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.

Australian Muscle Car - - Contents -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.