Freshly separated from Ferrari, John Surtees was looking for fresh opportunities during the summer of 1966. The new Can-Am championship was simply too good an opportunity to miss
writer Simon Arron
Would Enzo Ferrari have objected to John Surtees racing a factory Lola T70? Most certainly. Did he mind if his talisman used exactly the same car but instead entered it under his own name? Of course not. The modern equivalent – Sebastian Vettel driving a self-run AMG Mercedes in an event at the Nordschleife – is sadly unthinkable, but the world was a different place in 1965.
The seeds were sown two years beforehand. “I was doing all the development testing for Ferrari’s sports-prototypes as well as racing in F1,” Surtees says. “At the end of 1963 Ferrari mentioned the possibility of taking a car to America, because I think Luigi Chinetti – the local importer – was interested. I got one of the Lola lads I knew to come over to Maranello and we stripped out everything we could to reduce weight, but when I returned from the trip I told Enzo it wasn’t possible to do anything, because our car was still too heavy and needed more power.
“Shortly afterwards, Lola boss Eric Broadley mentioned his new T70 sports-racer and wondered whether I’d get involved with the testing. I asked Enzo and said I thought it would be good, because in Italy Ferrari had become rather isolated. Maserati, Alfa Romeo and Lancia weren’t racing any more, but in England everybody was piggy-backing each other with technology. He agreed so long as it didn’t clash with anything Ferrari was doing and I did it under my own name.”
The Team Surtees T70 made its debut in 1965, Surtees winning the Player’s 200 at Mosport Park and the Guards Trophy at Brands Hatch, where Jackie Stewart took third in a sister car. The pair then ventured to Canada, where Surtees won at Mont-Tremblant prior to a non-championship event at Mosport. “I’d been driving the newer chassis,” Surtees says, “with Jackie in the tried and tested car that I had previously used to win races. Both were to the same specification, but for Mosport Jackie asked whether he could try the newer one. I didn’t mind at all, but during practice he didn’t feel particularly happy so I took it out to give things a check. Then, coming past the pits…” – he flips his right hand on the table.
It transpired that an experimental front upright, sent to Lola for evaluation, had been fitted to the T70 in error and its disintegration triggered the mishap that ruptured his kidney and smashed his pelvis, among multiple injuries.
“I guess I did Jackie a bit of a favour,” he says with a chuckle. “While recuperating, I felt I should give all my attention to Ferrari when I was fit to drive again. I was due to drive a Bignotti-prepared Lola at Indy in 1966, for instance, but pulled out and suggested they call Graham Hill instead…”
Surtees was fit for the start of the F1 season, at Monaco in May, won in Belgium three weeks later and then famously split with Ferrari following a political row that erupted at Le Mans. He switched to Cooper-Maserati on the F1 front and kept a close eye on the impending Can-Am series, with a six-race schedule running from September to November.
“Can-Am promised good starting money,” Surtees says, “and we calculated that against our costs. Even as a world champion you weren’t paid fortunes in those days and I’d earn more from Can-Am in 1966 than I had from winning the F1 world title two years earlier. It was a great series with some fantastic circuits and the standard was very high in terms of international competition – but the Americans had developed the formula and they were also very good. It was really enjoyable – the cars were quick and you could really drive them.
“Initially I contacted Traco to build us some 5.9-litre V8s and set up with Malcolm Malone, who worked at Lola. He was happy to drive between events and act as my mechanic, so I bought a Chevy van, which we were to pick up in New York, and shipped the T70 across on a trailer. That was it, the Team Surtees Can-Am challenge, though Malcolm and I had made useful contacts during previous visits and were able to call on some good people to help out during race meetings. There would be some fun post-race parties along the way, but as there were only two of us we didn’t have much time for that.”
Surtees won the opening race at Mont-Tremblant, beating the McLaren-Elvas of Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon, but engine problems sidelined him at Bridgehampton (as Dan Gurney maintained the T70’s winning start) and he was caught up in a start-line collision at Mosport, where Mark Donohue triumphed in Roger Penske’s T70. Surtees was fourth in the first of two legs at Laguna Seca, but suspension damage put him out of the second and Phil Hill won on aggregate in his aerodynamically sophisticated Chaparral, complete with pedal-adjustable wings.
Despite three races without a point, the series’ open nature meant Surtees remained a title contender going into the penultimate race at Riverside. “That’s the event that really sticks in my mind,” he says. “Jim Hall’s Chaparrals were a real threat and it proved to be a big tactical battle. It was obvious that I wouldn’t be able to recover if Jim got away and went whistling down the straight with his wing lowered. Around the infield, despite not having wings and things, one had to go like hell to make sure one was as close as possible to Jim, or even just a bit ahead, when you reached the straight, so that you always had a chance of getting in behind and grabbing a tow. That’s what happened. I was able to hang in there and dive through to pass him.”
With erstwhile championship leader Hill sidelined by failing fuel pressure, the two went to the finale – at the splendidly named Stardust Raceway, Las Vegas (now buried beneath the area known as Spring Valley) – level on 18 points, with the consistent Mark Donohue just one behind.
“Las Vegas was quite an experience,” Surtees says. “You had to acclimatise to a sense of timelessness. The hotels doubled up as casinos, there were no clocks anywhere and there was always the same amount of interior light. When you left in the morning to go to the track you’d pass all these people playing slot machines… and in many cases they’d still be there when you came back in the evening. What was nice, though, was seeing some real stars in the shows down the road. One year  I went to watch Frank Sinatra and thought his performance very mundane, until he introduced his new single – My Way – and really came alive. I was very pleased to witness that.
“Back in 1966, though, I didn’t really get things together in practice and we were scratching around. I was a bit worried about the Chaparrals, Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme and so on. I was on the second row and thought I might not see the others again if they got away, but sometimes you get things dead right and my start that day was one of those moments – it simply couldn’t have gone better. I was able to dart through to take an immediate lead and the nature of the circuit made it difficult for anybody to overtake. I was able to control things from the front, the car ran faultlessly and I won the championship, so finally something that season had gone right.
“I’d been very sad to leave Ferrari and perhaps I should have dealt with things a different way, but one year before he died Enzo said to me, ‘John, we must remember the good times and not the mistakes’.”