The revised Can-Am series of the late 1970s had it all – mighty cars, classic tracks and star drivers. But it wasn’t enough to save it from the threat of CART
By Gordon Kirby
Born amid apathy and ignorance, it flourished briefly but then died from a lack of interest. The ‘new era’ Can-Am lasted only 10 years from 1977-86 and came to life because America’s road racing track owners were desperate to revive the glory years of the original, unlimited Can-Am series that ran from 1966-74.
The death of the old Can-Am left the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) with Formula 5000 as its primary series. For a few years the American F5000 championship was pretty healthy, attracting big fields and top drivers like Mario Andretti, Al Unser Sr, Jody Scheckter and Brian Redman, who won the title for three consecutive seasons in Carl Haas and Jim Hall’s Lola-Chevrolets. But the SCCA and its promoters longed for the return of full-bodied Can-Am cars.
Burdie Martin ran the SCCA’s professional racing department in those days and says the series wouldn’t have come together had it not been for Haas. “Carl had sponsorship for his team from First National City Bank,” says Martin. “But he also talked them into sponsoring the series and, of course, thanks to Eric Broadley and Lola he provided the cars to make it happen. I talked to Carl and said we could make these 5000s into closed-wheel cars and call it Can-Am. I said it wouldn’t cost a lot of money and the cars were out there. We could add the 2-litre cars because there’s a lot of them around and they’re not that much slower. That would fill out the field. So Carl and I got on the phone and called some people, and all of a sudden we were putting a programme together.”
The SCCA’s last-minute decision to replace F5000 with the closed-wheel, single-seat ‘new era’ Can-Am didn’t inspire much confidence, or interest, from the racing industry. All the uncertainty surrounding the new series meant few teams were ready for the start of the 1977 season. In fact, Haas/Hall was the only Can-Am team able to do any serious pre-season testing and it quickly learned that the new nose for the enclosed wheels didn’t produce enough downforce. The team designed and built its own replacement, which incorporated an F5000 nose in place of the flat, cow-catcher nose of Lola’s T333CS ‘conversion kit’. The result was a car that looked more like an F5000 car with fenders rather than a sports/racer.
Most Lola customers had installed the conversion kit on their F5000s and were pretty upset when Haas/Hall rolled out its unique car in first practice for the opening Can-Am race at St Jovite in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains. But it soon turned out that in some circumstances even the Haas/Hall aerodynamic package wasn’t up to the job.
In the middle of St Jovite’s backstraight was a humpbacked rise over which the Can-Am cars of Paul Hawkins and Hugh Dibley had taken flight in 1966. Ditto Jackie Oliver in 1970. In afternoon practice Elliott Forbes-Robinson became the first driver to fly a new-era Can-Am car through the air when his flipped as he tried to go over the hump on full throttle. Miraculously, the car cartwheeled through 360 degrees and landed upright on all four wheels. Forbes-Robinson jumped unscathed from the wreckage.
Later that day Brian Redman had a much more serious accident. Redman’s car did a violent backflip, landing upside-down and leaving him unconscious and in a critical condition with a broken left collarbone, a cracked sternum, two broken ribs and a fractured vertebra in his neck. Redman lay heavily sedated in hospital for a week while the swelling and contracting of his brain’s epidermis ran its course and his doctors assessed the damage to his brain and nervous system. (After a long recuperation he returned to racing, winning the 1978 Sebring 12 Hours and IMSA’s first GTP championship in 1981 aboard a Lola T600.)
Deeply shaken by Redman’s accident, the Haas/Hall team withdrew from the race and headed home. With the three-time F5000 champion in hospital, a makeshift chicane was installed before the backstraight hump. The race was run half in the wet, half in the dry, and was won by Formula Atlantic standout Tom Klausler driving the unique Schkee coupé, a Lola-based car by veteran Can-Am builder Bob McKee. But the little team didn’t have the money to race or develop the car and went out of business before the end of the season.
