Can-Am: the sequel

No orange McLarens, no Denny Hulme… Gary Watkins looks back at Can-Am’s second coming

Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Bobby Rahal, Jacky Ickx, Al Unser (Senior and Junior), Patrick Tambay, Danny Sullivan and Al Holbert all won races in its glory years. Gilles Villeneuve, Chris Amon, Patrick Depailler, Jean-Pierre Jarier, Vern Schuppan and a whole load more besides never did. The racing was close, the competition often wide open, and the cars looked the part. So why is a series that is central to the story of CART’s phenomenal growth in the 1980s constantly overlooked 20 years on from its undignified demise?

The answer is in the name. Think Can-Am and it’s orange McLarens, fire-breathing Porsches or UOP Shadows that spring to mind. The attempt to revive one of the most emotive names in US motorsport for 1977 barely registers with the average racing aficionado. Second-generation Can-Am and its mostly Formula 5000-based machinery was and still is perceived, perhaps quite rightly, as a pale imitation of the original, yet it became a successful series that for a brief period was road-racing in North America.

Can-Am, the Canadian-American Challenge to give it its full name, was resurrected little more than two years on from its ‘final’ season. Formula 5000 had inadvertently become the Sports Car Club of America’s premier series, and traditional wisdom suggests that an organisation with little affinity for single-seater racing simply opted to take a successful series and rebrand it after a championship that hit pinnacle after pinnacle between 1966-74.

This is a viewpoint held by longtime Long Beach Grand Prix chief Chris Pook, who also headed an F5000 teams’ organisation known as the North American Grand Prix Association. “For whatever reason the SCCA were still in love with Can-Am and thought they could somehow bring it back just by throwing a sportscar body on our cars,” he says. “Of course, it wasn’t quite as simple as that.”

The reasons for the decision to recreate Can-Am weren’t quite that simple either, according to those at the top of the SCCA at the time.

North American F5000 appeared to be in rude health over the course of 1976. A link-up for ’74 with the United States Auto Club, which had been considering ditching turbocharged engines in Indycars, had brought in an influx of big-name drivers, most significantly Mario Andretti with the Vel’s Parnelli Jones team. The racing in the jointly-sanctioned series was competitive, even though Brian Redman would complete a hat-trick of titles for a team run jointly by Carl Haas and Jim Hall out of the old Chaparral works in Texas between 1974-76.

“The record books make it look as though I dominated, but if you examine the individual race results you’ll see that it wasn’t easy,” says Redman. “Andretti and Parnelli Jones had come in all guns blazing in ’75 and if you look at the following year I was way behind at one stage. It was tremendous racing.”

By the end of 1976 USAC had ditched its plans to go the normally aspirated route at Indy, but there was a far bigger problem looming. And even the drivers recognised it. “We were racing in front of empty grandstands,” remembers Redman. “The fans for some reason weren’t interested.” And that gave the circuit owners a problem.

Burdette ‘Burdie’ Martin, who was running the SCCA, remembers a meeting late in ’76 when the promoters’ dissatisfaction with F5000 came to a head. “Despite the presence of so many Indy 500 winners on the grid they decided they didn’t want 5000,” says the long-time clerk of the course at the Long Beach Grand Prix, now a vice-president of the FIA. “They didn’t want 5000 and were very vocal about it.”

Martin had already thought up an idea that he reckoned might appease the track owners. “I had anticipated the problem one night earlier in the season at Trois-Rivières over dinner with Carl Haas [who was also Lola’s North American importer],” he recalls. “I had taken our supplementary regulations with a drawing of a 5000 on the front and scribbled some fenders over the wheels. Eric Broadley from Lola was with us. He didn’t understand why people didn’t like 5000 and couldn’t really see the point, but he said it wouldn’t be a problem to do it.”

The other tenet of Martin’s idea to relaunch Can-Am was to reintroduce refuelling and do away with the heats-and-a-final format of F5000: “We’d ended up with 80-mile races in 5000 because the cars only had 30-gallon fuel tanks and the promoters didn’t feel they could do anything with that. Those races weren’t long enough to be a real feature.

