Shadow-boxing

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It was something of a dream come true when Pete Lyons was invited to drive a Can-Am Shadow. Once he got moving, he made a major discovery…

Exploring the narrow footwell, my left shoe felt something fighting back. “Is the clutch or the dead pedal?” I blurted. Towering over me, Fred Cziska laughed. I hoped to keep him in that mood.

Cziska is a prince among vintage racers who, incredibly, had invited me to try out his 850-or-so-horsepower, 1972 Can-Am Shadow Mark III. A fantasy-come-true.

You remember the Shadows. American entrepreneur Don Nichols launched his team in 1970 with the Trevor Harris-designed ‘Tiny Tyre car,’ so dubbed because of its startlingly small-diameter wheels, meant for ultra-low drag. A bold idea, but not a good idea; two years later Peter Bryant created a much more conventional Mark III. It was also much more competitive: that season feisty Jackie Oliver put up some fine performances against the McLarens and new turbo Porsches.

In 1974, of course, Oliver would drive the best Shadow ever, Tony Southgate’s DN4, to the last Canadian-American Challenge Cup championship of the old unlimited era.

Even a runner-up Can-Am car is a fearsome beast, and as I clambered over the wide, wide fuel cell sill of the big, black Shadow I strove to appear calmer than I felt. Behind me loomed 8-and-more-litres of Really Big Block Chevy, a cannon more than capable of firing me through the nearest concrete barrier like a lead slug through damp paper.

It was a tough clutch. When people are watching you learn a race car you want to avoid stalling the damned engine, and of course I promptly stalled this one. Biting my lip I stabbed the starter again (cue a cacophony like the Big One hitting San Francisco behind my skull) and gave it a touch more gas. Just a touch, mind you. I felt both huge back tyres spin up!

As I lurched away I was thinking, this will be my only lap, he’s going to wave me in and punch my lights out for abuse-of-prized possession. But as my wife Lorna told me later, Fred turned to her with a smile of approval and commented, “You can’t baby this car.” I told you he’s a prince.

Biggest surprise: this is a car. Just a car. I’m not sure what I’d expected: perhaps some titanium alloy-cum-composite space-timecraft coursing a metaphysical continuum inaccessible to mere protoplasm like me, but – hah! – it’s a car.

Turn the steering wheel, and the car amiably changes direction. Press the brake pedal, and it obediently slows. Press the accelerator… S-SHAZZAAAMMMM!

Good Golly, Miss Molly!

I get it now. I understand why the Fred Cziskas of the vintage world go to such expense and trouble to drive these lurid relics of the Psychedelic Age. It’s the mighty thrust of those monstrous old engines. Acceleration like this warps the mind. The sensation is addictive. Once tasted… I am lost.

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