Haas/Hall missed the next race at Laguna Seca, and during practice in California there were more problems with flying cars as Warwick Brown’s VDS Lola took off going over the fast brow beyond the pits. Brown broke both legs in the ensuing accident and team-mate Peter Gethin – an experienced Formula 1, Can-Am and F5000 driver – withdrew from the race until a proper solution could be found.
Haas signed up-and-coming French driver Patrick Tambay to replace Redman. A smooth, fluid driver and a gentleman too, Tambay won six of the seven Can-Am races he started in 1977, all from pole, and easily claimed the championship. “I was also doing my rookie F1 season with Ensign, so I had a lot of miles under my belt that year, not only aeroplane miles but driving miles,” he recalls. “The Can-Am car had a lot of power, gave good grip and was a good tool to do mileage to make me sharp for my F1 ride. My Can-Am successes helped me build a strong confidence.”
Tambay considered F1 offers for 1978 from McLaren and Ferrari before opting for the former. Haas was happy to send Tambay on his way and picked Alan Jones to replace him. The straight-talking Aussie took on a busy schedule, driving for Frank Williams’ burgeoning F1 team and Haas in Can-Am.
Despite the demands of regular transatlantic commuting, Jones was able to continue Tambay’s title-winning form. He qualified on pole for all nine races and won five aboard the Haas/Hall Lola T333CS. Jones missed the penultimate round at Laguna Seca due to a clash with the Canadian Grand Prix, leaving him needing victory in the finale at Riverside to wrap up Haas’s second championship. Sure enough, he came through in style, beating countryman Warwick Brown across the line by more than half a minute. Jones took great pleasure from driving the Can-Am Lolas.
“I loved those cars,” he says. “You could push them and chuck them sideways. You were relying a bit more on mechanical rather than aerodynamic grip, even though the rear wing was like the side of a barn. They were good, fun cars to drive. I thoroughly enjoyed them.”
With the title under his belt, Jones focused on F1 in 1979 as Williams hit its stride with the FW07. Haas signed eight-time GP winner Jacky Ickx, whose F1 career had begun to founder by the mid-70s. Towards the end of ’76 Jacky broke his legs in a terrible accident aboard Mo Nunn’s Ensign during the United States GP at Watkins Glen. He made only one F1 start in 1977 and ran just three races the next year.
Legendary actor/racer Paul Newman ran his own California-based Can-Am team, and in the ’79 season-opener at Road Atlanta Ickx was beaten by Keke Rosberg in one of two Newman-Freeman Spyders, with Elliott Forbes-Robinson third in the other car. Forbes-Robinson drove for Newman for four years, from 1977-80, and won four races during that period. The team ran a Lola in its first season and then built its own Lola-based car for ’78, prior to Rosberg joining the team. Keke won at Road Atlanta and Watkins Glen, while Forbes-Robinson won at Trois-Rivières and also took four second places, finishing second in the championship to Ickx in Haas’s Lola.
“There was something great about those cars,” says Rosberg. “The rear tyres were something – your heart lit up when you saw them. They were proper racing car tyres. They were huge, as was the surface of the bodywork. It was like a jumbo jet, and if it got some air underneath the nose the whole thing would go flying. But still, they were real men’s cars. They were beasts to drive; it was raw horsepower. There was no sophistication whatsoever.”
Ickx agrees: “That car was one of the nicest racing cars I ever saw or drove. It was beautiful in the CitiCorp colours, but with not too many advertisements on it. It wasn’t easy because I raced the last half of the season for Ligier in F1, so I was travelling all the time, but the Can-Am races were a pure joy.”
Going to Laguna Seca in October ’79, it was Forbes-Robinson against Ickx for the championship. Bobby Rahal won for the first and only time in Herb Kaplan’s Prophet with Forbes-Robinson second, closing to within one point of Ickx who finished eighth and a lap down after going off the road.
Ickx and Haas’s team spent two days testing at Riverside before the finale and Jacky came through in style to score his fifth win of the year and Haas’s third straight title success. He had beaten Rahal in the Prophet with Forbes-Robinson third. Rosberg had led at Riverside but collided with Geoff Lees, damaging his car’s bodywork, and was consequently black-flagged. “Keke was very fast, but he could not finish a race so we were able to win the championship,” says Ickx. “It was really a beautiful time.”
