Can-Am: When dinosaurs ruled the earth…

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Can-Am.

Two words that evoke a golden age of unrestrained power and speed.   Quite possibly the high water mark of sports car racing in North America, a series that reached its peak from 1967 to 1972, before imploding under its own weight and spiraling costs.

In its heyday, Can-Am cars were the Tyrannosaurus Rex of the racing world: the biggest, baddest top level predators on earth.  No restrictions on engine displacement, no chassis rules, and none of the silly spec racing that plagues the world today.  Fat rear tires and outrageous aerodynamics.  McLaren, Lola, Chaparral, and Porsche battling for honors at legendary circuits like Mosport, Laguna Seca, Elkhart Lake and Watkins Glen.  All of the best drivers: McLaren, Surtees, Hill, Hulme, Gurney, Follmer, Fittipaldi, Stewart, and more. Make no mistake: these cars were beasts, difficult to handle even in the hands of the world’s best.

The series began as an opportunity to race under FIA Group 7 rules, an “open” formula for sports cars that did not require homologation.  The money was good in North America, and many F1 stars flew from Europe to the United States between grand prix commitments. The first season was just six races, and F1 world champion John Surtees won the title in a Lola T-70.  The races weren’t endurance contests, as Group 7 rules were not designed for long-distance racing.

In that first season, Lola ruled the roost with its revered T70.  And it was a great choice, winning the first championship before McLaren came along with the revolutionary M6; i.e.,  the car that changed everything.

Stuffed with powerful Chevrolet engines (like the 1968 M6B, above), McLaren dominated the series for four years, until founder Bruce McLaren died in 1970.  In 1972 Porsche – with the 917 excluded from Le Mans – waged an assault on Can-Am led by Roger Penske and his 917 open-top coupe.  Mark Donohue won the championship in Penske’s distinctive blue and gold Porsche.

Shadow appeared in 1971, winning the title in 1974 with the distinctive DN4.  But the end was near; an oil crisis, lopsided competition, and rising costs doomed Can-Am version 1.0.  Shadow’s title ended the first era, although the series survived officially until 1987.  The legend lives on today, in historic races like the Sonoma Historic Motorsports Festival, where all of these cars are raced with vigor.  They serve as a reminder of a lost era in sports car racing.

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Lola won the first Can-Am championship in 1966, with 1964 F1 champion John Surtees at the wheel of a T-70 Mk II. Compare the modest designs of the T-70 with the bigger and bolder M6B (above) that appeared just two years later.

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The McLaren M6B was Bruce Laren’s first all-monocoque sports car.

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Lola soldiered on, despite McLaren’s runaway success after 1967.  The best result for the 1969 T-163 (below) was a second place at Riverside.  It finished third in the championship to McLaren.

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Close-up of the 1967 Lola T-70:

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For 1968, McLaren moved on from the M6 and began working on the M8. The example below is a 1969 M8C.

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Lola T-160, raced by Sam Posey, Swede Savage and Dan Gurney in 1968 (from the 2013 CSRG Season Opener).

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Spencer Trenery won the Can-Am group at the 2014 Sonoma Historics in a 1970 McLaren M8C.  This is a customer car that was built to race overseas.  By 1970, McLaren was farming out the lucrative customer market to another manufacturer, Trojan.

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More unique machinery populated the grid; witness, the “Sting”, below.  Built in Southern California, the Sting used a Porsche 917 body with McLaren suspension.  It only raced a few times before the money ran dry.

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1972 McLaren M8F (below) was a customer car built by Trojan (this chassis was sold to Commander, a mobile home company that briefly went racing). Peter Revson won the 1972 title in a factory M8F.  By this point, the series had tamped down on some of the more lurid aerodynamic devices that Jim Hall and others had devised.

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Shadow began to challenge the bigger teams in 1972, and it dominated the series in 1974.  The 1972 DN2 (below) succeeded the innovative Mk II.  The Mk II, Don Nichols said, “was designed to be two-dimensional – it had length and width, but not height.”

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Porsche at Le Mans – Then and Now

Porsche911RSRGT Porsche’s return to prototype racing at Le Mans did not go as planned: after showing strong pace, Mark Webber retired his 919 hybrid late on Sunday, and the second Porsche wasn’t classified. Both cars experienced teething problems throughout the race, and Audi capitalized to earn its 12th victory at the Circuit de la Sarthe. Toyota finished second in the P1 category; a sister Audi finished third.

Over the years, Porsche and Le Mans have been synonymous, so Porsche’s return to prototype competition was seen as a return to the good old days. In many ways, Porsche never left.  The 911 GT3 RSR has been a popular GT choice for the last 15 years, certainly since Porsche abandoned its LMP2 program (the Spyder, below).

While many view Ferrari as the epitome of a racing team that sells road cars, Porsche’s DNA is no different.  From the 718 RSK to the 908, 910, 911, 935, 936, 956 and the 962 – and now the 919 – Porsche has left an indelible imprint on Le Mans. Although Audi has dominated at Le Mans for the last 15 years, Porsche’s tradition goes back farther, and it’s won with a wider variety of machinery.

Take a look at a few of my favorites, mostly photographed at the Sonoma Historics this year (except where noted).

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The Porsche 718 RSK was capable of two configurations: as a single seater (with bodywork removed), and as a sports car.  The 1958 version (photographed at the 2011 Sonoma Historics) won its class at Le Mans. DSC_0277 The 910 was derived from the 906, and raced at Le Mans in 1966 and 1967, before the 917. DSC_0560 The 917 was recently featured in our post “Sonoma Standout“.  In 1970, the Shell-liveried 917 gave Porsche its first outright win. The red 917 below was brought by Porsche to the Monterey Historics in 2009. Porsche917gSON14 2009-10-002 The 908/3 (bel0w) was an open-top prototype, a lightweight spyder that raced at Le Mans in 1972. 908-3 The 911 populated the grid from 1966 forward, and proved to be a customer-friendly racing workhouse right up to today (photographed at the 2013 Classic Sports Racing Group season opener). DSC_0585 Porsche 935 was a 911 under the skin, heavily modified by the tuners at Kremer. It took outright honors in 1979. Porsche935K Porsche935 From 1979 to 1986, Porsche utterly dominated at Le Mans with the 935, 936, 956 and 962, winning the race every year from 1979 to 1986 with the exception of 1980 (lo-res original from the 2009 Historics). photo The 2005 LMP2 Spyder was an outright winner and faster than an LMP1 on some days.  Only time will tell whether the new 919 hybrid will return Porsche to its place among Le Mans winners. ??????????????????????????????? The new Porsche 919 (photo via Porsche), a hybrid (but not its first!).  Porsche briefly tested a 911 hybrid in 2011.101