Road racing is the most surrealist of sports and road-racing fans the most easily pleased of the sporting breed. Unable to see more than a brief, blurred fraction of any race, they take their delight in sunshine and loud noises, summery zephyrs and skittery glimpses of sports cars weaving through the trees. A snatch of birdsong sandwiched between the snarling kaleidoscope of passing machinery is far more memorable than lap times or final results. After all, one can read the mere facts in tomorrow's newspaper. Thus, ironically, competition grows less important to road racing even as the cars themselves grow bigger, faster and more bizarre. Witness the Canadian-American Challenge Cup Series—Can-Am to its friends and followers on both sides of the border.
Now beginning its sixth season, Can-Am has traditionally been a two-man, one-team show. Except for its first year, 1966, when Britain's John Surtees won three of six races—and the champion-ship—in a Lola-Chevrolet, the series has been dominated by the New Zealand overlords of Team McLaren. The beamy, orange McLaren "batmobiles" had won 30 of the 40 races run up to last week. For most of that period it was the Bruce and Denny Show, with Designer-Driver Bruce McLaren and his fellow New Zealander, Denis Hulme, alternating victories against a flaccid field. Team McLaren always came prepared, and that readiness paid off handsomely: a total of $902,576 in prize money, plus a reputation for sound design and steady driving. Hulme collected $464,396 of the total and McLaren $315,780.
When Bruce died last year, testing a new McLaren at Goodwood, England, the team briefly added Dan Gurney as the No. 2 driver to Hulme, but a contract hang-up ended the relationship after Gurney had won two races and finished ninth in another. Peter Gethin filled in the rest of the season, winning once while Hulme was victorious in six of the 10 events on the schedule. Only six non-McLaren team drivers have ever won a Can-Am: Surtees (four), Mark Donohue (two), Gurney, Phil Hill, John Cannon and Tony Dean one each.
Despite the competitive vacuum, Can-Am has held onto its biggest sponsor, Johnson Wax, and over the last two seasons has drawn nearly a million paying customers to racetracks as disparate and distant as Watkins Glen, N.Y. and Edmonton, Alberta; Laguna Seca, Calif. and St. Jovite, Quebec. This season's opener at Mosport, Ontario attracted nearly 50,000 fans, the biggest Can-Am crowd ever to watch a race at that rather drab circuit. If Can-Am has been a success thus far, and surely it has in terms of crowds and payoffs—$1 million in prize money the last two years—then the future looks infinitely brighter because, finally, competition has come to the series.
It takes two forms. First, and by far the most crowd-pleasing, is the presence of Jackie Stewart, the long-haired, lead-foot Scotsman of Grand Prix fame who, not coincidentally, is also the world's foremost booster of road racing. The second is something—can it really be a car?—called The Shadow.
Stewart himself is driving a tidy new Lola powered by a 494-cu.-in. Chevrolet engine and designed by the modest, whey-faced but brilliant Englishman, Eric Broadley. It is owned by Carl A. Haas of Chicago, sponsored by L&M cigarettes and watched keenly by hordes of underdog fanciers, both Canadian and American. At Mosport, Jackie sat on the pole with a speed of 114.52 mph and actually led Hulme for a few laps before a leaking differential dropped him out of the race.
"It takes a while to get fully competitive," said Jackie last week at St. Jovite as he readied himself and the car for the season's second race. "I reckon we'll not really become a threat over the distance until Road Atlanta on July 11, but meanwhile we're keeping the others honest. After all, there are only three or four truly competitive cars."
Two of those machines, of course, are the McLaren M8Fs driven by Hulme and his new teammate, Peter Revson. The third is Stewart's own Lola. And that somewhat tentative fourth—well, The Shadow knows. Listed officially as the Shadow MII-465 Chevrolet, this machine is the direct descendant of last year's Ti-22, an ultra-lightweight titanium car with the lowest profile and tiniest wheels in racing. It was designed by Peter Bryant, an eccentric and innovative Briton who once served as a mechanic for Carroll Shelby.
