“Awesome” and “epic” are two badly over-used words. But the 1966-1974 Canadian-American Challenge Cup series of open cockpit, over-powered road racing, can’t be described in any other terms. As close to unlimited as sports car racing ever got, the Can-Am years redefined what was possible in speed and brute power. Conceived from the start to be North America’s premier road racing series, the grandstands were full, and the victory purses were fat, attracting the top drivers and design geniuses from across Europe and the U.S. The rulebook allowed any engine and almost any chassis configuration. You want wild aerodynamics? Try it out. Superchargers, turbochargers? Bolt ‘em on. Giant cartoon-like inverted wings? Okay.
As a result, instead of following a logical progression, Can-Am development hurdled over conventional thinking. In 1968, the “Bigger is Better” premise muscled in from the dragstrip to the road circuits. New cars from McLaren, Lola, and other chassis builders, were stuffed with a high-revving variant of Chevy’s iconic 427 Big Block hot rod motor. Heavily developed to pump to a reliable 750 horsepower and nearly 7000 RPM’s of fury, the Can-Am contenders were now the fastest and most powerful road racers in the world, even faster than the Formula One cars of the time. And no car was able to harness the staggering horsepower better than McLaren’s M8 series of factory and privateer cars.
Money was good, rules were loose, and the fans were excited. Horsepower was off the charts. This was big-power auto racing as true spectacle, even if the orange McLaren factory cars of Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme dominated nearly every race. Ford tried to put up a fight with a car built around their SOHC 427, but couldn’t iron out the bugs. Even Ferrari couldn’t ignore the distant rumble, shaking North America. Conjuring up their biggest engine ever, a 7-liter V-12, they crossed the ocean to try and bring some fight to the Chevy V-8’s. But the orange McLaren cars and their monster big blocks couldn’t be stopped, even by Ferrari aces Chris Amon and Mario Andretti!
McLaren offered their M8 to private team buyers, boasting that their advanced aluminum and composite monocoque tub weighed a scant 98lbs. Bodies and suspension and engine/trans brought the weight up to just shy of 2000lbs.
And what an engine it was. First 495, then 509 cubic inches of pistons and fire. Aluminum blocks and long fuel injection trumpets reaching for the sky, staggered, to smooth out the bumpy power delivery. A racing derivative of Chevy’s 427 ZL-1 motor, the Big Block was strengthened and developed to deliver a stunning 750, then 800, then 840 hp. Incredible for what was at heart, a regular single cam pushrod V-8. No one had seen anything like it. This was far beyond the output of any LeMans-type Porsche or Ferrari, more than anything NASCAR was running or F1 or anything else. The spectacle of watching the top drivers in the world fight to control these beautiful but fearsome machines drew in fans from every corner of the globe. The tracks were the best North America had to offer- Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio, St. Jovite, Bridgehampton, Mosport Park, Lime Rock, Riverside, and others- all were home to what is now remembered as Can-Am Thunder.
The Team McLaren M8’s decimated all comers. First with Hulme and Bruce McLaren, and then after Bruce’s death while testing in England, with Dan Gurney and Peter Revson. By 1972, the orange car dominance had become too much for Porsche who reacted by spending huge money on the creation of a twin-turbo spyder version of their iconic 917. Can-Am had been a relatively cost-efficient undertaking up to this point. Now costs were skyrocketing. The awesome Porsche technology finally knocked the McLarens out of their top spot on the grid, but also triggered unbearable budgets for many of the long-competing private teams. Can-Am would only last until 1974.
Today, at Historic race weekends, the big Can-Am thunderers draw crowds just to watch them fire up in the pits. Out on the tracks, driven at 75%, the 40 year old fat-tired spyders still cause spectators to breath a little deeper, watch a little closer and imagine how the circuits of North America once hosted the fastest, most brutal road racers ever to gulp high octane fuel.
Jump to 0:35 for the starting.
The M8 Series of McLaren Can-Am cars completely dominated the series until Porsche began pouring huge amounts of money into their turbocharged 917 Spyders. The Roger Penske/Mark Donohue 917-30 version would reliably pump out 1100 horsepower, making them untouchable to the Chevy powered Lolas and McLarens. As a fitting end, in the final 1974 season of Can-Am competition, Porsche dropped out, Team McLaren concentrated on F1, but Team UOP Shadow would run the big Chevy in it’s final and ultimate version, with twin turbochargers pushing out a mind-numbing 1400 horsepower.