When ‘no rules’ ruled racing

Why does the short-lived Can-Am still remain fresh in the memory after 50 years? | writer Pete Lyons

Chaparral, Lola, McLaren, Porsche, Shadow… such marques gave us the big, bellowing, basically unlimited Can-Am sports-racers of 1966-1974. These mighty machines may be blazing into their golden anniversary years now, but they might well survive in the hearts of enthusiasts forever. 

Why? Because they recall something now nearly extinct in motor racing: freedom of design. 

North America’s original Canadian-American Challenge Cup Series imposed amazingly minimal rules and restrictions, at least at the outset. The two primary requirements were bodywork covering the tyres and cockpits just wide enough to accommodate an intrepid passenger, so the vehicles could be described as sports cars. Safety standards also had to be met, but otherwise a creative Can-Am mind was pretty much free to run mad. 

And in that era before widely accessible computer simulation, new ideas had to be tried in the metal and on the track. What fun it was to watch. 

There was never a ceiling on engine size, only a floor. Ever larger engines, turbochargers, even multiple engines, transmissions and drivelines in any configuration, bigger tyres (or sometimes smaller ones), no minimum weights, no forbidden materials, no specified components, and in the early years no reins on aerodynamics, car dimensions, fuel capacity… Racers are wired to defy limits anyway, and lack of artificial limits gave us the most innovative, intriguing engineering we had ever seen. Perhaps the design diversity we cherished in Can-Am is rivalled today only by TV’s Robot Wars

Can-Am was a province of pure performance. Audacious, imaginative, stunningly powerful, these road-racing machines were demonstrably the fastest of their day, usually faster than Formula 1 cars around the same circuits. 

To aficionados who appreciated cars for themselves, technical interest compensated often processional racing. If gaps grew between competitors, well, there was more time to enjoy each one’s thunderous passage. We thought we were at the summit of the science of speed.

Beginning in 1967, McLaren’s ‘Bruce & Denny Show’ struck some observers as monotonous, but others were fascinated to study a couple of quiet Kiwis (and their tiny team of multinational talents) tearing apart big-banger sports car racing and rebuilding it in their own image. So we Yanks had professionalised what used to be club competition? All right, the Olde World would show us how to do it professionally.

Though the cars were the stars, the intrepid individuals who manhandled those monsters were pretty special, too. Officially the ‘Million-Dollar Can-Am’ was a championship for drivers and it drew the best. All seven title winners – John Surtees, Bruce McLaren (twice), Denny-the-Bear Hulme (ditto), Peter Revson, George Follmer, Mark Donohue, Jackie Oliver – were Formula 1 racers as well. Against them? The likes of Amon, Andretti, Brabham, Cevert, Elford, Gethin, Gurney, Hall, Hill, Hobbs, Jones, Redman, Rodriguez, Siffert, Stewart and others renowned in many worlds. 

North American sports car racing was our first native motor sport species to become a fixture destination for international drivers, teams, constructors and automotive manufacturers;
as such, it was the first to earn genuine international respect for our racing and racers. 

A more significant milestone: the J Wax Can-Am is believed to be history’s first motor racing series supported by a title sponsor. This was a manufacturer of car polish that hired Stirling Moss to help publicise the series and posted what were for the time enormous amounts of prize money. 

When John Surtees seized the inaugural Can-Am Championship in 1966, winning three of the six rounds, Britain’s Autosport described his total earnings as “A fantastic $70,000 – it was better than winning all of the Formula 1 world championship races of 1966!” Bruce McLaren, whose team had not yet started dominating the series, mused that despite not winning a race he had earned more in six Can-Am events than in three full Grand Prix seasons. Such word spreads. North America’s lucrative Can-Am schedule began appearing on race team calendars worldwide.

Cannily, the architects of the new series made participation easy as well as attractive. In 1966, the six events dovetailed neatly with the annual autumn tour by the F1 circus to Watkins Glen and Mexico City, on October 2 and 23 respectively. Grand Prix drivers who had last raced at Monza on September 4, but then faced the rest of the month off, jumped at the opportunity to earn real money the very next Sunday. Canada’s Mont-Tremblant, north of Montréal, hosted the inaugural Can-Am race on September 11, with rounds two and three following immediately. The final trio slotted around the two F1 events, winding up at Las Vegas on November 13. 

But Surtees and company ran into hard opposition, not only from North American road course specialists such as Donohue, Gurney and Jim Hall but also Indy 500 men Mario Andretti, AJ Foyt and Parnelli Jones. At Riverside on October 30 the starting grid extended to 38 cars, one of the biggest in Can-Am history. That turned out to be one of the best races, too, with a barnburner of a battle in broiling heat between Hall in his winged white Chaparral and Surtees, whose lovely red Lola finally prevailed.

For fans who had already seen close, tense racing at Mont-Tremblant and Bridgehampton in particular, the new series looked to have an exciting future. 

Unlike most sports, where it’s mostly about the athlete, motor sport also caters to us motorheads. We admire the drivers and other people involved in the human competition, but equally we enjoy the machinery and the technology, the craftsmanship, the sounds and the smoke. Let us acknowledge, too, that we savour racing’s sense of dancing dangerously on the brink of disaster. 

In the ‘no limits’ Can-Am we found all the above mixed with often dramatic leaps in performance. Going ever faster had not yet fallen into disfavour, and in our wild, winged, wondrous racing machines we saw a parallel of NASA’s venture to the moon. It all seemed in sweet synchronicity with the experimental mood of the Psychedelic Sixties. 

Is that thrill gone? Maybe not, but it’s rarer. Granted, racing is vastly safer now, reliability still seems unreal and these plus tight constraints have produced tighter competition. 

But plumb your soul: will the racing cars you watch next weekend plant themselves in your heart for the next 50 years?