BUILT TO BATTLE

They may be more than 40 years old, but the McLaren Can-Am cars that 
raced at this year’s Monterey Motorsports Reunion showed no sign of slowing down.

As well as all the concours events and auctions going on during the week of Pebble Beach, another key attraction for enthusiasts is the annual Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Laguna Seca. Each year, this celebration of historic racing brings some of the most spectacular racing cars in the world to this beautiful, twisting circuit, about 15 miles inland from Pebble Beach. None made more noise than the Can-Am class that ran a series of demonstration races this year – whenever they were on track it was impossible to do anything but than stand and watch, fingers in ears, at this recreation of the epic era of racing. Fittingly, of the 27 entrants, no fewer than 13 were McLarens. 
 
Fitting, because McLaren dominated the early years of Can-Am, the much-missed race series that – in its best-remembered iteration – ran from 1966 to 1974. Not only did the factory McLaren team take five back-to-back drivers’ championships between 1967 and 1971, with Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme scoring two each and Peter Revson winning one, McLaren also supplied chassis to numerous privateers of the day. A legacy that has resulted in the relatively high number of cars still participating in historic racing.
 
Can-Am itself needs little introduction. The series was spun from the FIA’s very laissez faire Group 7 technical regulations, which allowed designers pretty much free reign. Beyond basic dimension limits the only requirements were that cars should have two seats, enclosed wheels and basic safety equipment. Engines were unlimited, there was no minimum weight and radical aerodynamic innovations were positively encouraged. The result was a generation of cars with power-to-weight ratios that humbled the Formula 1 cars of the day. 

Le Mans veteran Rick Knoop behind the wheel of the 1972 M8F that previously belonged to his father..

It’s not hard to understand their continuing appeal, and in the paddock at Laguna Seca the passion of those who maintain and race these cars is obvious. It takes a huge amount of effort to bring any of them to Laguna to race. ‘They’re not too hard to keep running,’ says Eric Ramos, crew chief for the 1967 M6A owned and driven by Brian Blain, ‘but they want to shake themselves to pieces, and they run through a lot of parts. But if you stay on top of them, they’re fine.
 
On the other side of the paddock we find one of the quickest cars of the weekend, the 1972 McLaren M8F driven by sports car and Le Mans veteran Rick Knoop. With its bodywork lifted off, the alloy chassis looks vast, as does the 8-litre V8 that sits behind the cockpit. 
 
‘My father used to own this car,’ Knoop explains. ‘Sadly he passed away a couple of years ago. Craig Pence, who owns the car now, said: “I can’t bring your father back, but I can let you drive the car.” And that’s why I’m here.’
 
The M8F might be over 40 years old now, but it hasn’t slowed with age. With around 875bhp from its big-block Chevrolet V8, and weighing just 770kg, it’s one of the fastest cars at the Reunion. Even with his considerable racing experience, Knoop admits it’s a car that needs to be treated with extreme respect. 
 
‘It’s an engine stand on castors, basically – it weighs less than a small city car, and it’s got more power than you could ever call necessary. It’s explosive but accurate, the massive acceleration in the lower gears means you have to be careful in the slower turns.’
 
Knoop says the car was recently clocked running at 197mph at Road America in Wisconsin. ‘You have to drive with confidence, but never arrogance – you always leave a little on the table.’

 


'THIS ONE'S GOT ABOUT 900BHP ALREADY, WHICH I RECKON IS PLENTY'


 

As you would expect, given their heritage, many of the cars at the Reunion have colourful histories, none more so than Jim Stengel’s 1972 McLaren M8-FP. It’s gleaming condition in the paddock belies a very chequered past.
 
‘It was wrecked and burnt at Sears Point in the late 1970s,’ explains Stengel. He has owned the car for three-and-a-half years, putting it back to original spec. ‘When we got it, it came with carbon-fibre bodywork,’ he explains (instead of the original GRP). ‘The guy who sold it to me offered me a turbocharged engine as well. This one’s got about 900bhp already, which I reckon is plenty. I may not be the fastest, but I like to think that I’m having the most fun.’
 
Another owner-driver is Robert Ryan, with his beautiful 1968 McLaren M6B finished in McLaren Papaya Orange. The M6B was a customer-spec version of the championship-winning M6A, and as well as being owner and driver, Ryan also works as his own crew chief – supported by his brothers Paul and John. He’s clearly a man who believes in keeping it in the family.
 
They’re great support,’ says Ryan, nodding towards his brothers. ‘It took a while, but they’ve learnt to do things my way!’
 
Ryan purchased the car as a non-runner from Canada. ‘I’m pretty much the mechanic,’ he explains. ‘I work in a professional engine shop, and I fit in doing stuff on this car when I can.’
 
As well as racing it in the US, he’s also taken it to New Zealand, where it competed in a series of races to celebrate Bruce McLaren’s life. He’s in no doubt about the reasons for Can-Am’s continuing appeal: ‘It was the most extreme race series ever. It’s never going to be repeated – no way. The fans just love it, and that’s both the people who remember it first time out, and those who’ve never seen it before.’

Robert Ryan’s 1968 McLaren M6B is the customer-spec version of the championship-winning M6A.

Knoop was given the chance to race his father’s car by owner Craig Pence.

Of the 27-car grid, 13 cars were McLarens, reflecting the incredible success the team enjoyed in Can-Am in the 1960s and 1970s.

‘It’s explosive but accurate,’ says Knoop of the M8F.

Robert Ryan works as his own crew chief, and works on the car with his brothers Paul and John, standing behind.

The ferocious V8 in the back of Knoop’s car has seen the M8F being clocked at 197mph while driving at Road America in Wisconsin.

At the Monterey Motorsports Reunion, Knoop finished third in the McLaren.

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