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Birth of Can-Am Racing

by Leon Mandel

Car and Driver Editor Leon Mandel tells how Can-Am rules were set via 'after-hours' calls between Jim Hall and Tracy Bird.

editor's note: This article appeared in the 1969 program guide for the Monterey Castrol GTX Grand Prix.

They take things very seriously at the International Sporting commission of the International Federation for Automobiles.

They have to otherwise how could they have such long names?

Still, it would come as something of a shock to them to know that the rules written for one of their premiere car categories was arrived at over the phone when the day got late enough so the telephone company charged a straight buck a minute to anywhere in the U.S.

That's just about the way it happened with Group 7, or unlimited sports/racing cars and things have worked out very nicely since, thank-you.

You can't have a race car unless you put it into a category - Parkinson must have a law about that somewhere - and all the categories are defined by the FIA which is the controlling body for auto sports and which lives its curious, bureaucratic life in Paris.

Those countries which have active racing are FIA participants and it has happened, reasonably enough, that each promotes particular kinds of cars - perhaps according to terrain, perhaps according to national character. The result is that Formula 1, the panatela-like single seaters which vie for world championship, are the vital concern of France and Italy and England while sedans, which race in more countries, have broaded based rule makers.

The big unlimited sports / racing cars, known to the FIA as Appendix J, Group 7 cars, are almost exclusively North American and it was in North America that their genesis came. Well, almost. It was certainly in North America where the rules defining them were written.

It may have been that the very first G/7 cars as we know them today were the Poopers built by Pete Lovely in the Pacific Northwest and Tippy Lipe in upstate New York in 1951. There were Cooper record cars, streamliners, with Prosche engines and they went so fast no one could believe it. It was a kind of notional expression of irreverence toward the already-created car which gave them birth. Of course you could get a Cooper, and certainly you could get a Prosche, but a Pooper? The whole idea was to capitalize on ingenuity and build a car for local competition and to hell with the world over there.

The flower really bloomed in southern California and to some extent in eastern Canada where clean, effective spedials were being built with some regularity. But they, unlike the Pooper, were front engined cars and their areas of competition were limited. It was only after local constructors saw themselves being beaten by the factory Porsches that the modern-day G/7 car was born. It was born in rear engine form and true to its orgins, it was a hybrid.

The impetus came from a very European source, the appearance money syndrome. Chaparral-builder Jim Hall was not in the least pleased that appearance money, or starting money, was being paid in Europe and not in the U.S. and his complaints were becoming more and more vocal. To quiet him, the racing establishment did what establishments are forever doing - it invited him to become a part of the administration and he accepted. From then on he worked untiringly for U.S.-Canadian series of races with points fund money to replace appearance money and when it became known to Sports Car Club of America Competitions Board Chairman (now SCCA Executive Director) A. Tracy Bird and Hall that the international ruling body was willing to accept a formula for such racing, the two worked out rules for what was to be G/7 - on the telephone.

It was not a formal proceeding. Each had a car of his own, Hall a Chaparral and Bird a Cooper, and they would call each other after 8 p.m. when rates were cheap and propose wording for the new rules. One would mention scoops and the other would tell him to hang on and rush out to measure scoop size on the car sitting in his garage, rush back in and either agree or propose a modification.

The resulting rules were submitted to the SCCA's Competitions Director (now Director of Professional Racing) Jim Kaser and from there, via the Canadians to the international group in Paris where they were accepted.

Thus the American formula was made legitmate and the way was paved for the Canadian-American Challenge Cup series.

While that fateful meeting of the CSI (Commission Sportif of the FIA) nailed it down, the rear engined G/7 cars were already beginning to thrive on North American race circuits.

And the turing point had probably been the summer of 1963 at Continental Divide Raceways. With a United States Road Racing series already established, North American constructors were working hard at beating the Porsches with a combination British chassis and American stock block engine. Indianapolis great Roger Ward had appeared in a Cooper with a Buick engine in it as long ago as 1957, and Stirling Moss was the principal stockholder in California's Laguna Seca track with two wins in his Lotus 19-2.7 but his had a Coventry Climax engine.

The real big bore engines, the everyday engines (much modified), had yet to make any impact. The chassis builders, including Roger Penske and the famous Zerex Special, were way ahead of the engine men.

Then in August of '63 the USRRC at CDR turned the tide. Bob Holbert won it in a King Cobra, a Cooper-Ford with Bob Bondurant right behind in a similar car. Dave McDonald in a front-engine car was third. Chuck Daigh in a Cooper-Chevrolet was forth and the Porsches, driven by such accomplished drivers as Don Wester, were nowhere to be seen.

That put the American Engine Solution in the limelight, and such things have been going in that direction ever since.

The British, who were faced with a choice between Formula 2, a lesser version of F/1 and Group 7, decided to go with the open wheel cars - their pool of sponsors couldn't support both; and now they regret it. The Europeans who couldn't have been bothered have begun to take notice and for two years Ferrari has had a token respresentation in the Can-Am. This year he's serious. And no one would be particularly surprised if a Prosche showed - built to American Formula.

It was a long struggle, but these days, Can-Am makes the going great.

 

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