For three years, Can-Am was McLaren’s property. Then Porsche and Penske turned up with a 917 and a turbocharger. Preston Lerner recalls the car that changed the series
George Follmer had just clinched the Trans-Am championship in the middle of the 1972 season when he got a phone call, out of the blue, from his one-time boss, Roger Penske.
The good news was that Follmer was being offered a ride in the faster-than-a-speeding-bullet Porsche 917/10 Can-Am car, filling in for Penske’s driver Mark Donohue, who’d been injured while testing the Turbo Panzer at Road Atlanta.The bad news was that Follmer had to run it the next weekend. Without any pre-race testing. On a track he’d never seen before. In the most powerful road-racing car ever built. Oh, and one more thing, George: second place is not acceptable.
“Roger gave you the best equipment,” Follmer recalls with an uneasy chuckle. “But he expected you to win.”
Today, of course, the 917/10 is remembered as the first turbocharged car to succeed in major-league road racing. But at the time, in the summer of 1972, it was still an unproven contender in a Can-Am series that was then the private preserve of bright-orange McLarens packing gigantic Chevrolet V8s.
In its maiden race, the season-opener at Mosport, the Porsche had started from the pole. Donohue was humiliating the factory McLarens M20s of Denny Hulme and Peter Revson when he was forced to pit with a stuck turbo valve. Despite losing three laps while repairs were made, he still finished second.
The next event was Road Atlanta. Donohue showed up the Monday before the race to test a brand-new 917/10 built on a one-of-a-kind magnesium chassis. In an accident eerily similar to the one that had killed Bruce McLaren at Goodwood, the rear bodywork flew off the Porsche at 150mph. The car soared into the air before embarking on a brutal shake-rattle-and-roll number and literally disintegrating around Donohue.
It was a miracle that he wasn’t killed; the seat was virtually the only component in front of the firewall that wasn’t destroyed. But Donohue suffered a nasty knee injury that would prevent him driving for two months. And so Penske wasted no time tracking down George Follmer.
Why him? Well, he was as versatile as they came. He’d already driven for Penske in the Can-Am and Trans-Am series in years past. He’d won races in Formula 5000 and Indycars. In years to come, he’d run a Shadow in Formula One, scoring points in his first two grands prix, and even a hulking stock car for NASCAR legend Bud Moore. “Donohue was a better engineer,” recalls Klaus Bischof, a factory mechanic on the 917/10. “But Follmer had a bigger heart.”
What Follmer needed at Road Atlanta, however, was cojones. Because the wheelbase was so short, the Porsche was twitchy in fast corners. There was substantial turbo lag, forcing the driver to commit to the throttle long before reaching the apex of the corner. But when the turbo spooled up, the engine produced nearly 900 horses.
“Even now, it’s an awesome car. By the standards of the day, it was…” Follmer falls silent, unable to come up with an appropriately impressive description. “Let’s just say that I was under a lot of pressure that weekend. The car was fast, and everybody knew it was fast. I knew I had to perform.”
Follmer also knew that he couldn’t screw up. Although he’d driven turbocharged Indycars, he’d never been in anything like the Porsche. Driving conservatively around a tricky track, he qualified second. But he rocketed past Hulme, the pole-sitter, before reaching Turn One, and he led to the chequered flag. History had been made, and road racing would never be the same again.
Ironically, considering the impact it would have on the sport, the 917/10 was an afterthought at Porsche. The impetus for its creation was the imposition of a 3-litre limit for the World Championship of Makes for 1972. As a result, Porsche’s magnificent 5-litre 917, the car that won Le Mans in 1970 and ’71, was rendered instantly obsolete.
“Porsche was a very small company in those days, and we had spent a lot of money on the 917,” says Helmut Flegl, project manager for the car. “So the question was: What could we do with the car? And the Can-Am had a very short rule book.”
The Canadian-American Challenge Cup was the world’s most lucrative bastion of no-holds-barred racing. Enclosed wheels, open bodywork, two seats — other than that, pretty much anything went. Also, Porsche already had some experience in the series: Jo Siffert had run a 917 spyder with modest success in 1969 and ’71. But despite the power of the normally aspirated flat-12 engine, the Porsche didn’t have enough grunt to hang with big-block Chevys hogged out to 8000cc.
For 1972, Porsche embarked on two parallel programs: developing a 16-cylinder engine and slapping a pair of turbochargers on the existing flat-12. Early development showed the turbo offered more potential. At Ferdinand Piech’s command, the blown 12 got the nod, and the flat-16 was shelved.
The Can-Am car was a 917 with an open body designed not to minimise drag — the goal at Le Mans — but to maximise downforce for the tighter North American tracks. The spaceframe chassis was modified to accept the larger engine. Also, Porsche developed a stout four-speed transmission to accommodate the additional power of the turbo. Bigger brakes were fitted because the low-compression motor didn’t produce much engine braking.
From the start, it was clear that Porsche needed an American team — a Yankee analogue to John Wyer — to campaign the car. At the time, Penske ran the premier road-racing operation in North America. Coincidentally, Porsche had seen the team in action in international endurance races in 1971, when the immaculately prepared, Sunoco-blue 512 was faster than ostensibly identical works Ferraris. “After Le Mans,” Penske recalls, “I got a call from Piech’s wife, who said, ‘My husband would like to meet you regarding an opportunity with Porsche.”