“There were always safety concerns over refuelling, but my idea was to put dry breaks on the car to allow an 11-gallon NASCAR refuelling bottle. The teams would never be in danger of overfilling the car, which meant the risk of fire was much reduced. We ended up with races of around 150 miles.”

The job in hand was now to create a series in time for the following season. It was a task complicated by the involvement of a sponsor that had already signed up to back F5000. Haas had landed sponsorship for his team from First National City Travellers Checks, whose Citicorp parent company was going to lend its name to the championship.

“They were actually sold on the idea of 5000, but when we started talking about Can-Am they got even more excited,” says Martin. “Can-Am had such a great name and still had a great reputation.

“They gave us a deadline, some time in December, and we had to work kind of fast. Carl and I went out and beat the bush with the promoters. They wanted nine races with purses in the region of $75,000 and they were going to match that with advertising and promotion. It wasn’t a bad package.”

The new era of Can-Am made an inauspicious start at Mont-Tremblant in Canada seven months later. The 37-strong entry for the previous year’s F5000 finale was replaced by a motley selection of 18 cars, and that included seven Group Six sportscars in the two-litre class and a couple of original Can-Ams: a McLaren M6B and a Shadow DN4 now fitted with 5-litre V8s. Worse still, the SCCA lost its star driver when Redman was seriously injured just minutes into first practice.

“I went out having never driven the car or the track before and felt pretty good,” says Redman. “After 15 or 20 minutes I came in and was top of the timesheet by some margin. Jim [Hall] asked me how it was. I said, ‘I don’t know, maybe we should take a quarter of an inch off the front wing.’ The next lap I took off at 170mph over the hump on the straight and landed upside down. The rollbar gave way and a hole was worn through my helmet. I broke a vertebra, smashed my left shoulder and split my breast bone.”

Redman didn’t come around for four days. He can recall the accident on the track, but not the one the ambulance taking him to hospital was involved in. He would test but never race a Can-Am car again.

Redman’s new Lola T333CS, already fitted with F5000-style front wings, wasn’t the only car to somersault at Mont-Tremblant. Elliott Forbes-Robinson had already suffered a near-identical accident in a Lola owned by actor Paul Newman and run by Bill Freeman Racing. The big difference was that the American’s car came down on its wheels. “Only one corner was seriously damaged,” he says, “and we repaired that in time to do the race.”

EFR suggests that sportscar-style bodywork popped onto a derivation of the T332 F5000 chassis made for an inherently unstable package. “The cars didn’t have a lot of downforce on the front originally,” he says. “We ended up buying some T332 nose pieces and kind of cobbled them on the front.”

Trevor Harris, the designer of the AVS-Shadow Can-Am racer of 1969, was the first to get a handle on the all-enveloping bodywork: “I was asked by my old friend John Morton to have a look at his car. He had a T332 5000 car and purchased the bodykit to convert into a Can-Am. Those cars were very light at the front and Lola had solved the problem by putting on a couple of little wings, but I came up with a number of modifications to use the original bodywork. The nose appeared essentially stock and I changed the underside and added some air exits out of the side and the top.”

Once the dust had settled, the series picked up momentum through 1977. The grids grew in quality and quantity, and in Patrick Tambay it had a champion who was beginning to make a name for himself in Formula One. The Frenchman had been brought in by Haas/Hall to replace Redman from round three at Watkins Glen. He won first time out and was beaten only once, by Peter Gethin in a Count van der Straten-entered T333 at Elkhart Lake.

Alan Jones replaced Tambay at Haas/Hall for 1978 and claimed the title ahead of an increasingly strong field. Forbes-Robinson won twice, now at the wheel of a Lola-derived Spyder entered under the Newman-Freeman banner. George Follmer, Warwick Brown and Al Holbert also made it into Victory Lane.

New-era Can-Am came of age in 1979 and was approaching the level F5000 had reached by the end. Le Mans legend Jacky Ickx landed the plum seat at Haas, while F1 hopeful Keke Rosberg joined Forbes-Robinson at Newman-Freeman. Holbert remained at Hogan Racing and up-and-coming Briton Geoff Lees joined VDS. Vern Schuppan, Bobby Rahal, Howdy Holmes, Geoff Brabham, Jones and Morton also had a part to play in the action over the course of the season.

