American Comment

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The challenge has been put back into the Canadian-American Challenge Cup series. Although the works McLaren team of Bruce McLaren and Denis Hulme remains the strongest, its stranglehold has been broken and the series has become far more competitive and interesting. In the three Can-Am races following the opener at Road America, the McLaren team finished first and second in one, was eliminated entirely in a second, and was reduced to second and fifth in a third. There are still only two or three really serious challengers to the Kiwis but there are at least half a dozen other potential threats. This has meant that the McLaren team has been under almost continuous pressure and has been forced to push its equipment much closer to the limit. And since the team was not as well prepared as it was last year—when it won five of the six races—this limit has been approached more quickly. The net result has been closer and more exciting racing.

The strongest opposition to the works McLarens has come from Jim Hall and Mark Donohue. By Can-Am standards Hall should be outclassed (he is still using last year’s car), but his combined talents as designer, constructor and driver have enabled him to extract more than enough extra power and road-holding from the 2G chaparral to worry Hulme and McLaren. One reason is that the 2G has been used as a testbed for the all-new 2H Chaparral Hall had planned to use. But the 2H suffered a suspension failure just before the opening race and may not be seen this year. There are only two races remaining and since the 2G is going so well it seems prudent not to unveil the 2H and give the opposition all winter to copy any of the radical ideas it is said to incorporate.

Donohue’s driving has been improved enormously this year by the fact that he has been competing almost every weekend and as a result has honed himself to a much finer edge. He still doesn’t exhibit as much “tiger” or desire to mix it as some other drivers but this is largely because he drives to car-owner Roger Penske’s dictum—”In order to finish first, you must first finish.” This philosophy may not always win individual races but it does win championships, as Donohue has proved by collecting the U.S. Road Racing Championship for the second year in a row and scoring an overwhelming victory for Chevrolet’s Camaro in the Trans-Am Championship (10 wins, two second places and one fourth place in 13 races).

Ranking just behind Hall and Donohue as threats to the McLaren team have been Peter Revson (Shelby-prepared McLaren M6B with 7-litre all-aluminium Ford), Lothar Motschenbacher (McLaren M6B with 6.2-litre Gurney-Weslake-Ford) and Dan Gurney (McLaren M6B with 5.3-litre Gurney-Eagle). Both Motschenbacher and Gurney, however, are giving away a lot of power to the 7-litre engines used by Hulme, McLaren, Hall and Donohue. And while Revson has the capacity, he has twice been let down by his engine when well placed in the closing stages of a race.

Since the opening race at Road America was plagued by rain, the second race of the series, the Bridgehampton Grand Prix, provided the first real indication of the relative performances. Run over 70 laps of the 2.86-mile circuit amid the sand dunes of eastern Long Island, the Bridgehampton event proved to be the most closely fought in the short history of the Can-Am series. Donohue and Revson set the fastest times in the first practice session and the McLaren team lost two engines taking the front row away from them. In the race itself McLaren and Hulme jumped into the lead, but they were completely unable to shake off Donohue, who was only 3 sec. behind Hulme one-quarter of the way into the race. McLaren then let Hulme into the lead, but the World Champion could do no better on the oil-soaked course and after 30 laps Donohue was only still 4 sec. behind the leader.

At this point all three of them had a new threat to worry about in the form of Hall’s flying Chaparral, which started the race on unscrubbed tyres and had then charged past Gurney and Revson to take over fourth place. Hall’s Firestones were working far better on the oil than the Goodyear’s on the three cars ahead of him and by the 31st lap only 6 sec. separated the first four cars. On the 32nd lap Hall squeezed past Donohue, on the 34th he took McLaren, and on the 37th he flashed past Hulme into the lead. For four all-too-brief laps Hall was pulling away at the rate of a second a lap, but then a check valve in the injection system jammed, his engine went on to seven cylinders and, as rapidly as he had advanced, Hall fell back to fourth place behind Donohue. Although McLaren and Hulme then resumed their leading positions the strain had been too much for their engines, for on the 53rd lap a connecting-rod punched a hole in Hulme’s engine and nine laps later a rod bearing went in McLaren’s. The ever-present Donohue, only 2 sec. behind at the time, swept into the lead in his M6A McLaren-Chevrolet, and eight laps later took the chequered flag 33 sec. ahead of Hall’s Chaparral. Motschenbacher, who had never been worse than eighth, drove to a steady third place two laps behind.

