Can-Am MkII: Overview
Reborn for the It’s 40 years since Can-Am was Am MkII lacked 1977 racing season. While Can- original, it does the impact and grandeur of the hold more significance for Australians.
It’s 40 years since Can-Am was reborn for the 1977 North American racing season. While Can-Am MkII lacked the impact and grandeur of the original no-holds-barred series, it does hold more significance for Australians.
The sequel is rarely as good as the original and the best follow-ups are invariably those with their own distinct identity. Such was the case with the second coming of Can-Am. The Canadian-American Challenge Cup, the blockbuster of 1966-1974, was critically acclaimed at the time and increasingly treasured as time goes by. This biggest of Big Banger racing categories was a wild affair with few rules. It’s viewed through modern eyes as the zenith of motorsport innovation and spectacle.
Can-Am MkII, the 1977-1986 single-seater era, never reached the same lofty heights as the earlier two-seater period. Nonetheless, it deserves space in the racing history books, particularly those covering the achievements of Australians on the world motorsport stage.
Second-generation Can-Am, the CanadianAmerican Challenge to give it its full name (note no ‘Cup’ at the end), was resurrected little more than two years on from the final season of its forerunner.
When the original ran out of steam, Formula 5000 had inadvertently become the Sports Car Club of America’s premier series. Grids of the stock-block five-litre open-wheelers were healthy in 1975 and ‘76 and the racing often fierce between star drivers and willing newcomers. But two key things ultimately worked against F5000 in the United States.
Firstly, it was run by an organisation with little affinity for ‘formula cars’. After all, a sports car club wants to run races for sports cars. Secondly, spectator turnouts at F5000 events were far lower than the track promoters enjoyed in the late sixties and early seventies during Can-Am’s peak. The tracks didn’t want F5000 and made their dissatisfaction clear to the SCCA.
Of course, the F5000 car owners, constructors and their agents, like Lola’s North American distributor Carl Haas, weren’t about to make 30plus cars redundant overnight. So what to do?
It was SCCA chief Burdette ‘Burdie’ Martin who came up with the solution, presenting it to Haas over dinner during a race weekend in 1976, as he explained to Motor Sport magazine.
“I had taken our supplementary regulations with a drawing of a F5000 on the front and scribbled some fenders over the wheels. Eric Broadley from Lola was with us. He didn’t understand why people didn’t like 5000 and couldn’t really see the point, but he said it wouldn’t be a problem to do it.”
Haas could see the point running rebodied F5000 cars and was keen if his team’s sponsor, First National City Travellers Checks, greenlighted the concept. This was especially important as FNCTC parent company Citibank had agreed to lend its name to the entire championship. “They were sold on the idea of 5000,” says Martin, “but when we started talking about Can-Am they got even more excited. Can-Am had such a great name and still had a great reputation.”
Once the track operators, with memories of the massive crowds that Can-Am attracted fresh in their minds, came onboard the major task was to persuade the other existing teams to invest in revamping their cars. Many weren’t convinced and floated away or stood back and waited to see what happened. Drivers, too, particularly those seeking to use F5000 as a springboard to Formula 1 or success at Indy, weren’t sold on the idea. One of these was South Australian Vern Schuppan:
“We were pretty shocked. The logic was that changing to Can-Am would bring back the glory days. But it was pie in the sky. They wrecked a fantastic series,” Schuppan told AMC.
The new era of Can-Am made an unsettling start at St Jovite, Canada in June, 1977, when a motley selection of 18 cars fronted. This included a couple of original Can-Am machines fitted with five-litre V8s and seven two-litre Group Six sportscars. The field was less than half the 37-strong entry that contested the 1976 F5000 finale less than a year earlier.
The grid shrunk by one when Brian Redman’s Lola T333CS flew into the air during practice. He was on top of the timesheets before the crash and had called into the pits to make adjustments during this first day in the new car.
“I said [to the crew], ‘take a quarter-inch off the front wing and make it lower’ and then the very next lap, I went off and straight up into the air on
the main straight. I came back upside down and I broke my leg, smashed my left shoulder, smashed my breastbone and my ribs and I just took an almighty tremendous battering [ED: Redman was unconscious for four days]. And so for months, I hung around in the garden and I couldn’t think of anything.”
He would not return to race Can-Am, save for a cameo 16 months later.
Elliott Forbes-Robinson’s T333CS also took off at St Jovite, but his car landed on its wheels and was repaired in time for the race.
