I HAVE BEEN SPENDING THE part of the time over here when I hoped to have my feet up by viewing sundry of the Can-Am races. A full report (or fuller, anyway) will come in conjunction with some colour which I 'am trying to extract from the clutches of my No 1 employer, but meanwhile a few remarks might not come amiss. As you know, these Can-Am races are a series of six contests for Group Seven cars (two-seater formule libre, to you) cobbled up between constructors and promoters to fill that awful aching hole between seasons. The Can part of the the means Canada, where the maple leafs (leaves?) come from, and also for that matter the jolly courses of Mosport and St Jovite. I gather that the latter is like Clermont Ferrand only greener, which makes it a driver's circuit anyway: The other four tracks are New York's Bridgehampton (in the sand dunes), California's Laguna Seca (more seca than laguna) and Riverside (known as Andersonville) and finally Las Vegas's Stardust Raceway, or the N urburgring of the Alkali Flats. All of course are artificial tracks and of the last three (I haven't seen the others) Laguna Seca is the only one that I would give house room to even though it is a bit narrow for those galumphing great bolides.
Anyway it is now a matter of history that John Surtees took three out of the six and thereby gained enough money, to pull the Labour government out of hock sorry, pawn. By this he proved not only that he is back on the brave pills after last year's terrible shunt but also that he is damn near the best driver around. If he doesn't swamp himself with technicalities next year on the Honda-engined F1 Lola he should be a force to reckon with. Speaking of forces to reckon with (hereinafter referred to as FTRW), the pukka road racing boys put it over the Indy-type drivers drummed up for the occasion. Part of this was village politics from the big factories (Ford and G M were very interested) resulting in unsuitable cars but a lot of it was simply lack of proper preparation and/or sorting out. The local sporty-car boys were more troublesome, as Jim Hall and Phil Hill were the team to worry about at most of the races (P Hill took Laguna Seca) with their winged Chaparrals; however, I don't think it would be unkind to say that Hall gets his speed from a great familiarity with the car and Hill, who was always the Number One sports Ferrari driver, is tremendously aided by the advanced design. Of the visitors, McLaren was a threat until he succumbed to the temptation to fit fuel injection in the middle of the series, his teammate Amon looked good enough to be signed up by Ferrari next year, Graham Hill drove in only one race I think but finished third (yes, I have heard he is driving for Lotus next year; am flabbergasted) and Stewart looked good in an unreliable car.
Conversely the domestics included the always threatening Gurney, who won Bridgehampton but b---d his Weslake Ford (predictably) in most of the others from spreading himself too thin. The, coming man Andretti showed his class by breezing through one consolation race from the back row but suffered mechanical problems otherwise in his Mecom Lola with factory Ford J car package. A J Foyt did nothing, while Parnelli Jones made headlines bunting Surtees off the track at Laguna Seca, proved that he could go quickly on a couple of occasions, but generally disappointed the fans. To give them justice, the oval-track boys generally had just flown troin a midget race and were due back for a sprint car race so they might not have been on top form. After all, they aren't terribly interested in road racing as they learned their trade on the tracks and besides, sixth place, at the Sacramento 100 miler pays more than a win in any of the European G Ps. And that, kiddies, is the reason why Americans don't build GP cars for European races.
The sensation of the series, really, was the performance of a young chap named Mark Donohue. With a Chevy-engined Lola, he finished second in the overall standings by winning one of the Canadian races (Mosport) and by being consistently being well placed in the others. He was mother-henned by Roger Penske, who used to do a bit of racing himself, and apparently he is smart enough to listen to Mamma. It will be interesting to see if he continues to go faster or whether he will be one of those blokes who is smoother than all hell but, has no tiger.
Anyway, you will get further prognostications, technical details, and so forth in, the full report in Due Course.
On the amateur front, there was an extremely interesting function the other day at Riverside raceway (out in the desert atop of Box Springs, Grade) put on ,by the SCCA. This organisation is dedicated to the thousands of amateur drivers all over America and the Riverside meet was in fact the championship runoff for all the SCCA regions.
It was as if the BRSC held heats in Scotland, Border Counties, Lancs and Yorks, the Midlands, Wales, Eastern Counties, Home Counties,West Country, South Coast, and London after seeing which drivers amassed the top score of points in racing all summer long. The best three representatives from each region for each class would then come to Oulton Park, say, and have a two-day Feast of Speed sorting out not only the national champions for each class but also! by a point system, the best region. I must say it was interesting to see, seven smartly run-off races a day and generally speaking the standard of driving was quite high although there were rather more Abominable Snowmen (thank you, Mr Boddy) than one finds in club races at Brands, say.
