Journal: Are The Fire-Breathing Can-Am Monsters The Best Race Cars Ever Made?

Are The Fire-Breathing Can-Am Monsters The Best Race Cars Ever Made?

Nat Twiss By Nat Twiss
June 10, 2016
9 comments

Photography by Nat Twiss

With their cheese wedge shapes, mile-wide tires, and beautiful velocity stacks to top their monstrous motors, I’m inclined to say that Can-Am cars are some of the most attractive racers ever built.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Canadian-American Challenge Cup, it was a series that ran through the ’60s to the ’80s, in the United States and Canada, hence the nickname, Can-Am. We were very, very lucky to see these cars tear around Brands Hatch last month at the Historic Festival, and boy, it a fun experience.

So: the cars. These beasts pushed up to 1,500 horsepower in qualifying trim, from colossal high-displacement engines. Thor himself would be proud of the noise of these things. These may have been the rawest, fastest cars to ever race. Think Group B levels of insanity, but without the need to make homologation specials, with the benefit of traction. Lighter, faster, more aerodynamic. Costs inflated to massive levels, with technological advances like ground effect, turbo, and aerospace materials.

And they raced wheel to wheel, unlike your favorite gravel-launching rally car.

Every great name in sports cars was represented, from McLaren, to Porsche, Lola, and Ferrari. Big-name drivers like Jacky Ickx rounded out the final years of the series, while the early days were dominated by legends like Denny Hulme and Bruce McLaren, the latter of whom lost his life while testing a Can-Am racer at Goodwood.

That’s why seeing these cars race at one of the most beautiful, undulating, and importantly, untouched, venues in Europe was such a special moment. You see, the European version of Can-Am, called Interseries, wasn’t quite as successful, or memorable as its stateside counterpart. As a result, few historic events have Can-Am cars on display, let alone racing. Here, to have a sizeable grid of them is a rare thing indeed.

These wedged racers are the perfect reminder of a forgotten era, where limits of possibility and engineering were pushed each weekend.

Hearing the thunderous, massive engines reverberate through the woods before a pack of cars crest over the hill is a sight I won’t forget soon, and neither is the guttural pounding felt when one of these monsters starts up in the pitlane. A bit of suspension of disbelief goes a long way, and it wasn’t hard to image the woods and crests at Brands as those of a circuit like Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen, or Mosport in Canada. I have a sneaking suspicion that this taster hasn’t quite satiated my appetite for these monsters, however. Perhaps I’ll have to head across the Atlantic to venture into their natural habitat.

Does Can-Am captivate you as much as I think it does?

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Mike NRockdadHans LiedercranzMnarinoOzinnh Recent comment authors
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Mike N
Mike N

My first ever race was the 1970 Can Am and I was hooked for life. Hulme, Revson, Gurney and some guy named Jackie Stewart lead the field. Simply incredible. Yeah, Can Am Cars are special.

Hans Liedercranz
Hans Liedercranz

The answer is an unequivocal YES! These were the most profound “no rules” racing cars of all time for certain. Jackie Stewart and the T260 was one of my favorites. The Car was just too green and broke down too many times, but Stewart was amazing to watch Drive that car.

Mnarino
Mnarino

I’m a big fan of Chapparral cars, especially the 2E. I got to see it run once when I was in Texas. I saw them as innovators in Can-am since they were the ones that had the first “big wing” car, used semi-automatic transmissions, had a foot pedal to adjust the angle of the rear spoiler, and used smaller displacement aluminum motors while everyone else was using more powerful, but heavier cast iron big blocks. The 2J was also the first ground effects car, before Lotus and Brabham. A lot of the suspension, and aero innovations that were developed in… Read more »

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Rockdad
Rockdad

So cool! This first photo is what I was doing 50 years ago when I was 15, building and racing precision slot cars. Here’s my Chaparral 2E, which was heavily raced on the tracks in 1967. The second photo is what I’m doing 50 years later, chief mechanic for Giacobbi Racing, building and racing vintage race cars. Third photo is a Ferrari 246GTS I owned along the way, when I was 23 years old and owned my own engineering company.
Sorry, Petrolicious reversed the order of the three photos.

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Ozinnh
Ozinnh

When I was a teen in early ’70s dad worked a corner at Mid Ohio and that got us into the pits. Amazing.
What a treat and the sound, smell, and rumble in my gut stay with me to this day.
Lothar Motschenbacher was also a competitive name in Can Am.
My dad jokingly called him the biggest name in racing!
I’d love to see, hear, and feel that rumble again.

Sean Morris
Sean Morris

The thunder of Can Am historic racing at Road America is something I will never forget. The ground shaking, the roar approaching. Trumpeted intakes, mufflerless exhausts.

While its fun and awesome to see one or two on track, as a group, awesome.

Walter Bishop
Walter Bishop

I watched the can am series in the early seventies at Watkins glen. And the McLaren with the huge American v8 could almost be heard around the entire course. The Porsche driven by mark Donahue was a treat as well as Jackie Stewart in the L & M Lola. Loved the idea there are no rules bring the fastest car you can the guys that drove them were tops in the game.

HitTheApex
HitTheApex

One could argue that IMSA’s GTP cars and a couple of eras of Formula 1 were right up there in terms of speed, innovation, and excitement, but it’s hard to argue against the rolling thunder that was Can-Am!

Douglas Anderson
Douglas Anderson

In a word “YES ” Can Am was one of the best series ever, the cars were like F-1 , with body work, the sound was amazing. I never got to drive one. I personally went from a Formula V and some sports cars to Formula Ford 1600 and manage to get a test in an F5000. ( I prefer to say i ran out of $$ , but some would say it was a lack of talent) Even drove a privateer effort in Trans Am a couple times. But the Can Am series was still my all time favorite… Read more »