It was a scene of domestic tranquillity that might gladden the heart of any American—or any Canadian, for that matter. On the eve of qualifying for last week's Can-Am race at Road Atlanta, the indomitable dudes of Team McLaren were barbecueing steaks and forging strategy behind their motel. Smoke from the sizzling beef ascended into the McLaren-orange sunset like a propitiatory offering while Denny Hulme and Peter Revson discussed timing. "When should we take that extra second off our lap times?" asked Revvy. "In the morning? Or should we wait until the last minute of qualifying?" Hulme rolled a mouthful of Cold Duck over his tongue and stared away through the turpentine pines at a cemetery across the valley. A funeral was in progress. The pallbearers trudged among the tombstones like ants bringing a June bug back to the larder. "I dun-no," said Denny finally. "We can do it whenever we choose. Let's see how we feel in the morning."
There was no reason to question that confidence. Rarely has any sport been so thoroughly dominated by a single team the way the Canadian-American Challenge Cup series has been dominated by the McLarens. Not even the Lombardi Packers could put together five years of back-to-back victories with the same panache this team has. Granted the competition has been weak, though last year Jackie Stewart came into Can-Am with blood in his eye and won two of the 10 races in his L&M Lola—an unheard-of affront to McLaren hegemony. So the team promptly signed Stewart to race Can-Am this season, proving the old racing adage: if they beat you, hire 'em. This move freed Revson—who won the championship last year, the first American driver ever to do so—to run Formula I and Indianapolis-type races for the team. But Stewart developed a bleeding ulcer, the inevitable result of a racing-personal appearance schedule that would have done in any lesser man, and last week announced his withdrawal from Can-Am. Instead, he will devote the rest of his stomach lining to winning his third Grand Prix world championship. That put Revvy back in the driver's seat at Road Atlanta, one of the five races he won last year on his way to the Can-Am title.
Still, it did not solve the major problem confronting Team McLaren—the new German-American challenge mounted by Porsche and Roger Penske. With its domination of endurance racing ended last year by an FIA ruling that reduced engine size to three liters, Porsche began looking for another motorized world to conquer. Can-Am, with its million dollars in purses and its vacuum—apart from McLaren—of quality competition, was a natural. And what better choice to run the program than the squeaky-clean Roger Penske and his finely tooled driver, Mark Donohue?
The weapon forged by the gnomes of Stuttgart was a radically new construction that would require all of the renowned Penske-Donohue engineering know-how. Rather than retool to build a massive stock-block engine as powerful as the nine-liter Chevrolet power plants of the McLaren cars, Porsche chose to mount a 12-cylinder, five-liter engine in its new car and turbocharge it. The addition of turbochargers, now routine on cars that race on oval tracks such as Indianapolis, adds immensely to horsepower. But a "blown" or turbocharged engine suffers from a disease known as throttle lag. On an Indy-type course, with only four corners, this is not a major drawback, but on a twisting circuit like Road Atlanta, which has 12 turns plus bottomless hills and topless valleys, the momentary hesitation of a turbine in getting back up to full rotary speed after a driver backs off for a corner should add up to defeat. Somehow the Porsche folks whipped the throttle-lag problem—certainly Penske wasn't saying how, and even if he did it is doubtful that anyone could understand him—and in tests at Road Atlanta last winter Donohue easily broke the existing lap record over the 2.52-mile course by better than a second. In this year's first Can-Am event at Mosport, Donohue won the pole hands down over the Gulf-McLarens and was leading the race when a valve stuck in the turbocharger. It took three costly minutes to isolate the problem during a pit stop, but only a few drops of oil to solve it. Donohue made up two laps on the McLarens and finally finished second to Denny Hulme—a remarkable showing for a car on its first time out in heavy competition.
July 17, 1972
So Road Atlanta seemed to be the place where the new L&M Porsche-Audi blitzkrieg would finally strike. But then, during testing early in the week before the race, apparent disaster struck instead. "This course is mean on brakes," Penske said later, "so I added some air scoops on the rear to cool them. The drag proved to be too much." Donohue was rolling along at 180 mph on the long back straightaway near Turn Nine when the rear end of the car's body suddenly ripped away.
Ironically, it was the same type of failure that had taken Bruce McLaren's life at Goodwood in England two years ago. Without the downforce generated by the car's rear wing, the Porsche went out of control. But where McLaren had collided with an immovable object—a course marshal's brick pillbox—Donohue hit a slightly more flexible dirt embankment. The Porsche flipped twice, throwing up an ominous cloud of red Georgia dust. The front end of the car was totally demolished—the steering wheel ended up 20 yards down the road—but Donohue emerged with nothing apparently more serious than torn ligaments in his left knee.
That was serious enough to put Donohue out of the Road Atlanta race, however. When the knee failed to respond to whirlpool therapy, he did what countless football players have done before him: he signed up for a knee job. Fortunately there was an excellent knife at hand, Dr. James A. Funk of the Atlanta Falcons, the man who put Linebacker Tommy Nobis back on his feet. Even at that, it will be nearly four months before Donohue can pump a clutch again. "You know," said Penske wonderingly, "that's the first serious crash that Mark's ever had." He left unstated the fact that Donohue is lucky to be alive.
