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Indycar Sports Cars 14

American racing in the 1960s

Last week I touched on some of the reasons why the 1960s was such a great decade for Formula 1 and motor racing in general. Your enthusiastic responses prompted me to write this week about the ’60s in America in particular where the sport hit historic heights in all categories – IndyCar, Can-Am and American sports car racing, the original Trans-Am, NASCAR and drag racing too. And the United States Grand Prix also enjoyed the first of two golden decades at Watkins Glen.

sports cars indycar  American racing in the 1960s
Jochen Rindt wins the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in 1969

The sport took off in America through the ’60s as technology revolutionised both the Indy 500 and the Can-Am series and a huge panorama of great drivers seared their names into the USA’s popular culture. Speeds and performance increased dramatically at Indianapolis and elsewhere as the arrival of rear-engined cars and monocoque chassis was followed immediately by the appearance of wider, low-profile tyres, turbine engines, wings and aerodynamics.

Jim Hall defined the revolution with his winged Chaparral Can-Am cars but it could also be seen in the dramatic differences between the first Lotus Indycar, the skinny-tyred, cigar-shaped 29 from 1963, and the last, the wide-tyred, wide-bodied, wing-festooned 64 from 1969. After crashing heavily in practice at Indianapolis when a rear hub broke, Mario Andretti renounced the 64 and went on to win the 500 in Clint Brawner’s well-developed Brawner Hawk while the Lotus 64 never raced, marking the end of Colin Chapman’s seven-year flirtation with the Indy 500.

sports cars indycar  American racing in the 1960s
Mario Andretti in the winning Brawner Hawk at Indianapolis in 1969

We witnessed similar dramatic changes in Can-Am as the classic McLaren M1B morphed into the mighty big-block, all-aluminum Chevy-powered McLaren M8F and M20, and the early rear-engined Chaparral 2s were transformed into the very effective high-winged 2G followed by the 2H ‘sucker car’ driven by Jackie Stewart and Vic Elford and and the wildly experimental 2J, much despised by John Surtees.

Of course, part of Can-Am’s attraction were the many experimental cars that appeared from factory teams and backyard builders, ranging from a brace of misconceived Ford prototypes to the four-engine Mac’s-it Special to the original tiny Shadow Mk1 Can-Am car, pedaled by the intrepid George Follmer, to Hall’s 2H and 2J Chaparrals.

sports cars indycar  American racing in the 1960s
John Surtees in the unloved Chaparral 2H at Riverside in 1969

All this wild stuff drew huge crowds to the Can-Am races. The SCCA sanctioned Can-Am and also launched Trans-Am in 1966 for American ‘pony’ cars. For a few years the American car manufacturers spent more money in Trans-Am than they did in NASCAR with factory teams from Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge, Plymouth and American Motors run by the likes of Penske, AAR and Jim Hall. Trans-Am peaked in 1969 and ’70 with Mark Donohue and Parnelli Jones duking it out for Penske and Bud Moore’s teams.

During this time Formula 5000 was also growing fast in America and for a short while it looked like the SCCA would emerge as the most powerful force in American motor racing. As American road racing boomed, USAC decided to expand its IndyCar championship onto road courses, starting in 1965. Half a dozen road courses were on USAC’s calendar in 1968 with that year’s championship comprising no fewer than 28 races on paved ovals, dirt ovals and road circuits. In fact, the six USAC Championships between 1965-’70 won by Andretti (three times), Foyt, Bobby and Al Unser were probably the most diverse and demanding championships in racing history.

sports cars indycar  American racing in the 1960s
AJ Foyt at Indianapolis, 1965

But as the ’70s arrived USAC, in its infinite wisdom, decided to throw out the road circuits and dirt tracks to concentrate on paved ovals only. It turned out to be an unsuccessful move repeated with an equal lack of success by Tony George 25 years later.

It was sad to see the dirt tracks vanish from the world of Indycar racing because one-mile dirt ovals had formed the backbone of America’s national championship for forty years. Dirt track racing reached its apotheosis in the ’60s with powerful cars running on skinny tires and well-groomed tracks driven by dirt maestros like AJ Foyt, Don Branson, Mario Andretti, Al Unser and Gary Bettenhausen. There were no wings or aerodynamics of any kind and those cars not only required delicate throttle control but were brutally tough to drive over 100-lap races at tracks like the infamous Langhorne in Pennsylvania.

sports cars indycar  American racing in the 1960s
Dan Gurney in the ‘McLeagle’ at Riverside, 1969

A mastery of a wide variety of cars and tracks is the mark of any truly great driver and like the F1 stars of the ’60s America’s best from that era raced regularly in multiple categories. Guys like Dan Gurney, Donohue and Andretti characterised the ’60s, racing in as many as seven or eight different categories some years. The fans and media loved it and today we cherish those memories.

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sports cars indycar  American racing in the 1960s

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14 comments on American racing in the 1960s

  1. Terry Jacob, 19 August 2013 10:14

    Wonderful article . As Gordon Kirby so rightly points out , there wasn’t a category of racing in the ‘States of the ’60′s that couldn’t be hugely admired and that extended to the grassroots .

