Can-Am at the crossroads?

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The most popular question heard in road racing circles this past season in America was “What is going to happen to Can-Am?” What was happening was no mystery—the restaging of the annual Can-Am pageant in which one team with little or no opposition won all or most of the races and most of the prize money. In 1973 it was Roger Penske’s Porsche effort just as it had been in 1972. Domination by one team of the North American sports car series for big bangers was nothing new for in the eight years since the Can-Am began in 1966, seven of them have been one-team years with Team McLaren holding court from 1967 through 1971 until Penske took over.

There are plenty of statistics to indicate just how low the Can-Am has slipped in 1973. The smallest starting field in Can-Am history —15 cars — took the green flag at Edmonton while there were two races in which only eight finishers were still running at the chequered flag. The closest finish was the ten-second gap between Donohue (Porsche) and Follmer (Porsche) at Mid-Ohio but Donohue is known as a thinker, winning at the slowest possible speed in order to preserve his car. The largest margin for Donohue was when he lapped the entire field at Laguna Seca while the largest victory margin of the season was Kemp’s (Porsche) windfall victory at Mosport where he had two and a half laps on second place after all the hot dogs expired. But strangely, in spite of this lack of close exciting racing the Can-Am continues to draw crowds. Virtually every track in the series showed a crowd increase in 1973 and made money. The strong promoters such as Mosport, Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca had handsome crowds while even the weaker ones did better than before. Riverside with the added attraction of the International Race of Champions had the best crowd in years. Apparently the spectacle of firebreathing Can-Am cars can draw crowds no matter who is driving them or how weak the competition.

But while crowds have come year after year in ever increasing numbers to see less and less, many have been looking to the future when the crowds won’t come to see the same old show. Many people including promoters, drivers, car owners, sponsors and the organising body the Sports Car Club of America have been pursuing their own private plans to transform the Can-Am but in truth most of them don’t really know what elements of the present Can-Am to keep and which ones to discard. At the beginning of the Can-Am season in June there was a move to adopt a 3-litre racing engine/5-litre stock block format which would have made obsolete every contemporary Can-Am car. Fortunately for those with so much invested in unlimited displacement and turbocharged cars, this 3-litre/5-litre plan was nipped in the bud. But since that time there have been plans to ban turbochargers or create an equivalency formula between turbos and non-turbos. This too was junked but what developed was enormous uncertainty about the future of Can-Am, casting great doubt on its future at all.

But what the Can-Am crisis really boils down to is pure and simple finance. For winning six of eight races in 1973, Can-Am Champion Mark Donohue’s prize money totalled $114,533. Two years ago, when Johnson Wax company sponsored the championship, Peter Revson won the title plus five races and a total of $8134,500. His team mate Denny Hulme won three races making Team McLaren’s total for the season $257,437. In 1969, when there were 11 races, Team McLaren totalled a modest $322,174. In two races that season they entered three cars. Back in 1968, when there were only six races and when Team McLaren’s winning streak was just starting to roll, McLaren and Hulme won $163,040—over $893,000 for Hulme and over $69,000 for McLaren. In 1973 for running eight races, Donohue won $8114,533, Follmer won $57,501 and Hurley Haywood (Porsche) third placed in the championship won $839,300. Clearly there is not as much prize money as in years gone by due to restructuring and the loss of J-Wax sponsorship. At the same time the cost of racing is higher. The cost of a turbocharged Porsche engine alone today is worth more than an entire car and spares run by Team McLaren just a few years ago.

Clearly the Can-Am has become too expensive for all but a few well financed teams to compete in. The solution is twofold, increase the prize money and reduce the costs.

It now appears as if SCCA will keep unlimited engines and turbochargers but will instead restrict the amount of fuel permitted, a method which USAC has selected to slow down its Indy cars. It is expected that SCCA will limit Can-Am cars to from 50 to 70 gallons of fuel for 200 miles. Compared to as much as 100 gallons required for a turbocharged engine, this represents a considerable cutback and the necessary detuning will probably see smaller engines producing around 700 horsepower, as they did five years ago.

In fact, this fuel limitation formula may nullify the advantages presently held by the turbocharged engine but whether or not this step will change the Can-Am for the better remains to be seen. The resultant reduction in costs won’t harm the teams at all and may even re-introduce some competition again simply because of the fact that winning as well as losing will become less expensive.

However, the outrage at the apparent ease with which Team McLaren in the past and Penske Racing in the past two years have dominated the Can-Am does not account for one thing—excellence. Fuel formulas may be fiddled and turbochargers limited or banned but excellence cannot be banned. The fans who pay to see the Can-Am races pay to see excellence as they know it and the fact that it turns out to be the same people year after year doesn’t really matter to them.

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