This article by Appalachian member Roger Gilmore originally appeared in the Sonnenschein PCA Newsletter on September 2014.
"Racing runs by rules sometimes so restrictive that it's sometimes hard to tell where the book ends and the sport begins. Can-Am racing is a relief from the iron band of the rule book."
— Mark Donohue
Years ago, in the adolescence of American road racing, from the 1960’s to the mid 1970’s, there were two racing series that captivated racing fans world-wide: Trans-Am and Can-Am. The Trans-Am cars were originally modified versions of street sedans. There were a cadre of famous drivers: Jim Hall, Parnelli Jones, George Follmer, Dan Gurney, Sam Posey, Peter Revson, and Mark Donohue, among others. In 1967 Donohue began his Trans-Am partnership with Roger Penske, which quickly became the dominant racing team of those early years, winning 10 of 13 races in 1968. The rules were straight forward, and the on-track action was intensely competitive, both of which made for some great racing.
Can-Am upped the ante. Can-Am started out as a race series for Group 7 sports racers with two races in Canada (Can) and four races in the United States of America (Am). The Series was governed by rules called out under the FIA Group 7 category, which had regulations that were minimal and permitted unlimited engine sizes (and allowed turbocharging and supercharging), virtually unrestricted aerodynamics, and very few other technical regulations. It was as close as any major international racing series ever got to anything goes. As long as the car had seats and bodywork enclosing the wheels, and met basic safety standards, it was legal.
Growing up, my “home track” was Watkins Glen as it was only an hour’s drive from where we lived. After getting my driving license at age 16, I attended every race I could get to all the way through my college years. Other than the races, which were always great on that stellar track, those were some years of, shall we say, unusual goings-on. An area known as “The Bog” was particularly noteworthy in that regard. It was basically a big mud pit near the tunnel at the start/finish line. Since the ‘60’s, it was an area where race weekend partiers would congregate for general mayhem. Eventually, they began bringing in old cars to destroy and then burn. Like a modified demolition derby but staffed only by drunks & stoners! We would usually have to traverse that gauntlet to get to one of our favorite areas to watch the races, known as “The Boot”. The bog crowd could get pretty unruly at times, especially at night, and if we were going by that area we’d always have someone riding “shotgun”. Literally! Crazy times. It all came to a head at the U.S. Grand Prix (Formula 1) of 1974 when a group a fans from Brazil, cheering on Emerson Fittipaldi, had their unlocked and unattended Greyhound charter bus hijacked by some of the bog people who then drove it into the bog, crashed it, and then set it on fire. The smoke went on for hours. Here are a couple photos of that infamous event.
After that, the Glen management said enough was enough and the bog was bulldozed over and made into a parking lot. Greyhound got the Brazilian fans another bus to get back home. Over the ensuing years the track itself has had a few major changes: In 1971 the existing 2.35 mile course was extended to 3.4 miles by the addition of the “Boot”, and in 1992 a chicane was added to the back straight after a tragic, fatal accident involving NASCAR driver J.D. McDuffie.
In my younger days, I had always been a Chevy man (or, more appropriately, boy back then) and I used to rebuild small-block Chevy engines to finance my passion at that time, which was restoring a ’58 Corvette the best a teenager could do. Consequently, I had an unbridled partiality to the McLaren Can-Am cars and their 8+ liter big-block Chevy engines. With pistons as big as flowerpots, they would thunder by you on the track, the ground trembling beneath your feet. It was magnificent.
Here’s my ’58 Vette, at college, circa 1974.
Here’s the McLaren M8F, 1971 (restored; in a recent vintage race).
And with the hood off.
My perceptions changed forever when Porsche entered Can-Am, initially campaigned with the 917/10.
Porsche?? Who the heck was that?? What is that?? All I knew of Porsche was that they had some odd beetle-shaped “sports car”, but it sure as heck wasn’t any Corvette! I had never seen a 911 in person; the closest I could come was a Bimmer 2002 tii that a friend of my brother-in-law had, but I thought it was an odd little car.
As I said, though, the 917/10 irrevocably changed my perspective. (And my purchasing: Never had another Corvette, but have had a bevy of Porsche’s through the years starting at age 26!)
