November 1 marks 30 years since Can-Am raced for the final time. We reflect on its highs, lows and legacy
It was once a global series that carried enormous prestige, attracted the finest drivers in the world and spawned some of the zaniest and most revolutionary racing cars ever seen. But 30 years ago, 1 November 1987, the Canadian-American Challenge Cup raced for the final time. This once giant of motorsport died a spluttering, innocuous death totally unfitting of its former self.
Despite this, the moniker still sits proud alongside the likes of Group B or GT1 as a by-gone time of motorsport that leaves fans wistful at its mention – seemingly occupying a separate sphere beyond that of conventional rallying and sportscar racing.
There’s good reason for that iconicity. Take the cars, in terms of their openness, the regulations were as close to a blank cheque as an engineer could ask for. It had to be a two-seater sportscar with bodywork over the wheels, but little else beyond was mandated. Engine capacity, aspiration and aerodynamics were all unrestricted. The result was machines that were faster than their Formula 1 contemporaries – Emerson Fittipaldi's pole laptime at the 1974 Mosports Grand Prix was four seconds down.
A season was initally held over six rounds in the autumn, consisting of two-hour races and a minimum prize fund of $20,000. And it’s the latter which is partly why so many grand prix drivers split their driving duties. Peter Revson, Graham Hill, Dan Gurney, Chris Amon, Mark Donohue, Phil Hall, Bruce McLaren and the first ever series champion John Surtees – they all raced in what was just the inaugural 1966 season.
For 1974 Can-Am champion Jackie Oliver, it’s easy to boil down why the series was so well attended by drivers and the likes of McLaren, Porsche, Chaparral, Ferrari and Lola in its first iteration:
'There are two things that made the Can-Am series interesting,' he told us. 'One being the college years in the ‘60s and ‘70s in the United States and Canada. A lot of college students would turn up at the circuits to camp and there were parties, beer bottle trees, mooning. The audience was big and they were rowdy from Friday, through Saturday night and the race on Sunday.
'Secondly, a grid of 25 to 30 cars with 1000bhp is very spectacular with that amount of noise and grunt. So it was a great spectator sport. The opening laps, remembering the cars were pretty crude, but having 1000bhp meant they could run very big wings and big tyres so they had a lot of grip at the expense of drag. That meant the cars were quick in the corners as well – even before they added ground effect.'
One Marque Domination
It wasn’t perfect however. The first phase of Can-Am suffered from the indignity of monopoly. From 1967-71, McLaren took back-to-back championships bookended by Bruce McLaren in his M6A through to Peter Revson in the thunderous Chevrolet-powered M8F.
Sportscar ace and former Can-Am racer Brian Redman, along with many others, cites the one-marque command, next inherited by Porsche, as the reason why the series bled out in the mid-1970s.
'The Porsche 917/30 was the car that killed the Can-Am series because of the development done by Penske, Donohue and Porsche,' he says.
In qualifying trim, with the two turbos assisting the 5.4-litre V12, 1580bhp propelled a sub-850kg car. It was, and remains, the most powerful racer ever built.
'The car was about three seconds a lap faster than anything else at that time so, effectively, at the end of 1973, it was banned by the Sports Car Club of America in that they reduced the amount of fuel that was available.'
With the oil crisis looming large, for 1974 Can-Am evolved into an economy formula. Cars had to match a race average of three miles per gallon – a relative but by no means insubstantial feat. The Shadow DN4 inherited the crown with Oliver at the wheel. But the global political climate, wild expense of the series and declining audiences led to the series’s cancellation. A colossus of motorsport was now down and out.
'The world economics and the fuel crisis made it difficult so the grids were shrinking. People weren’t attending the races, the series was crumbling,' says Oliver. 'It had to come to an end because unlimited regulations didn’t stop anything.'
'On a road course it had to come to an end too because the cars were too powerful, too fast for the circuits. It’s amazing more weren't actually killed in that series because the cars were so mighty. That era had to pass.'
And pass it did. However, tears weren't shed by everyone.
'Can-Am, and although I don’t like to say it, was over-blown really,' according to Redman.
