A June morning. France 1959. Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori have driven an Aston Martin DBR1 to first place in that centerpiece of the sports car world, the Le Mans 24-hour race. For the Aston Martin Company and its race team, winning a Le Mans is the climax of 10 years of hard labor. Now David Brown, head of the industrial conglomerate of which Aston Martin is a small but vital part, flies over the 8.38-mile circuit on the way to London in his twin-engined de Havilland Dove, looks down at the debris left by the race and its 300,000 spectators and expresses one side of the love-hate emotion that so many in it have for Le Mans.
"Thank God," he says. "Thank God I don't have to come back to this damn place again."
Seated in the plane with Brown is John Wyer, a shy, intense Englishman who has been Aston Martin's racing manager during those 10 years and is now the firm's general manager as well. "I guess that means I won't be coming back, either," Wyer thinks to himself, but he is not exactly upset at the prospect. "Now I can stop playing with motor cars and get on to something more serious."
A decade of broken resolutions later John Wyer is still playing with cars. No longer is he merely an able team manager, he is the reigning wizard of Le Mans. And not because he frightened people with fast cars the way Ferrari used to. He clobbered them with antiques. His victories in 1968 and last year were won with the same aged Ford GT40—an obsolete car in among the swifties from Porsche and Matra. Wyer emerged as a man who could keep his cars together when all about him were losing theirs to the intoxication of speed, and next week his tall, slightly stooped figure, his sparse, straight, black hair and haggard face will be visible at the season-opening Daytona 24-hour race, in the pits of—ah, so—Porsche.
Tired of facing life against him, Porsche has hired him. Wyer, therefore, will be campaigning a powerful new Porsche 917, a racer capable of 225 mph flat out and already proved at record lap speeds on the track at Daytona. The enemy: Ferrari, returning to endurance racing with a new five-liter projectile called the 512. The favorite: Porsche and John Leonard Wyer.
"In a different age John might have been a General Montgomery, a man he admires tremendously," says Pieta Wyer, his wife of 28 years. "He enjoys motor racing as a strategic exercise. Everything down to the smallest detail is carefully planned out. Even in his personal life he has a great capacity for minute detail and an abhorrence of imperfection in others."
After an endorsement like this you might expect Mrs. Wyer to conclude, "but I love him anyway." However, the seemingly cold, implacable side of Wyer's personality is tempered by a quiet sense of humor and an ability to take bold, precipitous action when the situation seems to call for it. Though he married Pieta 4½ years after being introduced to her in the lobby of London's Piccadilly Hotel, Wyer proposed marriage that first evening.
"It doesn't seem like him, does it?" asks Pieta. "He really is extraordinarily shy. But I was drawn to him because he was also so exceedingly intelligent and had such a fine sense of humor. We had drinks, dinner and more drinks. It seemed an absolutely hilarious evening."
At that time, in 1936, Wyer worked for Solex, Ltd., the international carburetor cartel headquartered in Paris. But ever since childhood, when Wyer read automotive books and magazines instead of playing games, motor sports has been his strongest passion. It was a passion he was not able to indulge until he was 36. A touch of tuberculosis and being in an essential industry kept Wyer out of military service during World War II but, like everyone else in war-saturated Britain, he worked hard at his job, and by V-E day was wrung out physically and spiritually. He was ripe to take part in what could be described as the mid-'40s' version of doing one's own thing.
"There had been a Depression and then a war," Wyer said recently, "and we all felt that since we hadn't been able to do the things we enjoyed doing for such a helluva long time, we were going to start right then before we got too old and it was too late."