Warwick Brown was a Formula 5000 frontrunner in the early to mid 1970s in both his native country and in the United States. So it stands to reason he would be competitive in the rebodied F5000 machines of the re-born Canadian-American Challenge when he landed a deal with the crack Racing Team VDS.
The word ‘competitive’, though, really doesn’t do Brown’s 1978 Can-Am season justice, given he finished runner-up to Alan Jones at the peak of the soon-to-be World Champion’s powers.
The Sydney-born ace finished on the podium in eight of the 10 rounds including victory at Watkins Glen and five consecutive second places to finish the season. In doing so he took the series down the wire at a dramatic season-finale at Riverside in California.
Brown first raced in the United States in 1974 in the SCCA/USAC Formula 5000 Championship, backed by his early career patron Pat Burke and employing the expertise of engineering guru Peter Molloy. Brown’s competitiveness in US F5000 over the two subsequent seasons gave him his big break: a deal with VDS, the megateam owned by Stella Artois beer magnate, Count Rudi van der Straten.
VDS had been getting nowhere with the new Lola T430. Brown was given a kind of audition race and impressed enough for VDS to replace Teddy Pilette with the Australian. It was the start of an incredibly successful partnership in the US and Australia.
Lola had evolved its T332 F5000 chassis into the T333CS with bodywork.
“They were actually faster than Formula 5000, but there were aero issues with the bodywork,” recalls Brown with a degree of understatement.
He says those issues developing the new bodies meant VDS had just one car for the 1977 Can-Am Challenge opener.
“So [teammate Peter] Gethin and I flipped a coin to see who would drive. He won the toss.”
Just like the first era of Can-Am, Canada’s St Jovite circuit hosted the first round of the re-born series. And just like at the 1966 opener, there were inductees into the Can-Am Flying Club.
“St Jovite was very undulating with lots of hills, and that weekend three drivers flipped their cars going over hills. All 333CSs. First to go was [Brian] Redman – he nearly ended up a paraplegic out of it – then Elliot Forbes-Robinson and I can’t remember the third.
“So the second race comes along, and we’re all asking Lola – have these things been thoroughly tested? And they’re saying ‘yeah, of course’. They weren’t.
“We go to Laguna Seca; I loved Laguna Seca – just like Bathurst – and we’re there on the Friday, two seconds under the lap record. How easy is this? But then, the first time I ever tried to go flat out over the rise past the start-finish, the front went up – 60 degrees. Ran into the bank on the outside, bounced back onto the road and it’s just a sea of dust. The next guy behind came over the hill and takes pot luck which side to go, guesses wrong and hits me amidships. “I had smashed my ankles up and I was out for about eight weeks.” This put paid to Brown’s Can-Am season, but far from being demoralised he bounced back impressively the next year to make ’78 a battle between two Aussies.
“Alan was one of the toughest guys I ever raced against. We’d go and have a drink together, but put us in a car and we’d cut each other’s throats. But he was fair; we never had an issue with each other. He beat me more than I beat him, but going into Riverside’s finale that year we were virtually tied on points. I had the biggest disagreement with the old man (van der Straten) over that race. I’d always had two cars at my disposal – and Alan had two with his team – but for that last race the old man decided to put Geoff Lees in my spare car, when everything depends on it.
“Alan and I were on the front row. He won the start, but after a while I could see I was forcing him to do things he didn’t want to do, and I knew I was going to win this race, and win the Can Am – I just knew it.
“About 15 laps in I go for the brakes and the pedal hits the floor. I spun off but got going, managed to pump up the pedal and finished second. Alan won the race and the Can Am. An o-ring had failed in the master cylinder. That hurt. If I’d had my time over again I’d have loved for that not to have happened.”
When was another time Aussies finished champion and runner-up in a major international series, as AJ and Warwick Brown (seen in that order bottom left) did in ’78? It wasn’t all smooth sailing for WB in Can-Am though.