With an old car, negligible can-am form but plenty of nous,John Cannon was the only man equipped to cope with a rain-swept Laguna Seca in 1968. Gordon Cruickshank explains
When Can-Am arrived in California in October 1968, the entry list showed a fresh crop of West Coast names. It was a refreshing boost, but the new faces weren’t going to change things. Were they? Granted, engine troubles elbowed front-running Mark Donohue and Dan Gurney down the Monterey Grand Prix grid, but there on pole was reigning champ Bruce McLaren, with Jim Hall alongside and Denny Hulme behind. The usual crew chasing the prizes. They had the best equipment or so they thought. Halfway down the grid, a 31-year old privateer had stolen a march on everyone else.
John Cannon couldn’t afford what the big guys were running: while Bruce and Denny were on to the monocoque M8A, he was churning round in an old space-frame M1A. His midfield qualifying times were better than the car merited, but the London-born Canadian was there for the thrills, not the trophies.
When pouring rain arrived on race-day, the other drivers swapped jokes and crossed their fingers that it would dry up; Cannon went to Firestone’s technician for advice. The result was that he ended up with the only set of intermediates Firestone had brought for the earlier F5000 event. It hadn’t rained then, so no-one had asked for them. Now they were Cannon’s. In the warm-up, still in heavy rain, he realised he had the perfect rubber. If only the rain would last…
It did. Come the green flag, there were tidal waves of water coursing down the Corkscrew. Impenetrable clouds of spray swallowed everyone behind McLaren; cars slithered, spun and disappeared off the Tarmac. McLaren soon tore off his misted-up goggles; Donohue stopped on the track to change his. But one man was enjoying the deluge. Cannon’s canny rubber and less powerful old Chevy gave him grip the others would have killed for, while the downforce advantage of the newer cars had been sluiced away.
Cannon immediately dumped the also-rans and arrived among the big names. Donohue, Hulme and Revson in turn saw the red McLaren, all old-fashioned curves instead of aero angles, swish past. He was lapping two seconds faster than Bruce, and it took only seven laps before it was his turn to stare up someone else’s exhausts. And it wasn’t long before Cannon was back again and again. The man in the seven-league Firestones lapped the champion twice. Good advice and gritted teeth had beaten high tech.
Although his $20,000 winnings allowed him to buy an M6B for 1969, it proved unreliable. He switched to Formula A (American F5000), taking the ’70 title, and even collared a BRM F1 drive in the US GP. For 1971, he ran a season of European F2, then returned to the USA to continue his F5000 exploits with occasional forays into Can-Am, the series which gave him his biggest moment. He was killed in a ‘plane crash in 1997.