Ge­off Brab­ham

Australian Muscle Car - - Can-An MkII - Paul Newby

Ge­off Brab­ham had a stel­lar rac­ing ca­reer in the USA, win­ning mul­ti­ple IMSA cham­pi­onships and clock­ing up 10 In­di­anapo­lis 500 starts. Else­where, he also won a 24 Hours of Le Mans and a Su­per Tour­ing Bathurst 1000, but it was his 1981 Can-Am cham­pi­onship that re­ally helped es­tab­lish him in Amer­ica.

Brab­ham, like many be­fore him, in­clud­ing his leg­endary fa­ther Sir Jack, trav­elled to Europe to chase his For­mula 1 dream. When things didn’t work out, in­stead of head­ing home he jumped over the pond to try his luck state­side.

“I came over to Amer­ica in late 1978,” Ge­off Brab­ham told AMC. “I did a cou­ple of races in Su­per Vee and then did the whole se­ries in ’79, which I won. It put me on the map and gave me my big break do­ing two Can-Am races at the end of the year for Carl Ho­gan, who had been run­ning Al Hol­bert. I was lucky enough to be of­fered the drive and it went re­ally well. I came fourth at River­side and that led to the VDS (see break­out) drive the next year.”

Brit Ge­off Lees was the VDS in­cum­bent and was con­tracted to race for the team for 1980. But Lees walked away when he sniffed a For­mula 1 drive. VDS had plumbed for the new Lola T530, a clean-sheet Can-Am model for the new sea­son, and Brab­ham tested for the team be­fore get­ting the nod.

“I was a bit worried af­ter the test as it hadn’t gone very well. The Lola wasn’t a very good car, to put it mildly. It was so bad the chas­sis cracked the first time we ran it. There was a lot of twist and move­ment. Our times weren’t flash and I was a bit con­cerned I hadn’t gone well enough to stay the whole year. But luck­ily that turned out to be a false im­pres­sion.”

Good re­sults were slow in com­ing, not helped by a colos­sal crash mid-sea­son at the Road Amer­ica course at Elkhart Lake in the Sun­day pre-race warm up. Brab­ham takes up the story:

“The cen­tre pulled out of the rear wheel at one of the fastest cor­ners and the car went back­wards into the bank and flipped and went up­side down through the trees. Luck­ily for me I landed on a small­ish tree and it low­ered me gen­tly onto the ground up­side down and I crawled out. The car was com­pletely de­mol­ished but I didn’t have a bruise or scratch. I was quite lucky. We had to go back to the T-car (a stan­dard T530) for the race which wasn’t very good and came sec­ond.”

Brab­ham would win the Road At­lanta round from pole and fin­ish sec­ond in the cham­pi­onship to French For­mula 1 refugee Pa­trick Tam­bay, who drove for afore­men­tioned, cigar-chomp­ing, Lola im­porter Carl Haas.

Into 1981 Rac­ing Team VDS (to give its of­fi­cial ti­tle) per­se­vered with the Lola T530, al­beit heav­ily mod­i­fied un­til their own car, dubbed VDS 001 came on stream mid-sea­son. This in-house de­sign was based on a Lola tub with sus­pen­sion de­signed by Trevor Har­ris (ex-Shadow Can-Am and later Nis­san) and body by Tony Ci­cale, a racer and en­gi­neer who would later work with a who’s who in CART/Indycar. In­ter­est­ingly, the bod­ies were ac­tu­ally fab­ri­cated by Aussie brothers Bob and John Mur­phy from Ade­laide.

The main com­pe­ti­tion in 1981 came from an­other F1 wannabe in the shape of Ital­ian Teo Fabi, who was re­cruited by Paul New­man’s team to race the new March 817.

The VDS 001 was a marked im­prove­ment on the Lola, but the new March was a faster car.

“We won with that car first time out at Ed­mon­ton,” re­calls Brab­ham. “It was an im­prove­ment, a lit­tle bit on the heavy side and thus we elected not to run the slid­ing skirts that every­one else did. They were a night­mare any­way as they need a full-time em­ployee look­ing af­ter these spring-loaded de­vices. In some in­stances it was an is­sue, but gen­er­ally it wasn’t.”

The rapid Fabi would qual­ify on pole for seven of the 10 races and win four com­pared to Brab­ham’s two. How­ever, Brab­ham’s more con­sis­tent plac­ings – he fin­ished on the podium a fur­ther six times – saw him clinch the se­ries at the fi­nal round, held in Las Ve­gas’s Cae­sar Palace casino carpark, where Can-Am was the main sup­port class for the F1 World Cham­pi­onship fi­nale.

“Yes, we ended up win­ning the cham­pi­onship which was pretty cool. It was re­ally sat­is­fy­ing as the op­po­si­tion had been great com­pe­ti­tion.”

De­spite win­ning the cham­pi­onship, Brab­ham lost his VDS drive for 1982, as the team signed dou­ble Can-Am cham­pion Pa­trick Tam­bay.

When Tam­bay was ush­ered into the Fer­rari F1 team fol­low­ing Gilles Vil­leneuve’s tragic death, VDS turned to sea­soned cam­paigner Al Hol­bert. Brab­ham has mixed feel­ings about how it all turned out.

“I don’t re­ally know why,” is Brab­ham’s sum­ma­tion. “The Count (team owner Rudy Van Der Straten) was a bit of a strange guy. Even though I won the cham­pi­onship, I felt he didn’t think I had won enough races. It was an odd sit­u­a­tion at the end of year. Any­way I wanted to go Indycar rac­ing, which was much big­ger than SCCA Can-Am and I had an op­por­tu­nity to go and do that.”

As it turned out, Hol­bert and the VDS team were beaten to the 1982 ti­tle by up-and-com­ing Al Unser Jnr in the Galles Rac­ing-en­tered Friss­bee, yet an­other car based on the an­cient Lola T332. Brab­ham was bought into the team for the fi­nal two rounds to run tail-gun­ner for ‘Lil Al’, net­ting a fourth at River­side but crash­ing out at La­guna Seca.

Look­ing back, how does Brab­ham re­flect on the Can-Am chap­ter of his long and il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer?

“It helped me es­tab­lish my­self in Amer­ica. Can-Am wasn’t on a par with Indycar but it was the next big thing, much big­ger than sports car rac­ing. It was the premier road rac­ing se­ries at the time. It had tremen­dous his­tory from the pre­vi­ous decade, the Bruce McLarens and the like. It was pres­ti­gious. It made it eas­ier for me to get into an Indycar as it had sim­i­lar power and grip.”

Top: Many of Ge­off Brab­ham’s US achieve­ments went largely un­no­ticed in his home coun­try. This is the en­closed-wheel VDS001 in which he sealed the 1981 ti­tle. Above: His speed in 1979’s Ho­gan HR-001 opened doors.

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