Gordon Kirby

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Return to the Odyssey

In October I spent a few days at our editor-in-chief Nigel Roebuck’s place in Surrey. As any regular Motor Sport reader knows, Nigel’s interests in motor racing are both catholic and eclectic. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Nigel for more than 30 years and I know few others with such a broad knowledge and passion for the entire sport So it’s always a delight to share yarns and reminisce with Nigel.

During my short stay at his house we enjoyed some of his wide selection of DVDs, including the story of Curtis Turner, reckoned by many contemporaries to be the most talented NASCAR driver ever. We also watched Doug Nye’s superb Standard-Triumph film of the 1955 Tourist Trophy at Dundrod as well as the official video of the Indianapolis 500 through the ’70s, plus a couple of DVDs about the original, unlimited Can-Am.

All of Nigel’s DVDs were captivating and sparked many good-humoured stories, but the Can-Am film, presented by Sam Posey and Jim Hall and titled Can-Am, the Odyssey of Speed, really caught my attention. The Can-Am and preceding run of Group 7-type races through the early ’60s were an essential part of my motor racing education. I enjoyed some of these races from trackside, featuring an increasingly impressive selection of Anglo-American specials driven by top drivers from Formula 1, USAC and American sports car racing.

The cars were as eclectic as the wide selection of drivers, staffing with Lotus 19s and 23s, Cooper Monacos and Brabham BT85, and morphing through Roger Penske’s Zerex Special into a spectacular series of American V8-powered beasts including King Cobras, Bruce McLaren’s original McLaren-Oldsmobile, Lotus 30s, McLaren Ml As, Ml Bs and M6s, Lola T70s, Dan Gurney’s McLeagle and Jim Hall’s Chaparrals. Ultimately, of course, along came the turbo Porsche 917/10 and 917/30 by which time I was on the job covering the races with gusto.

It was an incredible time for American racing as the cars went faster and faster driven by huge horsepower and by a steep increase in technology and innovation. Helped by a technical liaison with General Motors, Hall’s superb Chaparrals were true leading-edge designs bringing new chassis materials, wings and ultimately ground effects to the sport With Posey’s charming narrative assistance Hall explains his development of the Chaparrals in The Odyssey of Speed and an excellent selection of film brings Can-Am to vibrant life.

As I remarked to Nigel, it’s no wonder that we fell in love with racing because the cars were spectacular to watch, slithering through the corners as they understeered in and oversteered out of the turns. You could see the drivers hard at work and feel the pulsating power as they put it to the ground.

Another thing the film reveals is the close racing that was so often a part of this championship. Most of us remember Can-Am as a spectacular series featuring runaway victories by the likes of Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme (above, leading at Watkins Glen in 1972 aboard a McLaren M20). But The Odyssey of Speed shows otherwise, as the stars of the show baffle side-by-side through the corners in a kind of racing we no longer enjoy.

Then, of course, there were huge crowds spilling over the fences at every race, from Canada to Long Island to the west coast. We tend to forget how incredibly popular Can-Am was, with massive traffic jams in and out of the race tracks and pages and pages of coverage in the local newspapers.

Sadly, those days are long gone. But if you want to remember and enjoy how healthy road racing was in the US and Canada for a fleeting period through the 1960s and into the ’70s, then I urge you to sit down for an hour or so with Can-Am, the Odyssey of Speed and warmly relive those great days.