With the excitement of 1965 behind them, enthusiasts drew breath and looked forward to some more close, fat group 7 racing in 1966.
It didn’t happen in the UK; the big build-up became an anti-climax. There were plenty of faces scheduled, and plenty of fans turned up, but not enough big bangers. It was of course the perennial British motor racing malaise – not enough starting and prize-money. Sports spectating has always been cheap in Britain, and what cash the promoters had was going to Formula Two.
Lola and McLaren had committed themselves and had laid down Group 7 production lines, hoping for big sales in North America on the strength of their showing in 1965. Lotus had pulsed out after the model 30 and 40 fiasco, and Brabham half-heartedly put a 4.3-litre Repco engine into a BT8, but was really more interested in F2. peter Westbury’s Felday Engineering, and Jack Pearce’s Kincraft concerns were developing cars, and given time and money could have been up there amongst the leaders, but the bulk of the race entries were 2-litre cars.
The racing was no longer close. Lola and McLaren had by now sorted their chassis, and the engines were much stronger, and lasted the race. Six litres in a good chassis strolled away from 4½ litres. Add a Grand Prix driver, some Kelly green stripes, a lucky shamrock painted on the side, and Denny Hulme in Sid Taylor’s Lola just walked all the races – well, all but one.
The other three Lola T70s (yes, only three) were Chris Bridges’ Red Rose Racing example driven by Brian Redman, the Racing Partnership (Jersey) car of Tony Sargeant and Hugh Dibley, and (since John Surtees was still recovering from that horrific crash at Mosport the previous year) the Team Surtees car driven occasionally by David Hobbs or Graham Hill.
One other Briton must be mentioned: hill-climber Phil Scragg in his light-blue road-registered car. How Phil got that great big machine up those narrow hills at those speeds never ceased to amaze the crowds. But then, that is yet another pointer to the superbly designed and well sorted suspension on the Lola T70.
Although the racing was not close, it certainly was fast. The “big bangers” were now being called “hairy great monsters”. Despite the fat tyres, the power was such that four-wheel drifts were visible again and, for the heavy-footed, armfuls of opposite-lock were needed. For those too young to have seen these wonderful sights, shut your eyes and picture Hans Stuck in a Porsche 962 at a wet Brands Hatch, and you’ll get the drift!
The Lola was perhaps the least hairy, and certainly the best suspended, of these beasts – and a smooth driving style paid dividends. T70 Mark II’s gained outright lap-records at no less than seven British circuits, and demolished the sports-car record at the remaining two. We must not heap all the glory onto Denny Hulme, since guest driver Tony Lanfranchi took two of these records and “le patron” Sid Taylor took the honours on home ground at Phoenix Park in Dublin.
None of this really impressed the RAC, which announced in June that Group 7 would be cancelled at the end of 1966, due to “lack of interest”.
In America things were different. Group 7 had been invented in the USA, where it was the main sports-racing series, first there were the Daytona and Sebring races in warm Florida at the beginning of the year; then followed the US Road Racing Championship with event across the continent from April until September; September to November was taken up with the rich Canadian-American Challenge Cup series which was just starting; and then at the end of the year everyone went over the Nassau for a fun fling. It was a very full year.
The Americans had big, powerful and moderately-priced engines readily available, but while their early predilection for drag-strip, oval and dirt-track racing had helped develop the brake-horsepower, it had done little to encourage better handling design.
Wherever racing exists, one-off local cars – appear – in this case McKee, Genie, Hamill, Pirhana, Cheetah and Wolverine. The McKees did well, but there was only one real challenger to the Lolas and McLarens – the Chaparral. The high-wing flippered automatic-transmission cars took a first and three seconds in the CanAm series. But Jim Hall did not make to sell, so Lola and McLaren sold over 50 cars to North America.
The USRRC series cam to a close with 42-year-old Monterey car-dealer “Chuck” Parsons taking the title in his McLaren. The Lola T70s of Buck Fulp and Skip Hudson were second and third. Now the big teams prepared themselves for the ’66 Goldrush – the CanAm series.
Roger Penske had bright-blue Sunoco Lolas for 1965 USRRC Champion George Follmer and a young and relatively inexperienced Mark Donohue. Dan Gurney’s All American Racers team had similar cars for Dan himself and Jerry Grant. John Mecom prepared Ford-powered T70s for Parenelli Jones, Mario Andretti and Jackie Stewart, and there was a pearlescent baby-blue car for tough Texan AJ Foyt, and private entries for Bob Brown, Buck Fulp and Ronnie Bucknum. The British contingent consisted of Denny Hulme, Hugh Dibley, a new Jackie Epstein car for Paul Hawkins and, last but not least, John Surtees – back with a big white arrow on his red car, pointing the way forward. Line up against the Lolas were the two innovative Chaparrals and a host of McLarens headed by the works cars of Bruce and Chris Amon.
