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.