THE RULES WERE… THERE WERE NO RULES

Can-am was a mon­strous for­mula that shone all too briefly. By David Ad­di­son

Motor Sport News - - Monsters: Can-am -

I

n an age when peo­ple are ex­cited by elec­tric, silent race cars, ob­sessed by diesel and then hy­brid tech­nol­ogy, en­ergy regeneration and even, God for­bid, driver­less cars, Can-am seems like the to­tal an­tithe­sis of mod­ern, clean, mo­tor rac­ing.

Started in 1966 the rules were sim­ple. There weren’t many. Ba­si­cally, take a sports-rac­ing car that had two seats and body­work cov­er­ing the wheels and off you go. The se­ries be­gan run­ning to FIA Group 7 reg­u­la­tions, es­sen­tially For­mula Li­bre for sports cars and with an un­lim­ited en­gine size reg­u­la­tion, turbo and su­per­charged en­gines were com­mon­place as the quest for horse­power be­gan.

The first sea­son, in 1966, be­gan at Mont Trem­blant-st Jovite in Canada in Septem­ber with a $160,000 purse on of­fer. Lola was a key player in the sports-rac­ing mar­ket and sent T70s for Hugh Di­b­ley (later to cre­ate Pal­liser rac­ing cars), John Sur­tees and Denny Hulme as the driv­ers from Europe, along with Aus­tralian Paul Hawkins in a Jackie Ep­stein-owned Mark II. Sadly, nei­ther Di­b­ley’s Smart-en­tered car, nor Hawkins, would start as the cars had taken off when crest­ing the brow of a hill in qual­i­fy­ing. Hawkins’s car had ended chas­sis-up, grind­ing the roll­bar and Hawkins’s hel­met as it slid, but Di­b­ley’s car suf­fered worse dam­age as tree stumps punc­tured its chas­sis upon land­ing.

Sur­tees won the race from Mclaren­mounted Chris Amon, who had pit­ted for a dam­aged front spoiler af­ter an ex­cur­sion. Lola won again in round two when Dan Gur­ney claimed hon­ours at Bridge­hamp­ton, with a 5.3-litre Gur­ney-wes­lake en­gine pro­pel­ling him. It wasn’t long, though, be­fore a home­grown chal­lenger ap­peared as Texan Jim Hall’s Cha­parral hit the scene and won at La­guna Seca. Hall was a good en­gi­neer and thought about the tech­ni­cal chal­lenge in dif­fer­ent ways, such as plac­ing an aero­foil up­side down to cre­ate down­force through the car’s sus­pen­sion up­rights, and the 327 cu­bic inch Chevro­let-en­gined car also had a novel two-speed trans­mis­sion. His later 2J chas­sis, the “Sucker Car”, was a real eye-opener: it had two en­gines, one a big block Chevro­let unit and a sec­ond, smaller snow­mo­bile two-stroke, twin­cylin­der en­gine that pow­ered two fans (sourced from a mil­i­tary ve­hi­cle) at the back of the car. Gor­don Mur­ray, eat your heart out. Can-am of­fi­cials chucked it out af­ter 1970, although its down­force met the equiv­a­lent of pre­vi­ous wings but with­out the drag.

Into the sec­ond sea­son, en­gines were big­ger and teams larger, too. Seven-litre Chevro­lets were be­ing shoe­horned into Lola T70s and, with the money on of­fer, win­ning in Can-am was a se­ri­ous busi­ness. Roger Penske had en­tered the se­ries in ’66 with Mark Dono­hue at the wheel of a T70, but its 5.5-litre en­gine wasn’t up to the job. A year later, Penske’s team was back with a sev­en­l­itre alu­minium en­gine, but accidents were as big as the power units. In 1967, Ge­orge Follmer had a ma­jor off at Mosport Park af­ter his T70 went light over a brow, while Dono­hue lost a wheel and bent the tub in the en­su­ing crash.

De­spite the accidents, there was a list of star names all queu­ing up to find a seat and a pay cheque. John Sur­tees was the orig­i­nal cham­pion and was fol­lowed by Bruce Mclaren who took his epony­mous M6A to the ti­tle in 1967 and an M8B to the crown in 1969, with Denny Hulme tak­ing the ti­tle in 1968 and ’70 for Mclaren. Mario An­dretti, Par­nelli Jones and Jackie Ste­wart were among those at­tracted by Can-am, as was Peter Rev­son, who won the 1971 ti­tle in the awe­some Mclaren M8F, the fi­nal year of Mclaren’s dom­i­na­tion of tak­ing five ti­tles in a row.

Bruce Mclaren him­self had been killed in June 1970, test­ing the M8D at Good­wood, but the team con­tin­ued, mo­ti­vated by Hulme, but 1971 was the last glory year for the squad. There was a big ri­val on the hori­zon and in 1972 it would con­quer.

There was an im­por­tant mar­ket for Ger­man gi­ant Porsche and that was North Amer­ica. To grab the mar­ket share it needed, it needed to win in CanAm. The se­ries had be­come known as the Bruce and Denny Show, given the suc­cess Mclaren and Hulme had en­joyed, but Porsche was look­ing closely at the mar­ket and in 1969, it sent Jo Sif­fert with the so-called 917PA across the pond. The Porsche was ef­fec­tively the old 917 with the top chopped off and, with just a 4.5-litre en­gine, was a breath­less beast. Porsche scrapped plans to con­test Can-am in 1970, busy win­ning Le Mans but also de­vel­op­ing its tur­bocharged en­gine and Can-am was the per­fect place to use the ex­tra power.

