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The Original Can-Am Reaches its 50th Birthday

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Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme seated on the McLaren M8B that dominated the 1969 Can-Am series with the “Bruce and Denny Show” winning every race. Image courtesy of McLaren.

September 6 marks the 50th anniversary of a major cultural event in our modern history. No, we’re not talking about the debut of Star Trek.* We’re talking about the first race of the original Can-Am racing series, held at Circuit Mont-Tremblant in St. Jovite, Quebec, fifty years ago today.

A combined operation of the Sports Car Club of America and the Canadian Automobile Sports Clubs, the original Canadian-American Challenge Cup ran from 1966 through 1974 with a nearly unrestricted class of competitors based on the FIA’s Group 7 category.

Group 7 regulations for sports cars insisted on two seats (though one was often vestigial despite regulations that required them to be of “equal dimension and comfort”), two doors, working lights, “mudguards” (which really means fenders) and a host of safety equipment, such as a firewalled bulkhead between the engine and passenger, a dual braking system, a scatter shield, roll bar and safety harnesses.


1973 Porsche 917/30, the most powerful racing sports car of all time. Image courtesy of Porsche

Most importantly to sports car fans was that the FIA specified no minimum weight, no maximum tire width (only that the left and right side tires had to match size) and essentially no engine limitations. The displacement, layout, number of cylinders and type of induction (forced, normally aspirated or whatever else you could think of) were all fair game for the enterprising engineers and builders that got into the game. Short of a nitro-powered top-fuel of funny car powerplant that needed to last but a few second to cover a quarter-mile drag, no other race cars ever came close to matching the unbridled mechanical fury of the Group 7 Can-Am cars.

Along with that virtually unlimited formula, big money in the form of title sponsor Johnson Wax’s cash attracted a host of big-name drivers, including former Formula 1 and Indy 500 winners. The starting lineup in that first race included Chris Amon on pole, Bruce McLaren on P2 (driving a car of his own make) and John Surtees on the outside of row one. Other names in that premier Can-An challenge included Parnelli Jones, Mark Donohue, Dan Gurney, Lothar Motschenbacher, George Follmer and Sam Posey.

Over the years, names like Mario Andretti, Vic Elford, A.J. Foyt, Denny Hulme, Jackie Oliver, Jackie Stewart, Jo Siffert and so many more graced Can-Am races. Of the nine Can-Am season championships won during the Group 7 years from 1966 through 1974, ex-Formula 1 champion Denny Hulme claimed two titles. Ex-F1 title holder John Surtees collected one trophy. Other season winners included Peter Revson, Oliver, Follmer and, of course, Mark Donohue, whose dominant season in 1973 was delivered at the wheel of the almost too powerful Porsche 917/30.


1970 Chaparral 2J, the “Sucker Car,” which featured more innovation than actually race-track success. Image courtesy of GM.

But Bruce McLaren deserves special mention. The winner of two season titles, McLaren was also the team principle in the most dominant team that competed in Can-Am, the one that bore his name. Between 1967 and 1971, McLaren M6A and M8 models, running Chevrolet V-8 power, bore down on the field like the Yankees or Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. During that five-season stretch, McLarens won 39 of 43 races contested, including running the tables for the entire 1968 and 1969 seasons. At one point, the team won 23 races in a row spanning three seasons. And it’s not like the rest of the world was asleep at the wheel letting that get away with it.

Along with Porsche, Lola managed to stay competitive over the years with various models, mostly running Chevrolet power, but some competitors fielded Ford V-8s. Ferrari got in the game with one of the biggest V-12s they ever unleashed on a race course, though with little success. Jim Hall’s Chaparral operation often had the most innovative equipment at Can-Am races. Despite countless firsts, incredibly clever feats of engineering and backdoor support from Chevrolet, Chaparral could only count one win on its Can-Am resume, and that from the first season in 1966.

1967 McLaren M6A

McLaren M6A, the first of the orange breed that eventually dominated the Can-Am series. Image courtesy of McLaren

The spirit, creativity and unrestricted power of the Can-Am series seems poised to never be repeated. Can-Am came about at the right time. It was the beginning of the era of big sponsorship money in racing, at a time when sports car racing was still a major spectator draw. Manufacturers were willing to spend money to build things like Porsche’s 917/30, a car that had absolutely no equivalent for the street, yet the engineers spent the time and money to make it a 1,500-hp race car unlike any ever before or since. And drivers were not contractually forbidden from entering other racers. Consider that even Formula 1 drivers may have had to look for off-season work during the time, many were eager to jump at the big paydays offered by Can-Am.

Though the series was ultimately done in by the fallout from the first OPEC oil embargo and a changing consumer attitude toward performance cars in general, those nine glorious years of the Group 7 Can-Am still live with us in history. Over the next few weeks, we will look at the nine seasons, the drivers, the champions and the legacy of that last (nearly) unlimited professional race series.

* Before we get all the hate mail from the Trekkies, who will insist that the show debuted on NBC on September 8, our neighbors to the north, with whom we share this great Can-Am history, got to see the show first, on September 6.