Nostalgia is a funny thing. It twists our memories, removing the warts of time, and leaving only the perfection we want to remember. I was reminded of this by the recent book, “Can-Am Cars in Detail: Machines and Minds Racing Unrestrained,” by Pete Lyons and Peter Harholdt.
With Harholdt’s eye-catching photos and text from Lyons, the acknowledged expert on the SCCA’s original “big banger” championship of the 1960s and ’70s, is a worthwhile purchase for fans of the Can-Am Series, who remember it as a barn burner.
But, do those memories match the reality of history?
The Can-Am debuted in 1966 as a rules-free “run what you brung” tour with massive 750 horsepower Detroit stock block V-8s stuffed into lightweight two-seat sports racing chassis barely able to cope with what they had to offer. Conceived by John Bishop, then head of the SCCA, and Jim Kaser, the boss of the club’s professional racing department, the Can-Am grew out of the loosely connected Fall Pro Racing Series for this “unlimited” V-8 powered sports racing set.
At that time, when Formula One was just transitioning out of its puny 1.5-liter era, these befendered monsters, featuring the likes of Texan Jim Hall’s Chevy Chaparrals and Englishman Eric Broadley’s Lola T70s were the fastest race cars on the planet. What the genius of Bishop and Kaser did was to take this thundering herd, combine it with its largest purses seen and add in the top stars of the sport to form an irresistible sprint series that towered above all else in road racing, including F-1, and the traditional long distance Sebring and Le Mans classics.
While the Can-Am did clearly fulfill its promise in its debut season with a truly memorable fight for superiority between a number of different drivers and teams, by 1967 it had become largely a Team McLaren playground with the introduction of its advanced McLaren M6s, cars featuring up-to-date aerodynamics and the latest in F-1 type suspensions.
Moreover, as the years progressed, McLaren solidified its domination, bolstered by the even more advanced M8 series, which used its engines as a fully stressed chassis member. Even though there was serious opposition on occasion, it always seemed to quickly fade away, leaving behind a ragtag field of private entries, aging, or outclassed McLarens and Lolas to fill out the grids.
Not until the arrival of Porsche’s turbocharged 917 Spyders in the early 1970s did McLaren lose its grip on the Can-Am gold; swept away in a flood of 917 German turbo power and forced to depart the series for the greener pastures in F-1. Ironically, though, by 1974 those privateer backmarkers, who suffered first through the domination of the factory McLarens and then the Porsches, had had enough. Together the “little guys” successfully lobbied the SCCA to end the German invasion and restore the balance of power back to Detroit.
The V-8s won, and the series lost, dying on the vine before the end of the ’74 campaign because too few cared. Uniquely in its death, the original Can-Am (there were at least two unsuccessful successors) has achieved legendary status despite its obvious failings. And, while perhaps it might have had the stuff to be called a legend, given its time and place, today it is an accolade in doubt.
What makes it so is that its time and place were without television coverage where the warts and flaws of the Can-Am were not viewed by an audience of millions, but by the meager thousands who attended in person and who were the lifeblood of its legend.
Given this, one suspects the Can-Am would be perceived far differently in today’s instant electronic era.
As for me, an old fart, I intend to stick with my memories, and leave reality to others.