For 1971, Porsche was back, the 917/10 the car in use, but ini­tially Sif­fert raced with­out the turbo en­gine. The op­po­si­tion knew it was com­ing and heard sto­ries that Porsche was talk­ing to Penske and Dono­hue; that got them

wor­ried. For 1972, the deal was done and Penske ran Dono­hue in the 917/10 Turbo, the so-called Porsche Panzer.

Dono­hue dom­i­nated qual­i­fy­ing for the sea­son-opener at Mosport Park but, 18 laps in, ‘Cap­tain Nice’ be­came trou­bled by the throt­tle re­sponse and pit­ted. A lengthy stop dropped him down the field but Dono­hue re­cov­ered for third in a mighty dis­play. Dono­hue was in­jured in test­ing for the sec­ond round at Road Atlanta when rear body­work came loose, pitch­ing him off the road so a guest­ing Ge­orge Follmer took the car’s maiden win as Denny Hulme’s Mclaren be­came air­borne and rolled out of the race. Porsche – and Penske – had raised the bar, so much so that for the sea­son fi­nale at River­side, Mclaren would run as a works team for the fi­nal time in or­der to con­cen­trate on For­mula 1. But it wanted to go out on a high and ar­rived with a Chevro­let V8 en­gine that pumped out 800 horse­power from a 9.26-litre en­gine...

Hulme, bravely strapped to the en­gine and ac­com­pa­nied by some body­work, clocked 205mph in a straight line. Follmer’s Porsche got to 211mph. This, re­mem­ber, was 1972.

Follmer took the ti­tle in ’72 and with no works Mclarens for 1973, Porsche was ex­pected to dom­i­nate. And so it did, as the 917/30KL was un­leashed and con­trib­uted to the death of the cat­e­gory. It pro­duced 1100 horse­power in race trim and 1580 in qual­i­fy­ing mode from its 5.4-litre flat-12 turbo en­gine. Dono­hue was as much an en­gi­neer as a driver and he worked closely with Porsche to pro­duce the ul­ti­mate car. He re­called in his book The Un­fair Ad­van­tage (ISBN: 9780837600697 ) that the five-litre Porsche mo­tor could gen­er­ate 880bhp and the 5.4-litre car w as good enough for 1190bhp.

“I still can’t spin the wheels all the way down the straight­away,” he told the Porsche tech­ni­cians.

Once they had nailed the horse­power, they worked on aero­dy­nam­ics and that meant rent­ing a Mclaren, air freight­ing it to Ger­many and then Dono­hue flew over to work with the Porsche brains trust to com­pare the 917 and the Bri­tish­built car. No-one else had the bud­get; no-one else had a chance. Six of the eight races were taken by the 917/30KL with Dono­hue tak­ing the ti­tle and, with no se­ri­ous op­po­si­tion, or­gan­is­ers knew that they had a prob­lem: the Porsche needed rein­ing in.

The reg­u­la­tions were tweaked to make Can-am, that great un­lim­ited cat­e­gory, a fuel con­sump­tion class. It was blamed on the oil cri­sis. Porsche pulled out and Shadow was the only works team, with Jackie Oliver guid­ing the DN4A to the ti­tle in 1974. There was an­other prob­lem loom­ing as well: sin­gle-seater rac­ing was grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity again thanks to the in­tro­duc­tion of For­mula 5000 and that was at­tract­ing the con­struc­tors who had pre­vi­ously cham­pi­oned Can-am.

But For­mula 5000 was a brief suc­cess, only re­ally last­ing for a cou­ple of sea­sons in the US. But that oddly al­lowed a sec­ond com­ing of Can-am as the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of Can-am car was ef­fec­tively an F5000 chas­sis with wheel-cov­er­ing body­work. Af­ter two sea­sons with­out a cham­pi­onship, CanAm was re­born in 1977 with Pa­trick Tam­bay tak­ing the crown in a Lola T333cs-chevro­let, ap­pro­pri­ate as the orig­i­nal sea­son had been won by John Sur­tees in a Lola T70. Just as in the first run, Can-am found star names and many launched – or re­launched – their ca­reers: af­ter Tam­bay came Alan Jones, Jacky Ickx and Keke Ros­berg among oth­ers as the cham­pi­onship gar­nered sup­port. And just as it found a foothold, so an­other threat emerged in the suc­cess of Group C sports car rac­ing that boomed in Europe and soon found a way State­side in the form of IMSA GTP.

Can-am tried to stem the tide by in­tro­duc­ing a two-litre class but that was never what Can-am had in­tended to be. The cat­e­gory limped on through the 1980s un­til the SCCA took away the ti­tle and a sea­son as the Can-am Teams Thun­der Cars Cham­pi­onship was the fi­nal, muted, hur­rah.

At its height, Can-am was awe­some. A no-holds barred, fast-as-you-like, loudas-you-like class that de­vel­oped he­roes for the fans and a mar­ket for small con­struc­tors, from the UK and the US.

But like many a suc­cess­ful cat­e­gory since, once a man­u­fac­turer got in­volved it started to un­ravel. The PenskePorsche ef­fort was what hit hard as there was no way the smaller teams could com­pete on the fi­nan­cial scale and as the likes of Mclaren and Lola moved away, it was never the same again.

But it was great whilst it lasted! ■

Denny Hulme was a stand-out driver in Can-am Porsche’s dom­i­nance in 1973 spelled down­turn

Jackie Ste­wart was star name

John Sur­tees won races for Lola dur­ing first 1966 sea­son

Gilles Vil­leneuve tried his hand at wrestling a Wolf Cha­parral was one of an ar­ray of smaller mar­ques

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