'The attraction was unlimited power, the noise. But in fact, if you look at the races, even in the heyday, '69 and '70, the races weren’t particularly good. Bruce [McLaren] and Denny [Hulme] were winning them all and then Porsche came in.'
Oliver disagrees, however: 'A lot of series have been dominated by one make. That’s not unusual. It happens in F1, sportscar racing now. It doesn’t necessarily detract from that.'
Out of the Ashes
And it seems as though the majority sided with Oliver as just a couple of years later the name and core ethos of the series would return. For 1977 the SCCA wanted to recapture one of American racing’s finest eras. Since the end of the first chapter of Can-Am, F5000 grids had swelled Stateside and attracted a strong contingent of drivers. For chapter two, F5000 was going to underpin Can-Am. It was no longer a blank canvas; the result was a single-seater series with enclosed wheels and wrapped-around bodywork.
Redman boils the rebirth down to 'a marketing exercise'. And so, on somewhat dubious terms, the series returned. But with an initial uncertainty it meant only Haas was ready for pre-season testing, and the adapted F5000 cars it ran couldn’t produce the necessary downforce. Redman found this out with near-fatal consequences during the opening weekend at St Jovite in Quebec.
'I hadn’t seen the car before I got to the track. Out I go in it and it’s good. The team said: "what do you want adjusted?" and they altered the front wing by a quarter of an inch. On the next lap, at about 160mph, it took off at the top of the hill, went about 40 feet up into the air, turned over and came down,' he says.
'I broke my neck, broke my left shoulder, split my breast bones and broke two ribs on the left-hand side. The roll bar broke and so my helmet was worn down each side.'
Such was the severity of the injuries that Redman’s heartbeat stopped. It was thanks to the circuit doctor's experience as a heart specialist that he was revived.
'It was close,' says Redman. 'My head was drilled and I had a huge apparatus screwed on.'
'This was the third bad accident and I just felt somebody, some entity, was trying to stop me racing. I was determined not to be stopped.'
Haas decided to withdraw from the race as a result of Redman’s crash, but the team returned and employed the services of Patrick Tambay to deputise. Tambay won six of his seven races to take the 1977 championship spoils. His domination courted the interest of McLaren and the Frenchman moved to F1. But still the series commanded appeal and Alan Jones was drafted in. In similar all-conquering style, the Haas driver claimed pole position in all nine races. He too was a title winner in this new age of Can-Am.
By 1979 the revised series had gathered real impetus and that showed with Hollywood and racing giant Paul Newman fielding a team. Jones had defected from Haas to Williams in F1 – where he would win the title a year later – but heading in the other direction and to fill his spot was Jacky Ickx. The eight-time grand prix winner returned the team its third back-to-back title, beating none other than Keke Rosberg to the spoils.
A Second Death
But after the initial promise, the rejuvenated Can-Am began to falter by 1982. Race attendance declined and so too did the media coverage. When Haas couldn’t attract a title sponsor and, for the first time in its motorsport history, signed a pay-driver in Jeff Wood, the series’ future looked short-lived. And so it proved to be. Haas pulled out prior to the season and the reigning teams champion Team VDS moved across to CART. In the season that followed the series had lost its credibility and Newman also followed out the door.
The drivers, the teams and the money had drained and by 1987 Can-Am, what was left, what little resemblance it had to its once shining past, was totally out of steam. After the glimmer of reigniting the past was snuffed out there was nothing but a club-level racing series with an evocative name remaining.
'There was no money, there was no million dollar prize fund and there was no unlimited sportscars. They were converted Formula 5000 cars but it wasn’t really Can-Am. The halcyon days were the early ‘60s to ‘74,' reflects Oliver.
'When I won the championship they were 8.5-litres producing 1000 horsepower. That’s what I call Can-Am.'
But time, it seems, has been kind to Can-Am. Today, 30 years on from the demise of its final, uninspiring guise, the series’s legacy is prouder than ever. The second leg has come to be somewhat fondly remembered for, initially, attracting big names again and generating closer racer than what came before. But it will always be the first iteration, regardless of the three-marque annihilation, that is held up as one of motorsport’s finest ever hours.
'It’ll never happen again,' says Redman. But thanks to the swell in popularity of historic racing its memory at least is 'very much alive and kicking.'