Ickx continued the Haas team’s sequence of titles with five wins in 1979, the start of what turned out to be a brief golden age for the series. Tambay, briefly out of F1, subsequently returned to his old squad in ’80 and claimed a second title, this time driving Lola’s bespoke CanAm racer, the T530.

The 1981 season was the highwater mark for the series, which now had Budweiser as its primary sponsor. Brabham claimed a narrow title victory driving a VDS T530 which, by round seven, had been updated into the VDS001. The Aussie won through in a three-way shoot-out at the series finale around the twisty Caesar’s Palace carpark track. Holbert, racing his own Lee Dykstra-designed car, and Newman March driver Teo Fabi pitched up at Vegas with a chance of beating Brabham to the title, and Fabi only failed because he lost out to Danny Sullivan’s Frissbee in a dash to the flag.

New-era Can-Am’s best season was followed by one more decent year before it began a steady slide into oblivion. Twenty-year-old Al Unser Jnr, fresh from winning the SCCA Super Vee title, contested a season of Can-Am at the behest of his father: Unser Stir had made a victorious one-off appearance in Brad Frisselle’s Frissbee, another car to receive the Harris touch, at Laguna Seca in 1980. His son would now take the final evolution of this Lola-based machine, sometimes known as the Galles GR3, to the title.

Jacques Villeneuve Snr and expat Irishman Michael Roe were the final Can-Am champions of any note before its descent made it little more than a club series for the couple of seasons prior to its demise at the end of 1986. Unser and Galles had turned the GR3 over to Villeneuve for ’83 before heading for the CART Indycar series.

By now Can-Am was what Pook calls a “training ground for CART”. Just look at the names that switched between the two series in the early years of the ’80s: Fabi, Sullivan and Rahal all used Can-Am as a springboard back to open-wheel racing; Carl Haas and Paul Newman teamed up to create what is now the most successful team in the history of CART; VDS and Galles moved across, as did future team owners Barry Green and Steve Horne. Amateur racer Jim Trueman, owner of the Red Roof Inns motel chain, did likewise and created TrueSports, the team that gave Rahal his first two CART titles.

Just as significantly, the major track owners also crossed the divide. Mid-Ohio, Elkhart Lake, Caesar’s Palace and Laguna Seca all joined up with CART and eventually ditched their Can-Am fixtures, and in the process took Indycar racing away from its roots on the ovals. “All the guys coming into CART at that time were road racers,” says Pook. “They changed the face of the series and played a huge part in the success it would enjoy later in the ’80s.”

The blame for Can-Am’s inability to hold onto its teams and tracks lay with the SCCA, according to Pook: “It really fell foul of the SCCA, which never did well as a professional body.”

Sullivan offers a similar opinion: “Can-Am had the big sponsors, we raced at all the big tracks and we had all the big names doing it, but no one turned it into something. The SCCA didn’t do anything about getting a decent TV package. CART did, and it also had the Indy 500.”

Sullivan has fond memories of new-era Can-Am: “The cars had a lot of power, but they weren’t over-tyred. Most importantly they had bodywork, so you could lean on people without it being dangerous. That made the racing even more competitive. At Caesar’s Palace in 1982 ‘Little Al’ and I passed each other something like three times on the final lap. It was a great series and a lot of the guys in it went on to great things.” Including Sullivan, a future winner of the Indy 500.

Many of those involved in both eras of Can-Am reckon the second was more competitive than the first. “The original Can-Am was the dream series for an engineer, but only if the sponsorship was there to pay for what you wanted to do,” says Harris, who worked on the VDS001 in addition to the Frissbee and then the Galles. “One or two teams dominated and the rest of the field was made up of makeweights. The second Can-Am was much more competitive, because the rules were much more restrictive. It didn’t allow the anything-goes, all-out technology of the original, but there were a lot of good cars, and a lot of different drivers could and did win races.”

McLaren’s ‘Bruce and Denny Show’ of the late ’60s and Porsche’s domination in 1972-73 captured the imagination. New-era Can-Am didn’t have the same grandeur, even if it provided closer racing. So the sequel had the better plot, but the original had the bigger names and better special effects. And that’s why one has entered motorsport folklore and the other is largely forgotten.