Nevada Nirvana

No maximum capacity limit .No minimum weight limit. A compact calendar. And a massive prize fund. No wonder can-am brought the European stars flooding over. Among them was John Surtees, a talent who was about to put a troubled 12 months behind him. By Paul Fearnley .

John Surtees is nine parts steely determination, one part cast-iron cussedness. By his own admission, he walked away from a probable Formula One world tide in 1966 when he tired of squabbling with Ferrari's politicking Sporting Director, Eugenio Dragoni. This action split opinion: the ayes basked in his courage of conviction; the nays felt he was cutting off his nose to spite his face. It had been a tough decision, but Surtees' single-mindedness had undergone a far more strenuous test just months previously.

It came from out of the blue. When hotshoe team-mate Jackie Stewart complained about the handling of his older Lola T70, Surtees agreed to swap mounts for the 1965 Group 7 USRRC races in Canada. He won at St Jovite and was confident of more success at Mosport .Jackie, though, wasn't happy with the new car either, and so Surtees agreed to give it a spin. A consummate tester, who had done the development work on Eric Broadley's design, he set out determined to locate the problem, a too-soft spring, or perhaps a too-stiff rollbar. The left-front upright burst.

"The car somersaulted over the guard rail, threw me out and landed on me. It broke my pelvis, displacing it by four-and-a-half inches on the left-hand side, and ruptured my kidneys. The latter injury was life-threatening."

The Reaper's scythe was blunted by that steel core, though, and four weeks later, "wrapped up like mummy", Surtees was gently placed across three London-bound BOAC first-class seats paid for by Tony Vandervell. "Stirling Moss had advised me to see Mr Urquhart at St Thomas' Hospital. And the first thing he said to me was, We must get you straight." This involved Urquhart and his registrar-cum-henchman forming a human rack. "They tugged and tugged until they got me to within half an inch," explains Surtees extraordinarily matter-of-factly.

The accident happened at the end of September 1965. They discharged him, still on crutches, in January 1966. Later that same month the Ferrari mechanics engine-winched him (literally) into what should have been his Tasman series racer. Enzo had been extremely supportive: it was his insurance that had paid all the medical bills, even though Surtees was not in a Ferrari at the time of the crash. He was capable of magnanimity as well ruthlessness; in 1965, he had allowed the creation of Team Surtees so that his number one driver could go 'Big Banger' racing with Lola.

"The T70 was a good all-round car," says Surtees. "It could be a little fragile, but usually you could drive it forcefully. It had a good aero balance, and it was not hard to adapt it to different circuits. There wasn't a big change between the Mk 1 and the Mk 2 we used in 1966. It was fighter (a mainly aluminium monocoque saving 701bs over the mainly steel Mk 1), but it was just details really."

So armed, Surtees decamped to a small garage at, ironically, Mosport, in readiness for the just-created Can-Am series. There was also the small matter of F1's two GPs in the Americas — at Watkins Glen and Mexico City — to consider. The next two months would prove very successful — and extremely lucrative.

"We had a skeleton team: Malcolm Malone, one of Eric's lads, joined me and he acted as the truck driver and mechanic, and a local guy called Ron Mutton gave us a hand. We had two Traco Chevy race engines, a Chevy truck and a trailer. We had nowhere near the resources of Chaparral."

Jim Hall's ivory-white cars were absent for the series-opener at St Jovite, but Surtees was faced with the McLaren M1Bs of Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon. He started from pole, but McLaren, who had won the GP 7 USRRC race here earlier in the year, was in determined mood, and they passed and repassed. Anion, meanwhile, was on a charge after losing a lap-and-a-half during a pitstop to clear out of his throttle slides and wrench off damaged bodywork, legacy of a first-lap excursion. Bruce waved him through in the hope he might fluster Surtees. The lapped Kiwi swooped and harried for a dozen laps. To no avail. The daunting Quebecois track, where two cars (Lolas !) had looped-the-loop over its crest in practice, again fell under Surtees' spell.

