Other Aussies

Australian Muscle Car - - Can-An MkII -

With two se­ries cham­pi­ons – Alan Jones and Ge­off Brab­ham – plus an­other race win­ner in the form of War­wick Brown, an Aussie or three was seem­ingly al­ways at the pointy end of the re­vamped Cana­dian-Amer­i­can Chal­lenge be­tween 1977 and 1981. In con­trast, just one New Zealan­der, Gra­ham McRae, was a reg­u­lar se­ries com­peti­tor dur­ing this time (see break­out). A flick through the re­sults sheets re­veals that a sur­pris­ing level of Aus­tralian in­volve­ment and flavour, quite apart from the afore­men­tioned trio.

Most prom­i­nent was South Aus­tralian Vern Schup­pan who, by the time he joined the CanAm scene in late 1977, had al­ready that sea­son had a hand­ful of For­mula 1 out­ings, at­tempted to qual­ify for the Indy 500, fin­ished run­ner-up at Le Mans and ran the Bathurst 1000 with Dick John­son. This fol­lowed two sea­sons in North Amer­i­can F5000 and open-wheeler com­pe­ti­tion. Schup­pan wasn’t a fan of the plan to re­work ex­ist­ing F5000 ma­chines when the new se­ries was first an­nounced. Far from it. Nev­er­the­less, he saw an op­por­tu­nity to clothe an Elfin MR8A with Can-Am body­work. With the as­sis­tance of Elfin boss Gar­rie Cooper and ex-Gur­ney me­chanic Billy Box they con­verted Schup­pan’s cur­rent F5000 Elfin into the MR8A-C and sent it over to the States in time for the ’77 fi­nale at River­side, ahead of a full sea­son in ’78. He showed the Elfin’s po­ten­tial by qual­i­fy­ing ninth in a 34-car field at River­side, but re­tired late race with body dam­age. “It was okay,” was Schup­pan’s sum­ma­tion of the Elfin Can-Am racer. It wasn’t strong enough nor was it light enough. We broke the rear-sus­pen­sion at Char­lotte. K&A Engi­neer­ing in Ade­laide de­signed new sus­pen­sion and I had a lighter fi­bre­glass body built. Still we were not as fast as the Lola.” In 13 starts be­tween 1977 and 1979, the best re­sults were a third place at Watkins Glen and a cou­ple of fifths. This would not be the end of Schup­pan’s Can-Am ad­ven­tures though, as he sought an up-to-date ground ef­fects car in a bid to chal­lenge for race wins.

“I bought two McLaren M26 F1 cars off (boss) Teddy Mayer and the plan was to get my old Kiwi friend How­den Gan­ley of Tiga Cars to con­vert them to Can-Am spec­i­fi­ca­tion. It was a ma­jor job and in the end we started from scratch with a pur­pose built Tiga CA80 and on­sold the McLarens to Alan Hamil­ton for Al­fie Costanzo to use in F5000.”

The Tiga did the two Cal­i­for­nian races at the end of the 1980 Can-Am sea­son with­out dis­tinc­tion.

“It was quite quick at La­guna Seca but we had en­gine throt­tle is­sues on the VDS Chev en­gines we were us­ing. It lacked power. Af­ter River­side VDS tested the car at Wil­low Springs and de­cided against con­tin­u­ing the pro­gram into 1981. I wasn’t keen on con­tin­u­ing to fund the pro­gram my­self so we parked it.”

An­other leg­endary fig­ure of the Aus­tralian F5000 scene, John McCor­mack, kept an eye on his coun­try­men’s ef­forts State­side and headed across the Pa­cific in 1979 in “an at­tempt to get some­thing hap­pen­ing in rac­ing over there.

“I put a body on my McLaren (F5000 car) and took it to Amer­ica, just as a probe, to see if I could run there in the Can-Am se­ries or pick up a drive in a ‘roundy-roundy’ (ie: Indycar) se­ries and see

out my days there,” McCor­mack told AMC for a Muscle Man pro­file in is­sue #42. “But Can-Am was lit­tle dif­fer­ent to rac­ing in Aus­tralia. In fact, it had less direct trade sup­port. The $100,000 prize purse per race was cer­tainly bet­ter and there were half-a-dozen wealthy guys, who brought in the likes of Alan Jones, Jacky Ickx and Keke Ros­berg to drive their cars. The rest of the blokes were a bit like us in Aus­tralia – plenty of en­thu­si­asm, but not much money.

“Noth­ing fell into my lap and, with hind­sight, per­haps I should have paid some money and bought a drive. But since I had al­ways run my own cars, I chose to con­vert my McLaren.”

Twelfth at Watkins Glen, in Up­state New York, was McCor­mack’s best re­sult.

More suc­cess­ful was Aus­trian-born but Cooma, NSW-raised Horst Kwech, who had raced for the famed Shelby Amer­i­can team in Trans-Am in the late 1960s. Kwech posted some gi­ant-killing CanAm per­for­mances dur­ing his oc­ca­sional out­ings in 1982 in a un­der two-litre class Ralt RT2, in­clud­ing fifth out­right at La­guna Seca.

“Bobby Ra­hal had a Can-Am car for sale and friend of mine told me he would buy the car for me and my com­pany, Ausca In­ter­na­tional, would main­tain it. ‘I’ll do one race and you do the next’, he said. “I did that for a lit­tle while be­fore I told him I couldn’t work that way. It had to be full-time, with no swap­ping cars or I wasn’t in­ter­ested.

“Then the Tole­man team was sell­ing its F2 cars. So my friend, Ed­die Wachs, bought the whole team and had to put the sports car body­work on it, de­signed by Frank Dernie (from Wil­liams). Took a while, but the car had po­ten­tial, the Hart en­gine had a lot of power.

“Ed­die Wachs owned the team – we didn’t want for any­thing – two race­cars, trans­porter, spares, etc. First race in Las Ve­gas, I qual­i­fied on the U2L pole, was rac­ing in fourth out­right, when I was taken out go­ing for third by a big­ger car and went into the fence! I’m out of the car, but it is still on the track when my team­mate runs into it – two wrecked cars! And he blamed me for the ac­ci­dent.”

Arnold Glass, of Capi­tol Mo­tors and do­mes­tic rac­ing fame, also made a one-off ap­pear­ance in 1982 in Co­bra-March 811 at Trois-Rivieres.

Fi­nally, it would be re­miss of us not to men­tion Amer­i­can El­liott Forbes-Robin­son, a mul­ti­ple Can-Am race win­ner. EFR con­sid­ered him­self ‘half-Aussie’, as his mother was an Aus­tralian­born war bride who fol­lowed her US ser­vice­man hus­band back to the USA af­ter World War II. That be­ing the case, Au­gust 20, 1978 is some­thing of an un­her­alded date in the sto­ried his­tory of Aus­tralians on the world motorsport stage. That’s the day 3.5 Aussie fin­ished in the top six at Mosport, Canada – Jones first, Brown sec­ond, El­liott Forbes-Robin­son fourth and Schup­pan sixth.

Main: Vern Schup­pan (#11) did the fi­nal two races of 1980 in a Tiga CA80. Above: John McCor­mack (#28) had a crack in his re­bod­ied McLaren, which sported a very dif­fer­ent look to other chas­sis.

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