Cultivating up-and-coming champions, 1977-1986
When the Can-Am racing series petered out in 1974, it left a vacuum in the road-racing world. The thundering McLarens, Lolas, Chaparrals and Porsches had provided some of the most thrilling racing anywhere in the world, and the sound of a full grid of 700 hp behemoths was a serious assault on the senses.
The sound of a full grid of 700 hp behemoths was a serious assault on the senses. The SCCA also had another professional racing series, the F-5000 Championship. This pitted single-seat formula cars with 5-liter, stock-block V-8s against 3-liter Formula 1 cars (although few of the latter ever showed up).
The Chevy and Dodge-powered racers mostly used chassis built by Lola in England, yet there were other manufacturers as well. Although F-5000 had done fairly well, the SCCA always considered it a pale shadow of the Can-Am. So in 1977 they stuffed F-5000 cars into Can-Am suits to emulate the famed series.
The F-5000 engine rules were continued, with 302 Chevys being the most popular choice. Lola, which had sold dozens of F-5000 cars to the States, introduced a rebody kit to turn a single-seat F-5000 car into a full-bodied sports-racer. Unlike the original Can-Am, only one seat was required. The body shell cost $6,000 and many were sold (the SCCA had dropped the F-5000 series, forcing teams to switch or sit it out). Other teams upgraded their old F-5000 cars on their own, and a few even built all-new cars.
The new Can-Am cars were fearsome performers; with over 550 hp they were almost as quick as the old Can-Am cars. There was also an under-2-liter class that was mostly populated by smaller Lolas with four-cylinder engines.
The 1977 Can-Am (officially the Canadian-American Challenge) was sponsored by Citicorp and started at St. Jovite in Canada, where Tom Klauser emerged the winner driving a Schkee-Chevy. Lolas filled most of the grid. The new cars proved wickedly fast and the racing was close and exciting. Most of the races (and the championship) were won by Frenchman Patrick Tambay, driving a Lola T332CS for Lola importer Carl Haas. Tambay was the first young lion showcased in the "new" Can-Am, and he began racing in F-1 that season.
The 1978 races were just about split between beginning F-1 driver Alan Jones (in the Haas Lola), Warwick Brown, Al Holbert and Elliot Forbes-Robinson. Jones took the title with Brown second. Two years later Jones would win the F-1 World Championship, continuing the tradition of Can-Am champs moving up the ladder. The next year more well-known drivers joined the series, with F-1 stars Jacky Ickx and Keke Rosberg winning races. In addition to the new stars, former F-1 greats like Ickx dropped in for track time and extra money. The 1979 champ was Ickx in a Lola.
Patrick Tambay returned to the seat of a Haas Lola for 1980 and carried away six of the 10 races. Lolas were still the dominant cars, but other chassis designs such as Bobby Rahal's Prophet and Al Holbert's CAC-1 were also competitive. The all-new Lola T530 was a purpose-built Can-Am car, not a converted F-5000 car.
In 1981 rising star Geoff Brabham won the championship in one, followed by Teo Fabi in a March 817. Third was Porsche superstar Al Holbert, with then-rookie Danny Sullivan in fourth. Brabham would later win the IMSA GTP Championship four years in a row, as well as the Sebring endurance race.
Sullivan was just getting his feet wet in pro racing, and the lessons he learned in the Can-Am stood him well. His first car proved to be a total failure, which made Sullivan look bad until he finally got a decent Lola late in the season. Suddenly, he was a frontrunner and, before the season was up, Sullivan was marked for greater things. Two years later he was in Formula 1, and in 1985 he won the Indy 500.
The series continued to train aspiring stars in 1982. Al Unser, Jr. won the championship in a Frissbee GR-3. "Little Al" came to the Can-Am straight from driving little Volkswagen-powered Super Vees, but after a year herding Big Iron in the Can-Am, he graduated to Indy cars in 1983. He would go on to win Indy in 1992 and 1994.
In 1983 Canadian Jacques Villeneuve Sr. drove a Frissbee to the championship, followed by Jim Crawford in a Ford-powered Ensign. Villeneuve, younger brother of Ferrari F-1 driver Gilles Villeneuve and uncle of future F-1 star Jacques Villeneuve Jr., later drove in F-1 for the Arrows team.
Irishman Michael Roe wheeled a VDS-Chevy to the 1984 Championship over Crawford in a March-Chevy. But this year there were no future F-1 or Indy winners in the field. Although there were still enough teams to hold a race, the quality of the field was slipping.
Things got worse in 1985, with smaller fields and little media attention. Rick Miaskiewicz took an aged Frissbee to victory over Horst Kroll. The last year of the "new" Can-Am was 1986, when Kroll thrashed an old Frissbee to victory. Only four races were held, the same number of races held the last year of the original Can-Am. The handwriting was on the wall, so SCCA closed the books.
A consortium of team owners attempted to keep the series alive on their own the next few years, running mainly converted Indy cars. In 1998 the Can-Am name was borrowed for a sports car series run by USAC, but it only lasted two years.
Despite its difficulties, the 1977-1986 Can-Am series served as an important training ground for Formula 1 and the Indy car series. The list of drivers who got their first taste of professional racing in Can-Am is quite impressive, and for that we can be thankful.
Today, 1977-1986 Can-Am cars are often available at reasonable prices (much less than early Can-Am cars) and can be run in some historic racing events. They are still as fast as ever, but some have not been properly prepared or maintained over the years, so prospective purchases must be carefully inspected by an expert. But with due caution and proper preparation, you too can tread on the pedals of Sullivan, Ickx, Rosberg and Unser. Esteemed company, indeed.
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