Mark Donohue and Roger Penske first teamed up together in 1966, when Roger asked Mark to drive his Lola T70 on a race-to-race basis in the Can-Am series. For $50 a day! The Lola wasn’t all that competitive with some of the other cars, the McLarens and Chaparrals in particular, but Mark managed to win the last race of the season at Las Vegas. After that, Mark didn’t think the time he put in was worth the wage he was getting and had been offered a job with Ford in their Detroit racing shop as a quality control engineer (Mark had an engineering degree from Brown University) with “some driving work”. Roger and Mark then had a meeting where Roger offered him $13,000 a year and 25% of what he won, and at the end of the year, if Mark liked the arrangement, he could stay on. And thus the beginning of a very successful and famous partnership was forged.
Mark coined the term “Unfair Advantage” early in his racing career as he and his teammates tried to devise ways to better the competition while staying within the general boundaries of the rules---which in those early days were not particularly specific. Later, and with Roger in the first few years of Trans-Am, they would concoct a number of “Unfair Advantages”: Being the first to raise their pit fuel drum to a height of 8 feet (and in 1969, to a height of 20 feet…after which the SCCA officials quickly re-wrote the rules banning it) so gravity would allow the fuel to flow faster (they could refuel their Sunoco Camaro in 5 seconds or less), and acid-dipping the body of the Camaro to shed pounds of weight. Another fueling trick from that time: Squeezing more fuel into the 22 gallon Camaro tank. Mark challenged a Sun Oil engineer (Jerry Kroninger) to help him and they figured they could get an extra gallon in the tank by super-cooling the gas. So they rigged up an outer tank around the fuel tank, filled it with acetone and dry ice and this rapidly dropped the temperature of the Sunoco gas from 70 to 0 degrees. The cooling created a denser gas and thus allowed them to “squeeze” more into the car. Ultimately, in Mark’s 1968 Trans-Am championship year, this resulted in two races being won by the team needing only two pit stops for fuel versus the three stops the other teams had to make. Ah, innovation and the Unfair Advantage!
Of course, Mark and Roger had great successes in other racing series, including many wins and championships in USAC, which included a win at the 1972 Indy 500. He also had a stint in Formula 1, and even spent two years in NASCAR from 1972 through 1973, and was the inaugural IROC champion (with a Porsche 911) in 1973. And of particular note, he returned to Can-Am in 1972, starting those now famous campaigns. Talk about having irons in the fire!
In 1971, Mark and Roger were at Le Mans with their very fast Ferrari 512 M. Louise Piech (daughter of Ferdinand Porsche) and her two sons, Ferdinand and Michael, asked Roger to lunch. At that time, the three had significant control of Porsche. The lunch involved a discussion about Penske Racing teaming with Porsche, with Mark driving, in the Can-Am series. A deal was hammered out, and Mark saw the first version of what he was going to race at the 1971 Watkins Glen Can-Am, and he wasn’t particularly impressed. The car was a roadster version of the 917 and Mark thought that it had been cobbled together by putting a stub-nosed roadster body on the former coupe, along with heavy looking suspension and hubs. Compared to the McLaren, with its monocoque construction, and Chevy engine good for about 750 HP, the 917’s air-cooled, normally aspirated 5-liter engine produced 650 HP. Mark was worried the car wouldn’t be competitive. He and Roger then flew to Germany and met with Helmut Flegl, who was the Porsche engineer in charge of all aspects of the car.
With the obvious worries about the car’s power, a decision was made to turbocharge it. This was relatively new territory for both Mark and Porsche, and there was an associated steep learning curve. One area that was troublesome was the Bosch fuel injection system and getting it to work harmoniously with the added turbos. Using his engineering acumen, Mark discovered the crux of the problem and then refined this with Flegl and the Bosch engineers. After further suspension and body modifications, it became a fine running machine. This was the Porsche 917/10.
The car was ready just in time for the opening round of the 1972 Can-Am series at Mosport. Mark dominated the race until a stuck intake valve forced an unscheduled pit stop, and he finished second to Denny Hulme’s McLaren. After Mosport, Mark suffered a horrendous crash while testing 917/10 at Road Atlanta and had to undergo leg surgery that put him out of racing for the next three months. George Follmer was called in to drive, and with guidance from Mark, went on to capture the 1972 series championship.
