THUNDER ROAD

This year’s Monterey Motorsports Reunion celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Can-Am series. We were there to see – and hear – the historic McLarens in action.

 

McLaren dominated the Canadian-American Challenge Cup, with five back-to-back titles between 1967 and 1971. The series became known as Can-Am, and to mark 50 years since the inaugural race in 1966, a mouth-watering selection of historic machines are assembled for the annual Monterey Motorsports Reunion at Laguna Seca, California. As you’d expect, McLaren is well represented: of the 27 Can-Am cars running, 13 are McLarens.

 

Fans enjoy a close-up look at the impressive, 8.1-litre V8 in the 1972 McLaren M8F/P of Jim Stengel.

 

Born out of the FIA’s Group 7 sports car rules, Can-Am regulations were famously liberal: engine capacity was uncapped, there was no minimum weight, and as long as the sports cars had enclosed wheels, open cockpits, two seats and basic safety equipment, the engineers enjoyed an almost free rein.

A chilly breeze and hazy fog hangs over Laguna Seca early on race day as spectators’ cars file into parking areas on parched hillsides, and crowds flood in over pedestrian footbridges. Race car designer Gordon Murray, long associated with McLaren for his work in Formula 1 and on the F1 supercar, takes in the scene from the paddock. ‘I’d have loved to have designed a Can-Am car,’ he says. ‘The fact that they were unlimited and the engineers had so much freedom was fantastic.’

As the Can-Am series progressed, so the cars became increasingly wild: power outputs ballooned beyond 700bhp and rudimentary spoilers were added to keep tyres firmly on the ground. Today, the cars are even faster than they were in period, thanks to vastly improved tyre technology and, more controversially, some cars being modified for even more horsepower.

 

Top right: former McLaren designer Gordon Murray enjoys the Can-Am racing at the 2016 Monterey Motorsports Reunion

 

Two classes are running this weekend – one for the more curvaceous pre-1968 cars, another for the post-’68 monsters. The latter category is the clear crowd favourite.

Duncan MacKellar has owned his 1971 McLaren M8E for around five years, and shipped the 8.1-litre machine from Australia to Laguna Seca especially for the event. He’s a firm believer in running his car as close as possible to the original specification.

My car is one of 10 customer cars, a narrower version of the factory M8F with less aero,’ he explains. ‘It weighs 750kg and makes 750-800bhp – similar to a current Formula 1 car. The car’s dominated by its acceleration, and your vision actually starts to narrow when you floor it, like a tunnel effect. It’s quick in the corners too, but it looks slow because the straight-line speed is so extreme.

 

This stunning 1971 McLaren M8E/F driven by Roger Williams features a 1972-style rear wing.

 

Everyone’s allowed to get up close to the racers in the paddock, crowding round as GRP bodywork is removed to get a closer look at the huge V8 engines, exposed chassis and minimalist cockpits. Fans soon take a step backwards when those engines burst to life: sharp blasts rip from the exhausts with every blip of throttle, ricocheting and rasping around eardrums like a swarm of disoriented wasps.

The hot sun’s baked off the fog by the time the Can-Am cars head out on a parade lap. As the green flag waves, a noise like thunder fills the air. I feel the floor tingling beneath me, the coffee vibrating in my hand as cartoonish spoilers disappear over the ridge on the start-finish straight.

Up at the Corkscrew, crowds line the catch-fencing or relax on deckchairs with cool boxes filled with beer, those who arrived early hogging the shade beneath twisted California oaks.

 

Clockwise from top left: 1971 McLaren M8E of Duncan MacKellar; Robert Kauffman in his McLaren M8; a period team shirt; another McLaren M8F/P.

 

The racers are off the power as they turn into the left-hander at the top of the circuit, and as they tumble into the Corkscrew and flick to the right, you can see the front suspension rhythmically bobbing, sometimes hear the low-slung bodywork kissing the ground. It’s an amazing spectacle that demands undivided attention.

The heat’s dropped a little and the searing sun of earlier has softened as the post-’68 Can-Am cars race for the last time late in the afternoon. If anything, the racing becomes even more intense. I sit in the packed grandstand next to Turn 4 and watch the cars steaming over the crest on the start-finish straight at speeds of up to 160mph, see the pack flow through Turn 3, then become completely absorbed in the battles unfolding at Turn 4, a fast right-hander that makes a popular overtaking spot.

Fans point and jump to their feet in excitement as cars dive up the inside of one another, and there’s a collective gasp audible above the V8 engines as a racer spins under acceleration on corner-exit.

 

Chris MacAllister in his 1971 McLaren M8F-1 enjoying the perfect conditions at Laguna Seca, California.

 

The view from the grandstand provides further insight on how it must feel to drive these brutal cars. You can see the suspension loading up and watch drivers battling with the steering as the front end threatens to bleed into understeer. Then they’re on the power, the almost undramatic signature of the cars short-shifting through gears seemingly at odds with the way they gather so much speed so violently. The 20-minute race passes in a blur.

Flushed with excitement, red from physical exertion, the drivers return to the paddock. ‘These cars are so awesome,’ beams Robert Kauffman, owner and driver of a 1972 McLaren M8. ‘You really appreciate what the guys racing them did 50 years ago. I’m in decent shape, I race modern GT2 and GT3 cars, but Can-Am cars are rocket-powered go-karts with heavy steering – my forearms hurt after 20 minutes! That those guys raced for 200 miles non-stop is unbelievable.

 

Altogether, 27 Can-Am cars attended this year’s Monterey event – 13 of these were historic McLarens.

 

 

 

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