Can-Am MkII: The Aussies

Australian Muscle Car - - Contents -

While the orig­i­nal Can-Am in 1966-1974 was dom­i­nated by Ki­wis and lightly spiced by Aus­tralians, the shoe was on the other foot for the se­ries’ sec­ond com­ing from 1977. Alan Jones, Ge­off Brab­ham and War­wick Brown all starred. And a sur­pris­ing num­ber of other Aussies had a dab­ble.

While the orig­i­nal Cana­dian-Amer­i­can Chal­lenge Cup,1966-1974, was dom­i­nated by New Zealan­ders and lightly spiced by a quar­tet of Aus­tralians, the shoe was on the other foot for the se­ries’ sec­ond com­ing from 1977. Alan Jones, Ge­off Brab­ham and War­wick Brown all starred, with sev­eral oth­ers pro­vid­ing back-up.

Jones scored his first ma­jor ti­tle with the 1978 Can-Am Chal­lenge but has al­ways played it down as lit­tle more than an op­por­tu­nity to make a buck with min­i­mal stress. Or, in AJ-speak, “cruise and col­lect.” That the gritty Aussie and his semi­works Lola-Chev T333CS were the class of the field is be­yond con­tra­dic­tion – nine pole po­si­tions from as many at­tempts, and by large mar­gins, set­tles that ar­gu­ment – but it turned out to be a big­ger bat­tle than AJ ex­pected. The ti­tle was not de­cided un­til the very last race.

Join­ing the then strug­gling Wil­liams F1 team for ’78 seemed risky, but the deal with US Lola im­porter Carl Haas to drive his Citi­corp-backed car, raced to vic­tory the pre­vi­ous year by Pa­trick Tam­bay, was a solid-gold en­dorse­ment of AJ’s ris­ing rep­u­ta­tion. Jones won his first grand prix in 1977 in Aus­tria for the Shadow team, dove­tail­ing F1 with a hand­ful of starts for Don Nichols’ squad in the sin­gle-seater sports car cat­e­gory’s in­au­gu­ral sea­son. But the Dodge-pow­ered Shad­ows’ lack of pace and re­li­a­bil­ity masked his sub­lime driv­ing skills. Lit­tle won­der he jumped ship to join the reign­ing champs at Haas as Tam­bay’s re­place­ment.

1978 would be a busy year for AJ. The eter­nal hustler ran the 16-round World Cham­pi­onship with races ev­ery sec­ond week­end and the lu­cra­tive 10-round Can-Am with races on al­ter­nate week­ends, plus plenty of test­ing in be­tween for Wil­liams and tyre sup­plier Goodyear.

“I’d do F1 one week­end, then go test­ing for Frank in the week, then fly to Amer­ica for the next week­end’s Can-Am,” Alan Jones re­called in Bri­tish mag­a­zine Mo­tor Sport. “But Carl had a good set-up and it was pretty much C&C – cruise and col­lect.

“The boss of Citi­corp couldn’t be­lieve I com­muted from Eng­land for each race and he said to Carl, ‘This boy has to fly Con­corde’. ‘Good idea,’ says Carl, ‘if you want to pay for it.’ So he did. The Con­corde lounge at Heathrow gave you free in­ter­na­tional calls, so I’d camp out­side the door wait­ing for it to open like it was a Har­rods sale, to get all my phone calls done on the house.”

Wil­liams was not only con­cerned about AJ’s work­load, but the risk of rac­ing on rudi­men­tary North Amer­i­can cir­cuits. The team’s tech­ni­cal chief Pa­trick Head later said that Jones promised he’d take it easy as he headed off to the races, “but I knew for sure that once strapped into that car he’d give it ab­so­lutely every­thing he’s got. It’s the only way he knows…”

And so it proved. Jones headed off to Road At­lanta for 1978’s open­ing round and took pole by a whop­ping 1.4 sec­onds from fel­low Aussie War­wick Brown (VDS Lola), self-pro­claimed ‘half-Aussie’ El­liot Forbes-Robin­son (Lola-based Spy­der), Amer­i­can Al Hol­bert (Lola) and South Aus­tralian Vern Schup­pan in his con­verted Elfin MR8 For­mula 5000 car. No won­der that by the end of the year the se­ries would be known as ‘For­mula Aussie’!

Jones won that race by 36 sec­onds. AJ re­cov­ered from a high-speed tyre blowout on the bank­ing at Char­lotte to fin­ish sec­ond af­ter lead­ing com­fort­ably, and won the third round at Mid-Ohio, lead­ing ev­ery lap from pole. These dom­i­nant per­for­mances put him com­fort­ably at the top of the points (and money) ta­bles. But then he ran into “a bit of bad luck” that de­railed his ti­tle charge. De­spite an­other string of blaz­ing poles, Jones clipped a kerb and dam­aged his sus­pen­sion while lead­ing com­fort­ably at St Jovite – “Brain fade, driv­ing like an old lady all day,” he ad­mit­ted – fin­ished out of the points af­ter blowing a wa­ter hose at Watkins Glen, and placed only third at Trois-Rivieres with a bent gear se­lec­tor that pre­vented him from chang­ing gears.

In be­tween, he’d scored two more vic­to­ries at Road Amer­ica and Mosport, but Brown in his VDS-run Lola had be­come a model of

This page: AJ might con­sider the ’78 Can-Am sea­son a case of “cruise and col­lect” but, as the im­ages above show, that year’s champ was still hav­ing one very big go.

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