The opening race at Mont Tremblant, St Jovite, near Montreal, had five Lolas and five McLarens line up at the front of the grid, this despite the withdrawal of Dan Gurney (with engine trouble) and both Hawkins and Dibley after heavy practice crashes. . .
The Mark II Lola had the revised front end, more streamlined and much lighter now that a spare wheel need no longer be carried. When Hawkins had crested a brow flat-out, the air got under the nose and the car flipped over backwards, scraping along on roll-bar, driver’s helmet and carb-intakes. Penske offered his garage for repairs, so Esptein and Hawkins set off south. En route they met Dibley, and warned him of the hill – but Dibley also flew.
As a good airline pilot, Hugh stayed level, and did a perfect belly flop into the forest. Luckily, the drivers had previously suggested the forest was dangerous at that point, and the circuit owners had cut the trees down. Unluckily, the remaining stumps ripped the bottom out of the Lola’s tub. Front bibs were rapidly fitted by all Lola teams!
Surtees won the St Jovite race, with McLaren and Amon right behind. Lola also won the second round at Bridgehampton on Long Island, New York. Gurney took pole position with his new 5.3-litre Gurney-Weslake Ford, stormed off the line at the start, and was never headed, Surtees retired and Phil Hill had flipper trouble, so the McLaren twins took second and third again, Amon second this time.
This third round was back in Canada, at Mosport. A first-lap accident took out eight cars, including John Surtees (at the same turn where he had crashed a year earlier), the George Follmer and Brett Lunger Lolas and the McLarens of Skip Scott, John Cannon and Lothar Motshcenbacher. Donohue and Masten Gregory were able to make the restart, which began as a New Zealand benefit with McLaren, Amon and Hulme all dicing for the lead, chased hard by Gurney.
The New Zealanders all dropped out leaving Gurney heading for this second victory. But with only ten laps to go he coasted to a halt, leaving a surprised Donohue to win, followed home by a slow Phil Hill with tyre problems and a delighted Chuck Parsons.
Chuck was back in his home town for the fourth race, the Monterey Grand Prix at Laguna Seca. He put in his best ever lap at the track during practice, only to find ten cars in front of him on the grid! Both Chaparrals demolished the 1965 Lola lap-record by two seconds.
Mecom was still having a bad time with Ford engines – four blown in the first three races, and now Jackie Stewart and Parnelli Jones had blown two more in practice. “I’ve still got four left in LA”, said Mecom, “but I daresay they’ll make somebody a darn good boat anchor at $10,000 each.” Parnelli borrowed a Chevy from Penske, and Ford got the message.
Heat One finished Hill, Hal McLaren; Heat Two Parenelli Jones, Hill and Hall, giving an aggregate top three of Hill, Hall and McLaren for the record books.
As the teams arrived at Riverside for the penultimate race, Phil Hill led the championship with 18 points, four ahead of Donohue and McLaren. McLaren, copying the Chaparrals, had fitted a cockpit-adjustable flipper to the back of his car and promptly took pole position, followed closely by the two Chaparrals, Surtees, Stewart (now also with Chevy power), Graham Hill in the second Team Surtees car, Gurney, and Andretti in his Mecom car with the works 7-litre Ford engine and Kar Kraft automatic transmission from the Ford J car project.
Race-day was hot. The heat contributed to may retirements (whether from cooked engines or cooked drivers): Gurney, McLaren, Amon, Phil Hill, Andretti, Jones, Foyt and Skip Scott, Stewart and Hulme. Hall led early on from Surtees, Stewart, Graham Hill, Hulme, Donohue, Follmer, Revson, Hawkins and Parsons, but at half-distance Surtees turned up the wick. Spectators were then treated to an almighty dice as Surtees and Hall swapped places, outbraking each other at the end of the long pit straight. After setting a new lap-record, Hall was forced to slow down with fuel pressure problems with five laps to go, leaving Surtees to win. Graham Hill was third and Donohue fourth.
Only once race remained and the championship was wide open: Phil Hill and Surtees 18 points, Donohue 17, McLaren 14, Hall 12 and Amon 10. But this is where we came in on the Lola T70 story. Surtees romped home at Las Vegas with only McLaren on the same lap; Lola had won the first CanAm series, and the pot of gold.
It had been an incredibly successful year for Lola and for the T70, but 1967 was to be even better. Broadley had as usual learned the lessons of the year, and now developed the Mark II into the Mark III. This baby could also be fully clothed, and sold as a Group 6 GT! GJ