It turned out to be Ickx’s last year in both F1 and Can-Am. Thereafter he decided to concentrate on long-distance sports car racing with Porsche, adding two more Le Mans wins to his resume in 1981-82 and two world sports car championships in 1982-83 before retiring two years later.
With Ickx’s departure Haas welcomed back Tambay for 1980. During the Frenchman’s two seasons with McLaren in F1 the team’s performance had steadily tailed off and he didn’t score a single point in ’79. “Things were not looking so exciting and then Carl called and said, ‘If you’re free, come back home’,” he says. “It was music to my ears.”
Tambay won the first four Can-Am races of 1980 at Sears Point, Mid-Ohio, Mosport and Watkins Glen, and then won again at Brainerd and Trois Rivières. Going into the finale at Riverside he led Al Holbert by 18 points. Tambay focused on running conservatively and finishing the race, coming home third behind Holbert’s CAC-1 and Forbes-Robinson in Newman’s Spyder to add a fourth title to Haas’s haul. Rosberg had run the last two races of the season at Laguna and Riverside in place of Stephen South, who’d been badly injured at Trois-Rivières. Keke finished second to Al Unser Sr and the Frissbee at Laguna Seca and was fourth at Riverside.
The Frissbee was based on a Lola chassis but the aerodynamic thinking was light years ahead of Broadley’s T530. “The Frissbee was amazing,” says Rosberg. “It was a true ground-effect car and Al was driving circles around us. When it worked that car was unbelievable.”
By 1981 Can-Am was beginning to run out of gas. Crowds and media interest were flagging. The situation was so bad that Haas couldn’t find any sponsorship. For the first time in his career as a professional team owner he signed a paying driver, Jeff Wood, who failed to win a race and wound up a distant fifth in the points, well behind championship protagonists Geoff Brabham aboard Team VDS’s new VDS-001 and Teo Fabi’s Newman March 817.
Newman’s team would run March chassis for 1981-82 and enjoyed its best year in ’81 when Fabi won four races and finished a close second to Brabham in the championship. Bobby Rahal replaced Unser in Newman’s second car for the second half of the year. “The great thing was you got to drive fabulous circuits like Mosport, Watkins Glen, Elkhart Lake, Laguna Seca and Riverside,” says Rahal. “When I drove the March in ’81 that took it to a new level. At a place like Mosport they were as fast or faster than the F1 times from a few years before. It was a very fast car and very small. I didn’t even have a seat because the car was built for Fabi, but we had some good races and the car’s performance with sliding skirts was considerably higher than the non-ground-effects cars.
“Then CART got going and started adding more road courses, and a lot of the top teams left Can-Am and went to CART – Carl Haas and Paul Newman became one team, and Jim Trueman, Doug Shierson and VDS all went to CART. Probably the top half of the field left in the space of a year or two.”
Brabham won the 1981 Can-Am title in a beautiful Lola-based car called the VDS 001, which was designed by Tony Cicale and built by Team VDS. But the team quit Can-Am to go Indycar racing the following year. Haas decided not to run a car too, and so Can-Am drifted toward extinction. Al Unser Jr won the title in ’82 in Rick Galles’s Frissbee from Al Holbert’s VDS 001, but the series had little or no commercial strength and at the end of the year Newman also pulled out.
Can-Am struggled on for a few more seasons, running for little prize money in front of dwindling crowds. Jacques Villeneuve Sr beat Jim Crawford to the title in 1983, with Bertil Roos third in a car under two litres. Irishman Michael Roe took the ’84 title aboard the now-ageing VDS 001 from Crawford and Canadian Horst Kroll. Rick Miaskiewicz won in ’85 from fellow Frissbee driver Kroll, who then became Can-Am’s final champion in ’86, beating Bill Tempero’s converted March 84C Indycar. By then the series was entirely out of gas and that winter it died a quiet, almost anonymous death.