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.