mixed with included Jim Hall, Peter Revson, Hap Sharp, Walt Hangsen, Augie Pabst, Jerry Titus and Mark Donohue.

For 1962 there was a more professional approach when Tim teamed up with Revson and Ford dealer Bill Smith to run under the Rev-Em Racing banner, with Teddy running the show and their old pal Tyler now working on the cars. Tim proved the quickest of the three, as Teddy recalls: “It drove Peter mad. But they got on well.”

Tim won the SCCA FJ title that year and the prestigious James H Kimberly Cup as the club’s ‘most improved driver’.

Buoyed by success, in October he made the huge step up to grand prix racing at Watkins Glen in an ex-Penske Cooper T53, run for convenience’s sake as a works entry, although it wasn’t in reality. He qualified a respectable 12th out of 20, the fastest of a mixed bag of privateers, but his race finished early with ignition problems.

Tim ended the year by heading home his Rev-Em team-mates in the grandly titled Puerto Rico GP Junior event, but with his army service finally over his ambitions lay further afield — in early 1963 the Mayer brothers travelled to England.

“We’d been winning all these races in a Cooper, and Ken Tyrrell was running the official team at the time,” says Teddy. “He invited Tim to come over to Goodwood and show him what he could do, basically. We arrived in the middle of the biggest snowstorm I’d ever seen! It went from there very quickly.”

The 1963 season was an ultracompetitive swansong for FJ, with Denny Hulme, Peter Arundell, Frank Gardner, Mike Spence and Richard Attwood to the fore. Unfortunately the BMC engines used by Tyrrell were outclassed, and Mayer didn’t have much of a chance to shine. He won a heat at Brands, but a few fourth places were his best overall results. Nevertheless, Ken was impressed. “They got on like a house on fire,” says Teddy. “He immediately became a close friend and advisor.”

Tim had a chance to make a stronger impression in sportscars after bringing the Cooper-Monaco over. At the Guards Trophy at Brands Hatch in August he finished a fine third overall in a stellar field, behind only Penske and Roy Salvadori. Three weeks later, in the FJ race supporting the Goodwood Tourist Trophy, brake failure led to a huge crash at the chicane and Tim was out of action for a while. He saw out the year racing a Lotus 23B at Riverside and Laguna Seca.

The results may have been disappointing, but Mayer had done enough to convince John Cooper to offer him an Fl seat for 1964, alongside Bruce McLaren. “Bruce had a lot of respect for Tim,” says Alexander. “That wouldn’t have happened unless Bruce approved it. He realised that Tim was pretty damn quick.”

The deal wasn’t announced until the New Year, but as a precursor Tim agreed to team up with the Kiwi for the new Tasman Series under the Bruce McLaren Motor Racing banner. Teddy was engaged as team manager, while Alexander, who had been working for Penske and John Mecom, rejoined the Mayers to help build up a pair of special T70s in Surbiton. The beautifully prepared cars were small and light.

Tim soon made a mark in New Zealand. He led the first event at Levin, eventually finishing second to Hulme; he was third at Pukekohe, having briefly led again at the start. A throttle problem and pit stop saw him a distant eighth at Wigram, but he bounced back with another second, sitting dutifully on his team-mate’s tail, at Teretonga.

When the series moved to Australia he took fourth at Sandown, after fuel-feed problems cost him second, and was third at Warwick Farm ahead of series debutant Graham Hill. At Lakeside, where he turned 26 on the Saturday, he led ahead of Jack Brabham before retiring with engine failure. Then came the finale on the tortuous Longford road circuit in Tasmania.

“He was getting quicker and quicker in the car with more experience and more driving time,” says Teddy. “He was faster than Bruce a lot of the time, which was pretty amazing. He was quite confident, but he was well aware of the dangers. At Longford he was going very quickly early on. The track had very little protection, and if you went off you were in trouble.”

Right on the limit during Friday afternoon qualifying, Mayer landed badly after the notorious jump exiting King’s Bridge into Union Street. The car spiralled out of control and at barely abated speed struck a tree on the edge of the circuit, just before the famous Country Club Hotel. The chassis broke in two at the front of the cockpit and, thrown from the wreck, Tim had no chance of surviving the enormous impact. His body appeared unmarked, but his neck was broken. The scale of the accident was made graphically clear over the PA system, and back in the pits Teddy, Tyler and Garril feared the worst.

“I went to the hospital and a nurse came out,” Teddy recalls. “I asked, ‘How is he?’ and she said, ‘Oh, he’s very sick.’ I said, ‘Does that mean he’s alive?’ and she said, ‘No.’ To be honest, I don’t remember much after that. Obviously it was traumatic for Garril, to say the least, because they were very close.”

“To this day,” says Garril, “I wonder if Tim hit that tree because there was a group of school children near the track, watching the practice, and he did what he had to do in order to avoid them. If the children hadn’t been there, and the car could have run out into the open area beyond the hay bales, would he have survived? He always said, ‘You don’t hit trees and survive…”

Garril gave Teddy’s belongings to Longford race organiser Ron Mackinnon, who donated the clothes to charity but kept the helmet. It is now on display in a glass case in the pub opposite the crash scene, along with a memorial marker stone that used to stand in the street.

In the aftermath of the tragedy Teddy threw himself into the task of helping to get his brother’s body back home, calling in a favour from his politician uncle: William Scranton had been elected Governor of Pennsylvania the previous year and was on the verge of joining the race for the Republican presidential nomination (he would concede to sole rival Barry Goldwater later that summer). He had the Washington clout to help slice through the inevitable Aussie red tape and, with the help of the US embassy in Melbourne, a plane was made available for the first leg of the trip back to Pennsylvania.

Alexander recalls: “I can remember trying to explain to a lot of relatives who didn’t understand anything about motor racing what their nephew was doing on the other side of the world in some funny race car. It wasn’t easy.”

Once back home, Teddy had a long think about his future in motorsport. But when Bruce called up requesting his help he didn’t hesitate, and nor did Tyler.

Teddy thus never pursued the legal career he’d recently qualified for. One can only speculate about what might have happened to the McLaren organisation had he remained in charge of his brother’s career, and not been available to partner Bruce full-time and ultimately to hold things together after his death in 1970. It’s also worth noting that Ken Tyrrell’s interest in Jackie Stewart was spurred only after Tim, a man he regarded as a protégé and had lined up for an F3 programme in ’64, was killed. JYS’s famous Goodwood test took place a little over a week after the accident.

But the real question of course is what Tim might have achieved. He had not just the talent but also the solid gold connections with such as Tyrrell, McLaren and Penske — and those couldn’t have failed to help as the decade progressed.

“He was very, very quick, no question,” says Teddy. “But maybe quick too soon, as he did have a few shunts. He was a natural athlete and went quickly because he just knew how to do it.”

“He was just a very personable, likeable guy,” recalls Alexander. “I think he was bloody good. It was still pretty early, but he was competing with guys with a lot more experience. He was getting better and better with every single race in that Tasman series.”