The same could not be said of Bridgehampton and Mosport, scenes of rounds two and three. At the former track, he pitted early with a sticky gearshift and retired on lap 17 with a broken oil pipe. At Mosport, he set the second-fastest practice lap, but started from 11 th because of an unfathomable qualifying system that gave preference to times from the first session (Friday) — even though it was wet Surtees wasn't the only quick man buried in the pack. It was a recipe for disaster. A first-corner pile-up ensued and he was whisked to hospital — with only minor injuries this time.

The disappointments continued: fourth in the first of two 53-lap heats at Laguna Seca, he was barged off the track in the second by the customer Lola of Parnelli Jones when running third with 13 laps to go. It's clear that Surtees' view of Jones has not changed since that day. But then Parnelli had retired from heat one and so was no overall threat. One part cussedness. Both of them, that is.

The Laguna meeting was dominated by the startling, bewinged 2E Chaparrals of Phil Hill and Jim Hall, who were first and second. With covert GM backing and exclusive use of the all-alloy big-block, they had set the pace since their Bridgehampton debut. Reliability was harder to come by, but with two rounds remaining, Hill was the series leader on 18 points. Surtees had just nine. Realistically, he had to win the last two races to secure the title. He was certainly in the mood to. And in the form to.

In between Mosport and Laguna, his Cooper-Maserati scored a moral victory in the US GP, recovering from an early tangle with a backmarker to finish third, setting the fastest lap in the process. The week after Laguna, he put that right with a fine win from pole in the Mexican GP, despite a bout of the Aztec Two-Step.

The following weekend he was at Riverside. McLaren, his Chevy now fitted with fuel injection, beat him to pole and led until a misfire set in. Hall took over at the front But his 2E was suffering from fuel vaporization — a problem that had sidelined his team-mate on lap seven. Surtees, all steely determination, closed and passed at half-distance. Hall, though, discovered that running in only top gear eased his problem. He repassed. As did Surtees. They did so six times. Can-Am was proving a total wow. The Chaparral's state gradually worsened and the red-and-white T 70 eventually won by 16 sec. Surtees was now level with Hill on points

There was a two-week gap until the decider, the Stardust GP in Las Vegas. "We weren't able to make any big changes to the car — there wasn't time," remembers Surtees. "It was details again. But perhaps we were able to make better use of the practice sessions, using them as test sessions. It's okay doing one quick lap, but it's more important to concentrate on what you can do over the whole race distance." And how. From the outside of the second row, he burst between the Chaparrals. This was no 200-mile waiting game. He didn't want to beat the white cars by stealth, he wanted them to eat his Stardust He was gone. Hall and Hill faded. McLaren did well to keep within a minute. The rest were nowhere. Surtees was champion. Perhaps even more than that

Jim Clark is most people's 1960s benchmark, but in 1966, when it was the Scot's turn to tough it out in uncompetitive F1 cars, and Lotus had given up on its spooky Group 7 Lotus 40, Surtees was making hay. In the September, October and November of that year, whatever car he dropped his backside in, he was the man. Fast, confident, at the peak of his powers. My words, not his.

Surtees: "I don't think I was driving faster than I had been doing since about 1963. Perhaps I was more experienced, but I had always backed myself to beat anyone, given a competitive race car."

There would be flashes (lots of 'em) of this sort of form until his 1972 retirement, but he would never again find himself in such a consistently good position; politics somehow tended to bog him down. He was happiest when running and racing for Team Surtees: "I enjoyed the early Can-Am's, and I look back on that title with great satisfaction. It was consolation for what happened at Ferrari."

Approximately $70,000 worth of consolation. More than if he had won every GP of that season. Some clouds have a silver-dollar lining.

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Top: Surtees and McLaren's M1B fought tooth and claw for 75 laps at the daunting St Jovite. Despite the late intervention of the other McLaren, in the hands of Chris Amon, Surtees won Can-Am's first-ever round.Left:John accepts the spoils