The class of that somewhat shambolic maiden race was the futuristic-looking Lola-T332-based Schkee (pronounced sha-kee). The all-enveloping bodywork looked like something designed by cartoon spaceman George Jetson, but it proved highly effective in the new series’ earliest events. Main: 1981 champ Geoff Brabham (#3) secured the title with third place in Caesar’s Palace carpark. Danny Sullivan (#4) won that race. Right: Jacky Ickx leads AJ in ’79. Below: Schuppan’s rebodied Elfin (#11).
It was driven to victory from pole-position by American Tom Klausler and Can-Am organisers were, ahem, over the moon that an ownerdriver who had embraced the new concept had emerged victorious first-up.
With sportscar-style bodywork on a F5000derived chassis making for an inherently unstable package, it was probably a good thing that other constructors didn’t rush their F5000 conversions. Momentum slowly grew over that first season and by the Riverside’s October finale no less than 34 cars came under starter’s orders.
The Schkee’s days at the front of the field would not last long. By season’s end Klausler was a midfielder. The Carl Haas/Jim Hall-led team quickly put Redman’s crash behind them and regrouped. Frenchman Patrick Tambay was hired in time for round three, winning on debut. The F1 newcomer was beaten only once, by Peter Gethin, in the six events he did and won the inaugural title. This was the first of the team’s four consecutive championships, for a succession of drivers with F1 pedigree.
Tambay was replaced at Haas by Alan Jones for 1978 (see following story), who in turn was succeeded by Jacky Ickx, who departed as champ for the returning Tambay for 1980.
It wasn’t until Racing Team VDS’s Geoff Brabham’s 1981 title that another squad won the series, in a Lola T530 – which was updated to the VDS001 by season’s end.
This year is considered the series’ highwater mark. Overall sponsorship came from Budweiser and the field comprised several teams and drivers that would become familiar to Australians who followed the IndyCar World Series in the early 1990s. The list included Paul Newman Racing’s Teo Fabi and Bobby Rahal (March 817s), Danny Sullivan and Jeff Wood, the latter not able to give Haas a fifth consecutive title.
Twenty-year-old Al Unser Jnr was champ in 1982 in Galles Racing’s Frisbee GR33, another Lola-based machine. By this stage Can-Am MkII had, to use the Happy Days idiom, ‘jumped the shark’.
The steady slide into oblivion was in direct proportion to the growth of the CART IndyCar series in the early eighties. Teams and drivers steadily made the switch and Can-Am effectively became a training ground for America’s prime open-wheel championship.
Just as significantly, several major track owners ditched their Can-Am fixtures in favour of IndyCar events.
Danny Sullivan told Motor Sport that CART moved with the times and did a better job in offering what professional teams needed most by that time.
“Can-Am had the big sponsors, we raced at all the big tracks and we had all the big names doing
While CanAm’s second coming lacked the grandeur of the original, it did provide closer racing.
it, but no one turned it into something. The SCCA didn’t do anything about getting a decent TV package. CART did, and it also had the Indy 500.”
Jacques Villeneuve Snr and Michael Roe were the 1983 and ‘84 champs, before the series effectively became club-level competition.
While Can-Am’s second coming lacked the grandeur of the original, it did provide closer racing. To return to our movie analogy, the first had the bigger names and better special effects, but the second had the better plot.
As to the stars of the show, while Australians were extras in the prequel, they held leading roles in Can-Am MkII. No Aussie won a race in the twoseater period, whereas no fewer than three visited victory lane second time around, as we will explore over the following pages.
Two of those drivers, Jones and Warwick Brown, made a big impression on American scene in 1978, as Brown explained to AMC.
“Alan and I were having trouble with the slower cars, every race we were being taken out by lapped cars. So we went to the drivers’ briefing [at one event] and took a baseball bat, trying to impress upon these guys, to scare them, ‘Look, just stay on your line and we’ll find a way around you. We took the bat to try and get the point across.”
One way or another, the Australians made their presence felt in Canadian-American Challenge 2 and a big part of the sequel’s distinct identity.
The futuristic-looking Schkee was an unlikely winner of the reborn series’ first round. n ki m i S ry ar G
Main: The early ’80s Frissbees weren’t the prettiest of machines, but proved highly effective in the right hands – John Morton (#46) less so, ‘Lil Al’ more so. Centre: Geoff Brabham drove both VDS001 (left) and Lola T530 chassis in 1981. Bottom strip: While Can-Am MkII lacked its predecessor’s open rulebook, bodywork design varied wildly and led to some weird and wonderful looks.