The third race in the series, the Klondike Trail 200, was run at a brand new circuit at Edmonton in Canada that amazed everyone with its physical facilities30 lockable garages right behind the pits, 10,000 grandstand seats along the start/finish straight, and a huge 4-storey control tower with ample space for everyone. The circuit itself, like the surrounding prairie, is almost perfectly flat but nonetheless contains several interesting corners in its 2½ miles.

Although Hulme and McLaren again monopolised the front row (with identical times), Hall, Donohue, Revson, Gurney and Motschenbacher were close behind them and appeared set to stage a repeat of the Bridgehampton battle. Unfortunately for the enthusiastic crowd of over 41,000 the race proved more of a skirmish than a battle, because the final outcome was decided within 15 laps of the 80-lap race. This time Hulme took the lead from McLaren, with Hall third, Donohue fourth, Revson fifth and Gurney sixth. On the fourth lap Hall sent McLaren back to third and began pressing Hulme, but his chase lasted only nine laps before he was forced into the pits with a leaking brake fitting. Although Hall returned later to set the fastest lap of the race, his departure marked the end of the challenge to the works McLarens. Donohue had been forced into the pits on the eighth lap when leaves blocked his radiator inlet, and Gurney retired on the 15th lap with a massive oil leak. By the 16th lap the order was Hulme, McLaren, Revson, Donohue and Motschenbacher. The only changes over the next 64 laps were the retirements of Revson and Motschenbacher, leaving Hulme and McLaren to run out an easy 20-sec. victory over Donohue.

The fourth race of the series, the Monterey Grand Prix, was run over the very tight Laguna Seca course in California. This circuit is a particular favourite of both Bruce McLaren and Jim Hall, and they showed as much by winning the front-row starting positions from Hulme, Revson and Donohue after a fascinating qualifying battle. But all their effort went for nought, for it rained throughout the race and two Canadian drivers, both with older Mk. 3 McLarens and both with smaller 6-litre engines, came splashing out of the pack to upset all the favourites. John Cannon, a Montrealer now living in California, started the race in 15th place, moved up to ninth on the first lap, sixth on the second lap, fifth on the third and fourth on the fourth. On the sixth lap he passed both Hulme and Revson, to take over second place, and on the next lap calmly drove around McLaren to take the lead. It was an astonishing performance and, as Cannon said later, it was made possible largely by his “unbelievable” Firestone rain tyres. Two other drivers confirmed the superiority of Firestone’s wet weather equipment. George Follmer, substituting for Mario Andretti in a Lola-Ford, came up from sixth place to take third place from Hulme on the 28th lap and, seven laps later—just as Cannon lapped the entire field—Follmer moved up to second ahead of McLaren. He held it through to the 55th lap, when he damaged the bodywork in a slide up bank and retired. In the meantime George Eaton, a young Canadian in only his first full year of Group 7 racing, had done a superlative job driving his Mk. 3 McLaren from 18th on the grid to third place ahead of McLaren and behind Hulme. Eight laps from the end McLaren lost his third place to Motschenbacher and at the finish it was Cannon by a full lap and 5 sec. over Hulme, with Eaton third, Motschenbacher fourth and McLaren fifth. The two Canadians had produced by far the best drives of their careers and Cannon was rewarded with over $19,000 in prize money. Hulme, McLaren and Donohue were all plagued by the poor visibility and all made stops to replace their goggles. Donohue finished eighth but poor Jim Hall didn’t even get to start. His car back-fired on the starting grid and broke the starter-motor shaft. The result increased Hulme’s lead in the Can-Am standings to 24 points after four races. Donohue was second with 17, followed by McLaren with 14, Cannon with 9, Hall and Motschenbacher with 8, and Eaton with 4.

