September 11 1966 is a day to remember for sportscar racing fans across the globe. It is the day of Can-Am’s (that is the Canadian-American Challenge Cup for unrestricted Group 7 sports racers) first race at the glorious Mont Tremblant in Canada and now, 50 years later, people are still buzzing when they hear someone mentioning that era with its insane machines manhandled by some of the sport’s all-time best drivers.
Set out to become the world’s greatest racing formula, the Canadian-American Challenge Cup, or simply Can-Am, could be described as a fan’s ultimate championship: the fastest cars, with the wildest designs being raced hard on some of the best road courses by some of the most daring drivers. It worked well but, as we all know great things don’t last – and neither did the Can-Am as it was killed off by the oil crisis of the mid ‘70s.
Yes, it did re-emerge in the late ‘70s but the re-bodied F5000 cars were weird monstrosities compared to the originals and nobody really fancied with the idea as it slowly died away by the mid ‘80s.
Can-Am was born from the USRRC, United States Road Racing Championship, which promoted a top tier class for exotic, open top, sports cars that lacked the equipment of similar machinery in the World Endurance Championship. These unearthly-looking roadsters quickly caught the imagination of fans who drooled over the curvaceous bodies of the early Chaparral 2, the King Cobra or the mighty McLarens built by Elva Cars. Such was the interest that the CASC, Canadian Automobile Sports Club, thought to organize, along with the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) a new series solely dedicated to these special roadsters that were soon recognized by the FIA under a new class: Class 7 (or Group 7). Looking at other cars, the 1969-1971 5.0-liter prototypes are known as Group 5 cars, while lower GT cars were known as Group 3 cars or, later, Group 4. Thus, Group 7 was the top tier in FIA-affiliated covered-wheel racing.
These cars were built following only a minimal set of rules that included the following: the wheels must be covered by bodywork, there must be two seats inside the cockpit, a rule that dated back to the USRRC days that was somewhat broken by Roger Penske’s Zerex Special, and some basic security standards must be met…. And that was it! Engine capacity was unlimited, weight was also not regulated and aero updates were anyone’s game. It was basically an “Excess free” formula – the only of its kind if we exclude the strange Formula Libre where you could race whatever you had – from open wheelers to sports cars and GTs.
The first season of the joint CASC/SCCA Can-Am was held in late 1966. The idea was that if the series would be held towards the end of the racing season more top drivers could attend as they’d, by then, finished their other commitments. Another way in which the promoters looked to attract teams and drivers was by offering generous prizes in cash – the biggest sums in all of motorsport at the time. (for example, John Surtees, who won the inaugural season in his own Lola, left much richer than he had back in 1964 when he won the F1 World Driver’s Title)
The biggest innovation seen in 1966, a season when Ford scored its first and sole victory thanks to Dan Gurney and his Ford-powered AAR T70 was the suspension-mounted high wing which was brought forward by Chaparral with the 2E. The Jim Hall-owned squad from Texas managed to win only once – at Laguna Seca – which would also prove, strangely enough, to be their sole win until 1970 when the team left the series amid controversy concerning the equally innovative 2J.
Bruce McLaren’s team, which ran the ageing M1, could not match the Lolas and thus started developing early the new car for 1967 which would storm the establishment. The storm was so strong in fact that McLaren took the title 5 times consecutively, but the racing never ceased to amaze in spite of the Papaya Orange dominance.
Between ’67 and ’71, many more challengers sought to end McLaren’s reign but not even Bruce’s death, which occurred while testing the M8D at Goodwood in 1970 could stop the squad which later hit it big in Formula One. Some cars should be mentioned, such as Chaparral’s failed 2J which should have been the world’s first full-monocoque design. Also, Chaparral brought the 2J fan-car for 1970 which proved massively quick in qualifying but also terribly unreliable in the race. Sadly, lobbying done by McLaren, who feared that if Jim Hall’s team would be given time to develop the 2J they’d steal the show – just as they had done in the past 4 seasons, meant that the 2J was banned from competing by the SCCA and with it went Hall and his marvelous machines. Lola also kept coming with new designs but only 1971’s T260 was a worthy contender in the hands of Jackie Stewart – but it still lost the title to McLaren’s ultra-quick Peter Revson. The McLaren era was usually nicknamed “The Bruce-and-Denny Show’’ due to the fact that the two McLaren drivers were usually at the sharp end of the field.
In fact Can-Am was stage of some of the best clashes between US and International drivers from the ranks of Sports Cars, Grand Prix, Indy and NASCAR: John Surtees, Parnelli Jones, Jim Hall, Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme, Peter Revson, George Follmer, Mark Donahue, Jackie Oliver, Mario Andretti, Jackie Stewart, Dan Gurney, Vic Elford, Jody Schecter, Jack Brabham, Sam Posey, Bud Tinglestad, A.J. Foyt, and on and on.
Porsche joined the ball in 1969 with the Vasek Polak-prepped 917PA which earned Jo Siffert a few podium positions. Later on, in 1971, the 917/10 appeared with radical aerodynamics but it still was not quick enough and would come shy off a few wins. Finally, Ferrari also tried the water with a few designs – some beautiful like 1968’s 350P and the follow-up, the 612P – and some not very much like the boxy 712P. Don Nichols’ Shadows also appeared on the map in 1970 and they kept getting better and better – earning a turbo for 1973’s DN2 – and the title in 1974.
Finally, Porsche built a proper car in 1972. It was called 917/10-TC which meant that the profoundly redesigned car was now benefitting from turbocharging – which was allowed since the beginning but nobody had yet experienced with it. The 917/10-TC, which was run by Roger Penske for George Follmer and Mark Donohue proved enormously fast and won the title clearly ahead of the McLaren M20 – the last of its species. Follmer was crowned champion after Donohue had to miss most of the season due to an injury. The previous champions were – in chronological order: Surtees in 1966, McLaren in 1967, Hulme in 1968, McLaren in 1969, Hulme in 1970 and Revson in 1971.
After 1972, Porsche returned with the even more powerful (some say 1500hp in qualifying spec) 917/30 for Mark Donohue. Penske planned a second entry for Follmer but the money were not enough to fund two cars. Armed with this car Donohue won most races, missing out on some due to technical problems and crashes. The second-best car that season was David Hobbs’ private M20.
At the end of 1973, serious mileage rules were introduced which meant the thirsty Porsche turbo flat 12 engines were basically outlawed. Thus, the Stuttgart-based marque left the series as did other turbo-powered privateers leaving the Shadow DN4 to dominate in the final season that was cut short due to lack of entries. That was the official and unceremonious demise of the original Can Am – a series like no other that still excites the minds of fans all over to this day.
Photo credits: Terry Roy, Pete Lyons, Duke Manor, David Nadig, Gary Brauch, Mike Hewitt