As a driver, Penske had won a bunch of races in Porsche RSKs and RS60s. Another point in Penske’s favour was his driver, Mark Donohue. ‘The Captain’ and ‘Captain Nice’, as the US media dubbed them, had been a team since 1966. A multiple Trans-Am champion who would win the Indianapolis 500 in 1972, Donohue had finished third in his first F1 race — in the rain.
“His character was completely different from today’s race drivers,” says his longtime mechanic Karl Kainhofer. “He was part of the race cars. He worked on the race cars. He lived with the race cars. He was not a natural race driver. But he got the job done.”
Donohue’s unfair advantage — the term that became synonymous with Penske Racing — was his ability to draw on the mechanical engineering degree he’d earned from an Ivy League university. “Usually,” Flegl says, “the driver is the driver, the engineer is the engineer. But Mark was a driver who spoke the engineer’s language. If he hadn’t been involved in the programme, I’m not sure we would have succeeded.”
Donohue made numerous trips to Germany, lapping endlessly on Porsche’s test track and skid-pan. Suspension flaws and aerodynamic idiosyncrasies were ironed out without any major headaches. The turbo was a different story. “Getting power out of the engine was easy,” says Norbert Singer, an engineer on the programme. “The problem was making the car driveable.”
In his memoir The Unfair Advantage, Donohue likened the performance of the engine to a light switch, with all the power at full throttle and nothing anywhere else. “The fuel injection pump they were using was all wrong,” says John ‘Woody’ Woodard, the Penske crew chief on the car. “Mark almost came to blows with them over it.”
Late in the development process, a new Bosch unit calibrated to produce power throughout the rev range was installed. Known in Porsche lore as ‘the happy pump’, it transformed the 917/10 from junkyard dog into 900-pound gorilla. At Mosport, in a pre-season test, Donohue shattered the lap record by 3sec. “As far as I was concerned,” he wrote later, “the Can-Am series was already over. We were so much faster that there was no way [the McLarens] could catch up.”
The 917/10 looked like a championto-be, impeccably presented in spiffy L&M livery — white bodywork with two sets of red-and-black stripes running from the snow-shovel nose to the Batmobile rear wing. But after Donohue’s wreck during testing, all bets were off. And even though Follmer seamlessly replaced Donohue, all was not sweetness and light in Camp Penske.
At Watkins Glen, two weeks after winning at Road Atlanta at a canter, Follmer was outqualified by both McLarens and finished fifth after a long pitstop. Says Woodard: “George had a lot of natural ability, and he had a lot of experience, but he could not dial that car in.”
Follmer saw things differently. “I just didn’t know the car,” he says. “I didn’t have six months driving it like Mark did. He’d been testing, testing and testing it. It took me a few races to develop any confidence in that Porsche.”
Donohue (on crutches) returned at Mid-Ohio, not to drive but to dispense set-up advice; Follmer qualified on the pole and led easily — until it started raining. Follmer spun twice on the slick track. “It was a diabolical nightmare,” he says.
While everybody pitted for tyres, Penske gambled that the rain would stop, leaving Follmer to wait for a signal that never came. As he recalls: “Every time I went by the pits, I looked at ‘The Captain’ and thought, ‘Hello! Any time now!’ Follmer kept the car off the fence and, as Penske predicted, the track dried. Follmer swept to another crushing win. Only Jackie Oliver’s Shadow finished on the lead lap.
Elkhart Lake was even more of a romp, with Follmer lapping the field. And just when McLaren thought things couldn’t get any worse, Penske brought two ‘Turbo Panzers’ to Donnybrooke. Donohue, returning to the cockpit in a freshly minted 917/10, qualified on the pole, with Follmer next to him. They ran 1-2, unchallenged, until Donohue blew a tyre. Then Follmer ran out of fuel on the last lap, and François Cevert lucked into the win in a year-old McLaren.
There would be no more gifts for the competition. At Edmonton, Follmer and Donohue again started 1-2, with Donohue easily holding off Hulme for the win. Follmer was third after pitting with a flat tyre. Donohue led from the pole at ‘Seca before slowing to let Folliner past for a McLaren-like 1-2. At Riverside, Follmer returned the favour. But Donohue pitted to change a tyre, and Follmer cruised to victory.
Follmer easily won the championship. Donohue was fourth despite missing half the season. At year’s end, both men were driving 917/10s fitted with 5.4-litre engines pumping out more than 1000bhp. By this point, the Chevy had been bored and stroked to a gargantuan 9.26 litres. Even so, McLaren saw the writing on the wall and retired from the series that had put the team on the map. The Can-Am series was never the same again.
Despite the lack of anticipated competition, Porsche didn’t stand pat with the 917/10. Even as Follmer was winning the championship in 1972, Flegl was already developing a long-wheelbase derivative with an aerodynamically stable long-tail.
Penske shrewdly negotiated a deal that gave him exdusive Can-Am rights to the new 917/30. After testing it, Follmer knew the car was unbeatable. “It handled better than the 10,” he says. “It was more powerful. It was cleaner aerodynamically. Basically, everything that we learned in 1972 was incorporated in the new car.”
Follmer’s old car was sold — with George as the driver — to Bobby Rinzler for the 1973 Can-Am season. Meanwhile, Porsche built a run of new-but-obsolete 917/10s for other customers. Donohue breezed to the championship. Follmer was second. Other Porsche drivers were third, fourth and sixth.
The 917/30 is recalled as one of the great race cars in racing history. But the 917/10 was the first of the breed. And whenever you hear a tell-tale whistle as a turbocharged car brakes for a corner, you’ve got a 917/10 to thank.