* * *

Not content with banning four-wheel-drive altogether alter the 1969 season, the Board of Directors of the United States Auto Club has now ruled that during the 1969 season all such cars will be restricted to maximum wheel rim widths of 10 in. The ruling hits hardest at George Bignotti’s four-wheel-drive Lola, which at present uses the widest wheels permitted by U.S.A.C.—14 in. at the rear and 10 in. at the front. The Lotus turbine cars are not immediately affected because up to now they have used the same size wheels (10-in. rim width) at both front and back. In effect, then, U.S.A.C. is singling out one car and penalising it because it happens to have performed well recently. Once again, however, the blind haste of the U.S.A.C. directors has led them wide of their own target. The object of the new rule is to limit the amount of rubber four-wheel-drive cars can put on the road, but as written the rule only restricts wheel-rim widths—not tyre widths. And as one tyre company representative pointed out, the technology is now available to produce tyres for a 10-in. rim that are as wide as those now fitted to 12-in, wide rims.

In yet another move, the U.S.A.C. directors have altered one of the engine formulae they announced in August even before it goes into effect on January 1st. As originally written the formula for production rocker-arm engines permitted a capacity of 5.25 litres provided the original “stock” cylinder block and cylinder heads were retained. This rule has now been changed to permit the substitution of cylinder heads provided (a) that the configuration is the same (the same number of valves, etc.) and (b) that they are “readily available”. In typical U.S.A.C. fashion, the term “readily available” is not defined. But it must be said that this modification corrects an injustice to Dan Gurney, whose Gurney-Eagle engines had been placed in the special rocker-arm category and restricted to 5 litres because they use non-stock cylinder heads. Gurney spent over two years and tens of thousands of dollars perfecting this basically stock push-rod engine and he had no sooner proved its worth—second in the Indianapolis 500 and first in a U.S.A.C. road race at Mosport two weeks later—than U.S.A.C. altered the rules of the game.

In view of these constant changes—announced almost monthly and put into effect with hardly any waiting period—it is not surprising that potential sponsors are shy of investing in new cars or engines when they can’t be sure that their designs won’t be restricted or banned even before they get off the drawing board. This is one symptom of a serious malaise within U.S.A.C. Another was the announcement by Thomas W. Binford, the President of the organisation since it was founded in 1956 to take over the racing sanctioned by the American Automobile Association, that he would not stand for re-election. In a letter to the U.S.A.C. Board of Directors, Binford suggested several changes in the organisation of the Club, including the hiring of a full-time professional president and a better balance in the make-up of the Board itself. In a thinly-veiled suggestion that some members of the Board had a conflict of interest when they acted as both competitors and arbiters, Binford said the “. . . so-called public members of the Board have been cut to a handful. We need more participants and a better variety of interests”.

* * *

While U.S.A.C. is in the throes of internal dissension and public disenchantment, the Sports Car Club of America has taken steps to remove, or at least alleviate, the unrest that has been growing between the amateur members of the Club (the vast majority) and the professionals ever since the Club took the plunge into professional racing five years ago. Each group felt that its type of racing was being neglected in favour of the other. The Board of Governors of the S.C.C.A. has tackled the problem by dividing the Club’s operating staff into distinct amateur and professional divisions.

As part of this reorganisation, the Club’s professional racing has been revamped and all effort will be concentrated on three distinct series. The present U.S. Road Racing Championship series tor Group 7 cars has been dropped and will be replaced by a much-expanded Canadian-American Challenge Cup series—10 races instead of six (three of them in Canada), beginning in June instead of September, and the total prize and accessory money increased to approximately $800,000 (£330,000). It is hoped that in future years the series may be expanded to 12 races with $1 million (£416,090) in prize and accessory money. The present Grand Prix Championship for Formula A, B and C cars will be expanded from this year’s eight race. and will form the basis of a new U.S. Road Racing Championships. The very successful and competitive Trans-American series for compact sports saloons will continue unchanged except that the eligibility of the American-made cars such as Camaros, Mustangs and Javelins will be determined directly by the S.C.C.A. The imported under-2-litre cars will continue to be governed by F.I.A. Group 2 regulations. With these three separate series for three distinct types of car, and professional staff to administer them, the S.C.C.A. appears well prepared for the rapid expansion of motor racing in general and road racing in particular.—D. G.