"The Shadow is something out of science fiction," says one Can-Am veteran. "When it goes past, you think the pavement is moving." This is because The Shadow is asphalt-black and flatter than most of the St. Jovite road surface. With its drooping, wedge-shaped nose nearly touching the ground and its broad, steeply angled rear airfoil pointing the way toward Mont Tremblant, The Shadow resembles a flying chunk of roadway. During this same race last year, its predecessor went airborne over a humpbacked ridge on the back reaches of the course, executed a nifty double gainer and deposited Driver Jackie Oliver amid the wreckage nearly a quarter of a mile down the road. "I'm still a bit tweaked about that one," Oliver admits.
Practice last week was marred by rain, high winds and an onslaught of Quebec's justly infamous black flies, but Saturday's qualifying brought perfect Laurentian weather. Stewart had spent part of the previous evening playing shuffleboard and bumper pool with his boss, Haas. The Chicagoan, who is also the North American distributor for Lola cars, is an intense, witty, highly competitive cigar chomper. When Stewart whipped him, Carl swallowed his pride and chewed his cigar even more savagely: he knew he had employed a winner. On qualifying morning, however, Stewart leveled his competitiveness on Denny Hulme. He beat "The Bear" at golf, but that didn't necessarily mean he could beat him on the track. Jackie stood to go $250 up on Denny if he could nip him for the pole; the fastest qualifier would get $2,600, the No. 2 man $2,350.
Denny rolled out first, running in the same three-car qualifying group as Jackie Oliver in The Shadow and Chuck Parsons in a McLaren M8D. Oliver had turned practice times as quick as Stewart's, while Hulme had not even tried the track before qualifying day. Progressively paring his lap times during four turns of the hilly, 14-cornered circuit, Hulme whipped off a final lap of 102.58 mph—nice, but still short of Bruce McLaren's record of 104.03 set back in 1969. Oliver had to settle for fifth spot on the starting grid, having been delayed behind Parsons, who left the course during one of his laps and held back on the remainder, blocking The Shadow as a consequence.
Stewart went out full of confidence half an hour later, and anyone who thinks there is a feud building between Hulme and Stewart, as has been suggested, has not seen them encourage one another at the racecourse. Denny was watching intensely as Stewart made the rounds. On an early lap Jackie went airborne, then backed off the accelerator. "I saw places I hadn't seen before," he allowed later. "Yeah, I backed off a bit—as a matter of fact, all the way around." Denny had won the pole with three-tenths of a second to spare.
For a while Sunday's race was just another ho-Hulme thing, like so many have been in the series. Not that there weren't visual and auditory pleasures. A quartet of sky divers descended in parti-colored chutes from a crisp mackerel heaven, and Gallic chansons and hard rock blared from the loudspeakers, but the race itself seemed typical Can-Am.
Hulme leaped off the green flag to a four-second lead, with Stewart hanging tough but just a touch squirrely behind him. Revson, in the second Team McLaren car, held a weak third. The Shadow lay fourth, but Jackie Oliver had confessed to clutch problems just before the start, and these—coupled with vapor lock—knocked him out of the race well before the three-quarter mark.
Then came the shocker. Taking advantage of a six-car traffic jam that blocked Hulme momentarily with 23 laps to go, Stewart closed the gap, snaked his way past Denny on the backstretch and then smoked it like an L&M. Shortly afterward, Denny began flagging his pit crew, lifting the visor of his helmet as if for air and pointing to his throat. He may have come down with a touch of the 24-hour virus that had plagued Team McLaren all week long—and at the worst possible moment. Stewart extended his lead to nearly a minute in the remaining half hour of the race and took the checkered flag running strong and confident.
"The car isn't handling the way it could—and finally will," said Stewart. "Still, it's a win, and therefore good, not just for me but for the Can-Am as well." Teddy Mayer, the McLaren team manager, generously agreed. "I am glad Stewart's here," he said. "It was getting to be a little bit boring."