THE RULES WERE… THERE WERE NO RULES
Can-am was a monstrous formula that shone all too briefly. By David Addison
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! ■