Can-Am camaraderie

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Survivors of the original big-banger sportscar series descended
on Amelia Island in March to celebrate its 40th birthday.
Leigh Dorrington was there

They looked like they had been seated for the Last Supper. Can-Am veterans — drivers and builders — were guests of honour at the 11th Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance near Jacksonville, Florida in March. Chairman Bill Warner’s event is set up on two parallel fairways at the Amelia Island Ritz-Carlton hotel. One fairway for racers, and the other for classics. Many racers never got to see both.

The racers were celebrating the 40th anniversary of Can-Am, the series that began in ’66 and featured the loudest, fastest and farthest-flying racing cars ever.

Series champions Jackie Oliver and George Follmer, plus Jim Hall (the creator of the winged Chaparral) and Peter Bryant, whose Shadow DN4 won the final season title in 1974 with Jackie O, were joined by Vic Elford, Hurley Haywood, Brian Redman, Sam Posey, Charlie Kemp, Bob Nagle and Oscar Koveleski, who all competed in the series. Karl Kainhofer of Penske and snapper Pete Biro joined them at the table.

Two things quickly became apparent: these over-powered, flat bottom cars had an unfortunate tendency to fly, and this was still a time when racing was fun.

Nagle, a corporate pilot, said: “Most of us have been upside down and in the air in Can-Am cars.” Hall — one of America’s top drivers and car builders throughout the 1960s — saw his driving career end after taking off at Las Vegas in ’68.

Kemp, one of the most colourful drivers in the series, pedalled for Bobbie Rinzler, the man credited with first saying: “I know there’s money in racing; I put it there.” Kemp claimed the height record, at over 100ft in the air, in Rinzler’s Porsche 917/10. Posey took his own flight in a Caldwell D7 at Lime Rock Park, a track almost within sight of his home. But he claims the longest flight in a Can-Am racer may have been Paul Hawkins’s: the Australian ace launched a Lola T70 at St Jovite in the very first race of the series. Posey was one of the first to reach him and described how, once he was free of the car, Hawkins “just stood there. He looked back at where the car took off. He looked at where it had landed. And then he said, F**k!'”

The innovations that were pioneered most often on Hall’s Chaparrals drove the sprit of the series. Kainhofer remarked: “We could always bring a race car that would pass inspection because there were no rules!”

But there was obviously plenty of fun. Koveleski was the president of the PRDA [the Polish Racing Drivers’ Association]. He said the stewards usually left extra space on both sides of his transporter: “Just in case.” Once, when the president of [series sponsor] Johnson Wax walked past Koveleski’s trailer, his crew were eating butterscotch pudding from the orange wax tins.

It was the cars that brought out the fans, with crowds of 80-100,000 at the series’ peak, and the cars were well represented at Amelia Island.

Among them were Hall’s Chaparral 2H, Dan Gurney’s Lola T70 powered by a Gurney-Weslake V8 — the only Ford-engined car ever to win in Can-Am, Posey’s Caldwell, the ex-Tony Dean Porsche 908 that beat the bigger players at Road Atlanta in ’70, as well as Jo Siffert’s Porsche 917PA.

Later, Jackie Oliver suggested it was time for a single design class to bring Can-Am veterans back into competitive racing, much like the GP Masters championship. The former Le Mans winner proposed a championship for drivers in retired Routemaster buses…

Other significant racing cars at Amelia Island included the fabulous McLaren M16C driven to victory in the 1974 Indianapolis 500 by Johnny Rutherford, the ex-Briggs Cunningham D-type Jaguar and, best of all, the Ferrari TR/61 that won the 1961 24 Hours of Le Mans when shared by Olivier Gendebien and Phil Hill.

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