  2. Michael Kavanagh, 19 August 2013 11:15

    Isn’t that McLeagle just the best looking car you ever saw? And if the Chaparral 2H isn’t exactly pretty, it’s not hard to see where Lambo are getting their inspiration from these days …

  3. John, 19 August 2013 11:17

    The Can Am series is one I’ve only recently become familiar with, mainly through playing a computer game. It really was a fantastic series, brutish cars on some very tricky circuits. However, I can’t find all that much information on it. Any recommendations?

  4. Ian Taylor, 19 August 2013 12:20

    Great article, we lived through the best era of sports car racing in the 60′s.
    From the first time I saw “Tex Hopkins” leap into the air after the 1957 Formula Libre race at the glen, I was bitten.( I believe that is Tex waiving the flag for Rindt at the Glen in the first picture.)
    Each spring during the 60′s we waited to see what Dan Gurney or Bruce and Denny would show up to the first sports car race or what Andy G. or Mickey T. would bring to Indy.
    The 60′s were the Halcion days of sports car racing.

  5. Sandeep Banerjee, 19 August 2013 14:15

    John, you cannot go wrong with Pete Lyons’ CanAm books. I’ve only read ‘CanAm’ but I’m sure his other two are also just as worth reading. Also recommend watching ‘CanAm: A Speed Odyssey’ DVD. Some of the most brilliant footage you will ever see, spanning the entire lifespan of the series.

  6. Bill, 19 August 2013 14:36

    I nearly started to cry seeing that beautiful track Riverside, and how ruthlessly that was butchered in favor of a damn mall.

    Great article, thanks Gordon Kirby.

  7. Chris Kadwill, 19 August 2013 21:27

    What a decade the ’60′s were! I was a teenager in 1967 when I purchased MS for the first time , and I still have the March edition I bought. Ferrari P4, Chaparral 2F, Lotus49 Gurney, Clark, Hill, McLaren, Brabham, Stewart and Cosworth DFV. So may cars drives and changes in design from Lotus 18 to 49 for example. A period that was unsafe but a time of real courage and hero’s that defined the shape of motor racing for ever. Even advertising and sponsorship from BRG to GLTL. Everything we know and love about our sport stems to the changes the 60′s brought about. It really shaped my love for the sport that has endured for over 45 years! Ah, great memories!

  8. Alex Milligan, 19 August 2013 23:04

    Michael Kavanagh: – yes, but remove the hideous rear wing and then there is a car of sheer beauty and a gorgeous flowing purity of form. I guess that wing looked ultra high tech back then!!

  9. Dave, 20 August 2013 08:14

    Re: the Trans-Am, You missed Pontiac (Jerry Titus’ Trans-Am) as one of the 6 factory backed cars in 1970…
    I was an Announcer at Laguna Seca for the opening race of the ’70 season… Lots of wonderful stories from that event…

  10. Steve W, 20 August 2013 08:34

    I spent a lot of time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway back then. Never made it to a race, though. If I recall, if you wanted a seat for the race, you needed to get in to the IMS ticket office within a few days after the race to get a seat somewhere and I never quite made it. But I went to a lot of the practice days and qualifying. It was a very interesting to see the different cars and concepts running – certainly no “spec” series back then.

  11. Don Larsen, 20 August 2013 15:11

    The first major race I ever dragged my dad off to was the 1963 Times GP at Riverside. A life changing event for a 14 year old.
    Driving that weekend were Jim Clark, Dan Gurney, Graham Hill, Jim Hall, John Surtees, Roger Ward, Roger Penske, Pedro Rodriguez, Roy Salvidori, Ken Miles, Richie Ginther, and the tragically soon to be gone Dave MacDonald.
    What an intrdouction for an impressionable kid-ground shaking thundering alloy monsters being driven by the best in the world.
    In those days spectators were within a few feet of the cars, which had much more open cockpits, so one could really see what skill it took to get those things around.
    Wow. What a great time to be young.

  12. John, 21 August 2013 08:25

    @Sandeep. Thank you very much for the recommendations, I will hunt the book and the DVD down.

  13. Bert, 29 August 2013 23:20

    To the person that asked, I highly recommend Pete Lyons book “CanAm” also. However, it really won’t take you where you want to go, which is standing at the back straight at Riverside and listening to those big V8s go on forever down that one mile long straight, or standing at the apex, high above Turn 2 looking down on Bruce and Denny entering the turn and then nailing the throttle all the way up the esses, again reveling in the sound of those deep throated V8s. Oh man, what a time that was!

  14. Jock Hiddleston, 4 September 2013 12:35

    Can Am was one of the best forms of Motor Sport, I use to seach for any car mag that carried race reports and devour them over and over again.
    And this was when I was growing up in a long forgotten paradise called Rhodesia.
    There are some very good DVD’ on Can Am racing plus some excellent footage on You Tube.
    Note in the latest Motor Sport issue there is an advert for a Can Am McLaren for sale.
    8.8 lit Chevy 800 plus BHP, THAT WILL MAKE A PIDDLY LITTLE 1600 TURBO F1 motor faint

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