To European eyes there were a lot of peculiarities as the SCCA class system is very odd indeed, working on supposed power to weight ratios instead of cylinder capacities. For instance highly modded Chevrolet Corvairs were lumped in with TR 2s and Lotus Super 7s (but all were et by a Porsche 911 that started in the supposedly slower class behind) ; a Morgan Plus 4 handily held off a row, of tweaked Porsche Speedsters Dodge Darts and Mustangs (Grp' 2 they sounded like) were in with Lotus Cortinas and Alfa GTAs; and a surprisingly quick Volvo P 1800 of all things handily beat, a field full of MGBs, Datsuns, Alfa' spiders and the like. And wasn't it grand boys when about 25 modded Cobras, Sting Rays, and hot Mustangs were set loose in A and B modified. There was only one really good shunt in-that race but they had to hang out the red flag for it . . . the winner of the B modified was black-flagged eight times, which, gives you some-idea of how seriously they take their racing.
Might not be a bad idea for the club boys in England.
ALTHOUGH THE END of a racing season always tends to be something of an anticlimax, this year's CanAm series of sportscar races has done quite a lot to liven things up. Starting back in September at the St Jovite circuit in Quebec, the series finished on November 12 at the Stardust International Raceway at Las Vegas. I went over for both these races and to present the Johnson. J-Wax Trophy, presented by the sponsors of the series to the driver with the best overall performance. This turned out to be John Surtees, with three wins out of the three races he finished with his Team Surtees Lolas. The trophy isn't the only thing John collected. His three race wins and his victory in the series plus all the incidental bonuses must have netted him over $100,000 fair' reward for labour.I think everybody.must be well pleaseq with the way the series has gone. The drivers are happy because the keen competition and the generous prize money made the series an attractive proposition for most of the topclass types from Europe and America. The, spectators are happy-they proved that by turning up in larger numbers than even the organisers predicted. And the organisers themselves are happy at the interest. and support which the series drummed up. But as with all new promotions, there were a few bugs which will need to be ironed out before next year's series. The time-keeping on many American circuits simply isn't up to the top European standards. Although meetings like Watkjns Glen have proper timing facilities, some of the circuits still make mistakes through inexperience. At Las Vegas, for instance, they credited Jim Hall with a best practice time which was a full 1.3sec faster than his best true time. In fact, it did not matter all that much since he was probably second fastest anyway, but mistakes like this could have affected the other drivers quite considerably - and they should not. happen. Another measure very unpopular with the drivers was this split-practice business based on the Indianapolis system. One circuit had two practice days, and they made the top 20 drivers on their entry list qualify for the top 20 positions on the grid on the first day. Then the rest of the field qualified for their positions on the second day. This works well enough at Indy, where they postpone practice if conditions are bad, but on this occasion it rained on the second day and some of the top drivers were coming in with times which were far slower/ than they could have returned in the dry. As it was the second day they still were unlikely to come any higher than 21 st! It just shows you can't mix road-racing practices with ideas that may work at Indy, where conditions are so much more specialised.
Even though the prize money was so lavish, I still think they could have improved the distribution system. I'd like to have seen some of the money distributed as starting money where necessary, and I'm sure most of the drivers would have been happier too. I know that in theory it seems fairer to reward the drivers who finish the race with the prize money, but motor racing is such an expensive business that I feel you have to offer entrants some payment to help them bring themselves, their cars and their mechanics all the way across America, or even over from Europe, for races like these. I think it would have been better to offer some starting money which would be taken off the prize money for those who finished high enough to qualify for awards. Then those who didn't finish would at least have something to help pay the bills. They've been lucky with the talent they've attracted for the races this year, whereas next time they might have trouble roping-in some of 1966's once bitten also-rans for a second go. A system like this would, I'm sure, guarantee even keener competition in future.
One thing this CanAm series really has emphasised is just how attractive these big hairy Group Seven sports cars are to the general race-watching public. I can't help wondering if it wasn't a mistake for the organisers to drop Group Seven racing in Britain for next season. I imagine the CanAm organisers are rather worried about the effects of this on their entry list next year. As far as I know they have not thought of changing the competition to cover other types of car instead, as it's difficult to imagine any other kind of car having the international appeal which would bring together European drivers like John Surtees and Graham Hill with the American top names like A J Foyt and Parnelli Jones. The combination is an unbeatable crowd puller and these big cars are pure theatre anyway. Not that designing and building a successful Group Seven car is a matter of big engines, light bodies, brute force and ignorance. I took a look at Jim Hall's Chaparral and that car is one of the sharpest, most specialised and most highly developed raCing machines I've ever seen. There is so much there that the car deserves an article all to itself - watch this space!
But maybe the situation isn't so bad after all. If this series grows to include more events, keener competition and even bigger prize-money - and the signs point to just that - then it will be worth people's while to develop a car purely for the series, in the same way that Lotus and BRM developed cars purely for Indianapolis. And if they can do this and win, the prestige is all the greater.
One thing for which I'm grateful to the series is that it gave me the chance to visit Las Vegas. Most people must know by now what a fantastic place the gambling capital of the world is. But it's only when you actually see it spread out before you that you realise what an incredible undertaking it must all have been.