Porsche and Mark went on to develop the 917/10 further to create the ultimate Can-Am racer, the 917/30. In yet another application of the “Unfair Advantage”, Porsche had developed a special alloy for parts of the suspension, which Mark coined as being called “Unobtanium”. Another major difference in the cars was a longer wheelbase and length (about 8 inches) that allowed for a revised rear wing for added high-speed stability. The 12-cylinder twin turbo engine was tweaked quite a bit also, with displacement increased to 5.4 liters. At full boost, this revamped beast put out a mighty 1500 HP, although in race trim it was a more “conservative” 1100 HP at 7800 RPM. All this time, Porsche kept asking Mark, “Now does it have enough power?” To which Mark responded, “I still can’t spin the wheels all the way down the straightaway.”
As far as performance, the 917/30 set some pretty amazing benchmarks: 0-60 MPH in 1.9 sec, 0-100 MPH in 3.9 sec, and the 200 MPH mark coming up in 10.9 sec. Top speed was a mind-blowing 245 MPH. Some other specs on the car: Torque was 820 (!!) lb-ft at 6400 RPM, weight was 1763 lbs., and it had a 4 speed transmission. (Umm, at full boost that’s about 1.2 lbs/HP!!)
The 1973 Can-Am series featured Mark driving the 917/30 and dominating the series by winning 6 of the 8 races, and in winning the overall championship. The first two races of the season (Mosport and Road Atlanta) were won by 917/10’s (Charlie Kemp and George Follmer), while Mark went on to win out the season, capturing the remaining 6 races. It was, unfortunately, the beginning of the death knell for the car and for the Can-Am series. To counter the risks associated with the ever-increasing speeds, and concerns that other manufacturers would follow suit with Porsche, the SCCA introduced fuel consumption rules for the 1974 season, requiring cars to achieve at least 3 MPG. The 917/30 typically averaged around 2.2 MPG, so it’s Can-Am racing days were over.
But the 917/30 and Mark would have one more occasion to strut their stuff. Later, in 1975, Roger lured Mark out of racing retirement to attempt to break the World Closed Course speed record, which was currently 218 MPH set by A.J. Foyt in 1974 at Talladega in a USAC Coyote Indy car. On August 9th, Mark smashed the record at Talladega with an official speed of 221 MPH. This was the last official outing for the mighty 917/30.
Back at Watkins Glen, I had the joy to have watched wins by those thundering M8 McLaren’s in 1970 and 1971. As I mentioned earlier though, my perspective changed at the 1972 race when I saw the 917/10 for the first time and watched it dominate the other cars, ultimately winning the race with George Follmer piloting. And then in 1973, with Mark at the helm of the 917/30, which would literally appear to fly out of the uphill section of the “Boot” segment of the Glen, going by me seemingly impossibly fast and with a low but loud “whoosh” sound of the those big turbos. At the back straight, before the days of the chicane, the 917/30 would get to a truly frightening speed, perhaps 230 MPH or so, and I marveled at not only this ultimate speed, but how it got slowed down enough to make the turn off the back straight. Those were truly memorable times.
As I’m sure most of you are aware, Mark tragically lost his life in a racing accident in 1975. On August 17th, one week after his World Closed Course speed record and during a morning practice session for the Austrian Formula 1 Grand Prix in his March 751, it all went horribly wrong. Approaching a right hand curve at 150 MPH, his left front tire blew and the March went through the catch fencing and the car flew over the guardrail, striking a large signboard. Mark was unconscious at first, but was soon aroused and appeared to have no other visible injuries. While on the gurney waiting for the ambulance, he was noted to be sitting up and talking with some of the other drivers. Shortly thereafter, he began experiencing severe head pain, and was taken by helicopter to a prominent hospital. He died on August 19th from cerebral hemorrhage. (In some ways, similar to Michael Schumacher’s terrible injury.) Setting a standard for excellence and grace, his death was mourned throughout the world. His legacy, however, remains secure.
Here are a few tribute photos for the 917/30 & Mark.