Can-Am Racing - the forgotten madness of motorsport
A ludicrous sport made for ludicrous people.
There are a great many types of racing categories under the umbrella term of ‘motorsport’ - you’ve got Formula 1, Formula E, Nascar, Rallying, Rallycross, Touring Cars, you get the idea. There is a huge and extensive list of different things to talk about when it comes to racing. But one that doesn’t seem to be brought up very much, or at least not to my knowledge, is the absolute madness known as Can-Am racing. And so today I’ve decided I’m going to do that becuase I just discovered what Can-Am actually is and I want to write about it.
Can-Am, standing for Canadian American (as in Canadian American Challenge Cup) was originally formed as a solo racing class following the Group 7 set of rules (meaning unlimited engine capacity, no horsepower cap, as many lightweight materials as you can cram in, etc.) For context, the Formula 1 ruleboook at the time was over 100 pages long, whereas the Group 7 rules consisted mostly of four enclosed wheels, two seats and some safety precautions. That was all. Of course, this made it a big favourite of racing drivers, and an even bigger favourite of car manufacturers, who now finally had the opportunity to show what their purest, unrestricted racers could do.
It began very humbly, beginning with just two races in Canada and four races in America - hence the name. Group 7 racing had already become incredibly popular in England and Europe along with hillclimbs, and it began to morph into a worldwide obsession by the late 60s.
To put into context how insane these machines were, for those who haven’t heard of this sport before, some of the cars were boasting over 1000 horsepower whilst running on 1970s brakes, tyres, safety, and suspension. It was a truly fantastic time to be a petrolhead, watching all these wedge-shaped racers hurling down the straights and then barely making it round the corners at the end. Such racing had never really been seen before and hasn’t been seen since either.
For the first season of 1966, a large variety of teams entered - most of which bringing along modified versions of their racers from other divisions. I daresay that from the world Go, most manufacturers were hooked on the idea of creating a racer that represented the very best they could do, as I’d imagine winning with that would definately get people into the showrooms. The winner of the first season, and indeed quite a few seasons after that (in one form or another), as the Lola T70 MkII Spider.
Lola Cars was a small, British racing team that ran from 1958 all the way up to 2012, where they worked on some of the Honda F1 cars from that period. They’re quite sparcely known but very well respected for their brutal racing cars back in the 60s and 70s. However, in its day, the MkII Spider was considered pretty tame compared to the rest of Lola’s racing lineup - which was a big parting from what the company was known to do. But that’s not to say it was delicate by any means.
It was sporting a 5.3L Ford V8 producing about 400 horsepower, which created a rocketship in a pretty much bare chassis that only weight 720kg. It could do 0-60 in 3.8 seconds, which is still blistering even today, and the fastest speed it ever clocked was around 193mph. Lola apparently experimented with fitting a bigger, GM-sourced 7.0L V8 in some of the prototypes, but to no avail; the engine was simply too unreliable for racing use.
The very late 1960s is when Can-Am racing really started to pick up speed. More professional teams were starting to get involved, and the lunacy really began to take off. You’ve probably seen images in the past of older racecars with enormously tall rear spoilers; those were Can-Am cars. In 1970, the governing body running the sport ended up banning those massive wings, which meant the teams needed to find a way to create enough downforce to keep all that power on the road, or risk a potential fatal crash as drivers tried to contain the ridiculous amount of horsepower the machines were making through the corners. And this is where a small American team called Chaparral had a rather radical idea.
Anyone who’s played Gran Turismo 5, as I did when I was younger, may or may not immediately recognise the name Chaparral, as their cars seemed to be a particular favourite for the AI racers. Gran Turismo 5 is a great game for Can-Am cars, if you’re interested in having a go in some digitally. Just thought I’d put that out there. Chaparral Motors was in its day a pioneer in building and racing cars, doing so over a relatively short 7 year period - from 1963 to 1970. However, that time was still long enough to create a few interesting enough race cars to get themselves featured in a PS3 game and have their name burned into my memory.
What Chaparral came up with in response to this new rule was this - the 2J. A pretty unassuming looking car from the front, fitted with a solution was pretty far from just fitting a massive spoiler. What the company did was take two fans, taken I believe from the radiator of a tank, and fit them to the back of the car. They powered these fans with an additional two-stroke, 49 horsepower, twin-cylinder engine from a snowmobile that they had fitted to the car. On top of that, they also fitted a pair of plastic skirts to the sides, in a similar fashion to the idea of Ground Effect that dominated Formula 1 in only a few year’s time. There was even rumours at the time that the fans alone could push the car along at up to 40mph.
Besides the funky downforce generating, the car was fitted with a 7.0L Chevrolet V8 (similar to the one they wanted to fit to the Lola, I assume?). There seems to be a wide spectrum of results online about how much power that V8 produces, but the general consensus seems to be that it’s somewhere around the 650 horsepower mark. It could do 0-60 in 3.2 seconds, and could apparently reach a top speed of 245mph, and sometimes even corner that fast! For what it was, it was also incredibly light - the fan car with two engines only weights about 820kg. That’s a lot less than... almost any car at all.
Sadly, the 2J was killed of before it ever got its time to shine. The SCCA (the governing body for the sport) had been in a feud with McLaren for quite some time over whether the 2J should be allowed. Before this debate popped up, they had actively been encouraging teams to use “moving aerodynamics” in place of spoilers, but between the 1970 and 1971 seasons they eventually ruled that no car in Can-Am should have any engine fitted that doesn‘t power the wheels. Which seems like a bit of a weird way to phrase it, but I digress.
It was at this point that the sport was starting to come to a close - the growing popularity of Formula 5000 and the looming threat of the oil crisis were slowly killing off some of the most ludicrous V8 racers the world had ever seen. The costs for competing in the sport were also o the rise, and fewer and fewer teams were deciding to join the ranks, and yet fewer still were deciding to stay there. However, just before the sport went away forever, we got one gem, this time coming all the way from Europe, where a fancy little endurance car known as the Porsche 917 had been dominating races like Le Mans. And so what did Porsche do?
They simply converted it into a Can-Am car. This is the Porsche 917/30, otherwise known as one of the most powerful racing cars ever built. Under that wedge-shaped exterior - which was basically a standard 917 short-tail body with the roof and nose stripped away - was a 5.3L twin-turbo Flat-12 producing a claimed 1,500 horsepower in racing tune. Rumour has it that a Flat-16 was also tested, but the turbocharged twelve-cylinder was apparently superior. According to some very non-official looking statistics I found, the 917/30 could do 0-60 in just under 2 and a half seconds, although some sources say it could get there in just 1.9 seconds, and carry on to a top speed of 225mph. This was the true halo car of the sport - absolutely dominating in every track it raced on. But good things can’t last forever, and Porsche’s growing concerns with the sport lead them to pulling out of the ranks, and then it just... faded.
And there’s my summary of Can-Am racing. It was a fantastic sport, with awesome cars and some fantastic drivers - like Bruce McLaren himself, for example - but it was just a bit too crazy for the oil crisis to handle. I don’t have anything else to write here.