Can Am Series 1972
First 2 races70's Racing
So THEy'RE off and the rest and of us step back a little. The first month of the new-look CanAm was full of excitement, but of somewhat the wrong kind. It was a month of upsets, both on the results sheets and on the race track-more properly upsets in the air over the track. A McLaren won the first time, but by the skin of its teeth. A Porsche won the second time, but it was not a "good" victory; it was not even exactly the "right" Porsche. Everything was shattered, everywhere flew pieces, of cars and the series, too.
A lot of this year's series was going to be The Showdown: Mild Mannered Capt. Nice vs Gorgeous Jackie the Swiss. That fell flat pretty quick. Stewart. . . well, Stewart got an ulcer. Can you imagine? An ulcer. What a he-man sport it is nowadays. That'll teach 'im to worry about money. And for Donohue the reality of what he does for a living caught up to his science and rapped him smartly on the knee.
Mosport was McLaren being challenged by Porsche and being caught with their homework down, their handling off, and Donohue on his way by to grab the pole. He thereupon ran off with the race and it really looked beautiful for him, all that grinding toil paying off. Until one of his tricky anti-lag valves stuck-not failed; just stuck. It was something to be fixed not with science, but a hammer. He rejoined and went fast, but Roger told him to 'cool it. Revson was too far ahead and there wasn't any point in throwing it. all away in pursuit. Hulme was attainable, though, struggling around one lap behind with all sorts of engine and handling and tire unbalance unhappiness. Donohue nearly attained him, he got onto the same lap and closed up. It was for a lowly second place but it was at least something to watch. Then, two lousy laps from the end, Revson's crank went snap, rocked up the back wheels and pitched him into the chickenwire. So there was Denny now struggling around in the lead, thinking every yard might be his last, with Mark storming up behind. The sick McLaren did make it though and the healthy Porsche was 55 seconds behind.
Atlanta was crashes. Crash after crash, there wasn't an end to it. "First, earlier" in the month of testing, Oliver crashed. The Shadow presented him with a stuck throttle and drove him into the bank so hard the chassis needed flying home to California for a rebuild. Next, a week later, Donohue' crashed. The Porsche performed the trick that killed Bruce McLaren: the body came off. At something nearing maximum speed on the back straight the rear body catches came loose, the win g) levered the whole thing open and the car was hurled into a wild spin across to the rail where it dug in and started cartwheeling. It must have seemed an endless ride to Mark, who pulled his arms and legs in, watched the world go by in flashes underneath, and waited for it to end. He must have felt a trace of surprise to find himself st~ll alive but he seemed at first to be unscathed. Then a doctor specializing in football injuries told him, no, his sore left knee was really a knot of shredded ligaments. There was surgery and a 6 week plaster cast and a career grounded until almost the end of the season.
Typically, Penske had a spare car (the standard aluminum) frame hack used for so much testing earlier in the year, brought up to the latest body specs) and in George Follmer (member of his Can-Am team in 1967) he found a spare driver.
Follmer is earning a reputation as Super Sub, the driver who isn't hired by the top teams but on whom they call when things get tough. He came to Atlanta before Donohue's operation, ready to qualify the car and step ,back into the grandstand if Donohue was healed in time. Follmer hadn't driven a Porsche 917 of any vintage. And he had never driven at Road Atlanta. He put the Porsche between the McLarens and in the post-qualifying interview he paid tribute to Donohue's weeks of preparation and thanked Donohue for driving him around the track to show him where to do what.
The grid for the race was a keen sight. The McLarens also had been there testing, and wider tracks at both ends, spring-rate tweaks, and aerodynamic mods brought the M20s up a lot closer to their potential. Denny grabbed the pole at a speed which was a record by more than three seconds, but Follmer and Revson were right behind him; they were practically superimposed on him, for the spread in times across all three was a third of a second. Whee! Grand Prix comes to the Can-Am! That's the way the race started out, too, the turbo Porsche out digging its way into the lead but the Kiwis refusing to let it get away. Nose to tail they went, a writhing python of brute force, around the first lap, the second lap as close as before, the third . . . but that's when it started to rot. Revson stopped on the grass along the back straight, engine dead. He climbed out, opened the tail, went straight to the magneto, and sure enough: a broken rotor. Same thing had happened a coupIe of hours before in the warmup and guess what - he was carrying a spare. He set about fitting it while the ferocious scrap went on around the lap. Whangwhumm they shot by, Follmer just keeping Hulme at bay. Around again for the fifth lap, whang-whumm-and something is wrong. Revson whirls around from his work. There is a flash of orange, something heavy slamming to earth, a spray of red clay. It's Denny, upside down. People cluster to the wreckage, heave it over onto its belly, and fire blooms. It's out quickly in a cloud of white powder, and they bend over the driver. He's moving, just coming around. He doesn't seem to know where he is or to recognize his teammate, but in response to direction he can wiggle his 'toes. It's all right then, they can pull him out and pack him off to the track hospital. Revson returns to his engine, fixes it, and rejoins. He sets fastest lap but then his oil pressure drops off and he quits.
What happened? No one can know just why but Denny "did. a Dibley." So named because English racer Hugh Dibley was the first to do a full gainer in Can-Am. The wedge nose of the McLaren got air under it, lifted up, and, like a hydroplane run amok, flipped straight over backwards. Hulme didn't remember landing on his sturdy New Zealand head, he ,didn't remember anything from the instant he felt the front wheels lifting until he vaguely rejoined the world an hour later down in the trackside hospital and heard the P A talking about Follmer winning. He couldn't contribute any understanding of why his car had turned on him. A thing like that must have a subduing effect.
Revson had by this time presented himself at the press room and, in something of a hot mood; described what little he'd seen. In the next breath he said some harsh things about Follmer's driving tactics, that the Porsche's brake lights had been flashing at that same part of the track when the cars were all close together at high speed. He, Revson, didn't believe it was necessary to touch the brakes there. and if his suspicions were accurate Follmer was doing it deliberately to try to balk the McLarens. (Later, and independently, Francois Cevert-who drove a private McLaren-said much the same thing.) He called it "dirty driving." At that point several daily newspaper men turned away-after all, the race was still on-inevitably it went out over the wires that Revson was implying that Follmer had caused Hulme's crash. As Peter clarified a moment later he didn't mean to say that at all, he didn't see any connection between brake-flash and crash. But some damage had already been done.
Some time after the race and the press conference the Porsche mechanics said that there had been some minor trouble with portions of the elaborate anti-lag mechanism, and that at the end of the long straight the turbos had been cycling on and off, causing the car to leap, hesitate and leap again, without driver intention. Could this have been what Revson interpreted as blocking or 'braking?
Anyway, the Porsche hummed around carefully and completed the distance and scored Porsche's second Can-Am win (the first was-how could you have forgotten- Tony Dean's in 1970 at this same track when, come to think of it, all the opposition crashed too). The score stood one to one and on paper it looked not a bad race series at all. Now, if we can just get them to stay on the road and running to the end we'll have the greatest show in real life. Yes, really-those first two and a half laps proved it.