But Penske never quits. He still had a backup car and the engine from the wrecked machine. All he needed now was another driver. While his wrenches worked overtime (as usual) preparing the second car, Roger got on the phone to George Follmer, the cantankerous road racer from Arcadia, Calif. who just last week sewed up the Trans-Am championship in his Roy Woods Javelin. Follmer, 38, is one of the most underrated drivers in U.S. racing—a rather sullen, brick-topped individualist whose reluctance to take orders from owners and team managers has cost him rides in the best machinery. But even with second-line equipment he has proved himself a more than competent journeyman, if not quite a master. Needless to say, he was delighted to drive the Penske Porsche, even though he had never raced at the Road Atlanta course before.
Penske solved that problem quickly: he had Follmer out on the circuit at 6:30 the morning after he arrived. Grudgeous George proved to be a quick study. Within 19 laps he had broken the existing record of 1:17.4 with a clocking in the mid-16s, and although the McLarens of Hulme and Revson were still quicker, there was no question now that Follmer was a threat. When Driver Milt Minter suddenly discovered that Follmer was in the Porsche, he said to Penske: "I thought you were smarter than that." Roger merely showed Minter his stopwatch and walked away, grinning. By the end of the first afternoon's practice, Follmer and the Porsche were fastest of all, with a clocking of 1:14.888—better than 120 miles an hour.
Not that such a speed bothered the McLarens. Hulme and Revson were toying with Penske, well aware that they had yet to push their cars to the limit. But the possibility of a Porsche upset gave the race fans plenty to talk about over their poolside drinks that night. The smart money reckoned that despite Follmer's considerable learning skills, the subtleties of the Porsche would ultimately defeat him. "This is a car that needs an engineer to drive it," said one sapient enthusiast, "and Mark is an engineer. Like it or not, George isn't."
But even without the high drama of the Porsche shift, there was still one other driver to consider. Fran√ßois Cevert was on hand, driving one of Gregg Young's year-old McLarens, the same one Revvy drove to the championship. Cevert, Stewart's teammate on the Formula I circuit, won last year's U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen and is a smooth, enthusiastic lion in a racing car.
But young lions aside, sure enough, came qualifying day and the McLaren drivers showed their stuff in the final moments—a period also punctuated by a spectacular scare for Revson. After working his lap times down through the 1:15 barrier to a creditable 1:14.465 (121.92 mph), and with less than half an hour of qualifying time left, Revvy set his sights on the inviolate 1:14 mark. Then, just as he got on the throttle at the end of the start-finish straight, his engine seized and exploded like a frag grenade. "Smoke came boiling into the cockpit and I couldn't see a thing," he said later. "All I knew was that the car was fish-tailing like a foul-hooked marlin and I was going into Turn One with that damned red-dirt embankment there, and I was totally out of control. I just stood on everything, didn't even declutch so as to save what engine braking was left. I wanted 'Stop!'—and right now." He got it, just in time. (And later, the McLaren engineering director, Tyler Alexander, was seen picking through the weeds of Turn One for bits and pieces of the blown motor. No sense in letting the competition see what you're building your pistons with.)
Meanwhile, Follmer was having his problems in shifting the L&M Porsche, but with only minutes left to qualify he finally got a near-perfect lap together. The official clocks said 1:14.163, or 122.41 mph. It looked like the Porsche had won the pole again, but then Denny Hulme ripped off a 1:14.134—just three-hundredths of a mile an hour faster. That put Hulme on the pole, with Follmer second and Revson third.
Race day broke hot and humid and ringing with only one question: Could Follmer, with nearly 150 horsepower more than the McLarens but less than 200 miles in the car, beat the unbeatables? If he could outdrag the McLarens at the start, get into the right-hand uphill climb out of Turn One ahead of them, then he could put the pressure on them with his superior speed on the straights. He was determined: "Even if it takes five pace laps, I'm gonna outdrag 'em." But could George keep the car on the road for 197 miles, what with that tricky throttle problem and the commensurate additional trickiness of gear problems?
At the green flag, Follmer did the first thing required of him. He wound up his turbocharger with no waste motion and left the McLarens hanging from his tail wing. Then came an unexpected break: on the fourth lap, as he was exiting from the soft, left-hand virage of Turn Eight, Revson pulled off the road. Mechanical trouble. No sooner had Follmer absorbed that good news (by the time Revson got back in the race he was 21 laps behind) than he was belted with another dose. Coming through that same turn just a lap later, Denny Hulme's front end came unstuck from the track and he end-for-ended off the right side of the corner. Hulme was trapped in the car for minutes—a frightening prospect for all those who saw it, including Revson, who was among the first at the scene—but made it to the field hospital, in good health, just a bit shook up. Now Follmer seemed to be home free, his only threat being Cevert in that year-old McLaren. Cevert dogged his tracks through traffic, but whenever Follmer broke clear he extended his lead over the Frenchman with ease. Then Cevert pitted and was finished for the day. Later he gave a horrific description of Hulme's quarter-mile tumble: "We were hitting about 170 when he just went off the road. It was unbelievable. Un Bombe! Just a cloud of dust and quick orange flashes of the McLaren flipping through it. I didn't think he'd come out of that alive."
With Cevert gone, Follmer eased up for the remaining laps, rolling in with better than a one-lap margin on the field at an average speed of 113.9 mph. For a man with only 48 hours of practice in the most highly technological car in Can-Am racing, it was a fast Cinderella story. The heretofore indomitable McLarens had been beaten at last and the sports-car racing season suddenly took on new interest. There would be the strain and stimulation of a contest after all. But for right now, as Follmer said, with a rare smile, "This is a joy."