Memoirs of Early Can-Am Racing
This special-to-Fuel Curve article by George “Ken” Dwinell chronicles his memoirs of early Can-Am Racing. We found Ken’s incredible Can Am Racing pictures through a web search and he was kind enough to share his images and memories of this magical form of motorsport.
The first car race I ever attended was the USRRC event at Laguna Seca in May 1967. Having never seen real race cars and never hearing the hypnotic rhythm of big block V-8’s pushing out huge horsepower numbers while driving pistons at several hundred RPM, I was enthralled to say the least. Actually, I think I was smitten! I have heard of the race bug biting one and I think that’s what happened to me that weekend.
I arrived at the track completely naïve to the protocol expected of a spectator. I stopped at the first check point and requested a ticket to see the race. I was met with, “What team are you with?” In my best Elmer Fudd impersonation, I stammered something probably incoherent. The person in the window said, Ok, I’ll put you down as being with “XYZ” team. I didn’t know if this was good or bad. I just did as I was told, hung the “credential” from the rearview mirror of my 1966 Mustang Fastback and went where official looking people pointed me. As it turned out I had paddock access! Like that scenario is going to happen today?!?
If you’re familiar with Laguna Seca you know that the paddock was on the inside of the track and was more of a mud bog than anything else. I finally figured out that somehow, I had a pretty special serendipitous pass for the race! Man I was stoked.
If you’re familiar with the history of automobile racing you will already know that the USRRC was the immediate predecessor to and competition for the early Can-Am series . For a relatively short time the two series overlapped but eventually became the single Can-Am series.
At the end of my first weekend at a racetrack I couldn’t wait for more. For many years I was a “regular” at Laguna Seca and consequently Sears Point Raceway and Riverside Raceway. Ah the memories. Those early Can Am cars were unlike anything before or since.
Ground pounders is such a cliché but about the only apt description available for the cars of that era. McLarens, Lolas, Chapparals, Shadows, Ferraris, Genies, BRMs, of course Dan Gurney’s McLeagle, Porsche and myriad other independent marques.
Drivers like Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme, Dan Gurney, Tony Adamowicz, Lothar Motschenbacher, Jim Hall, David Hobbs, Brian Redman, George Follmer all led the way. Then the drivers who came over from Formula 1 like Jody Scheckter, Jackie Stewart, Chris Amon, Jo Siffert, Vic Elford, Jackie Oliver added that much more excitement.
Back then those with limited resources were relegated to “camping out” meaning sleeping where ever you could pull over and catch 40 winks. Breakfast usually consisted of a container of orange juice and some half stale box of donuts from the local grocery store. Brushing our teeth occurred in the bathroom of the local Shell station across from the grocery store. Fun times!!!
In those days the “garage” was the parking lot of the motel/hotel in which a team was staying. Race car, transporter, tools, team all stayed together. I just so happened to be in a room next to Brian Redman one time. Most of the night was devoted to them working on their car in the parking lot, not to mention all the trips back and forth from their room(s) and the constant conversations regarding the car’s problems and potential solutions.
Basic needs now satisfied, we headed off to the racetrack barely able to control our growing level of excitement and anticipation. A lineup of cars was inevitable, but we had to insure as early as possible arrival to stake out the favorite viewing site, outside driver’s right entering turn nine at Laguna. Yes, there were only nine turns then. And that 130-degree left hand turn will always remain turn nine! And, incidentally, that iconic corkscrew will forever remain turn six in my opinion!
Settled in now at our vantage point we had amazing sight lines. Always camera in hand there was never a lack of things to do. My close and longtime friend Jim Phillipson (with whom I am collaborating on this article) was already an accomplished photographer and soon took me under his wing helping me acquire some decent photographic equipment and showing me the basic skills required to photograph racing action.
It wasn’t until many years later that I would get my own credentials and shoot on the “other side of the fence.” But in those early days it was about letting all my senses be stimulated – the unmuffled cacophony of the big block V-8’s (or the 12 cylinder Ferrari’s), the aphrodisiac aroma of the burned fuel, smoking tires, or overheated brakes or clutches. Coupled with the crowd’s excitement and anticipation of the green flag dropping it was simply an epic memory. Feeling the ground vibrate as 31 (yes 31) cars lined up two by two in military precision approaching turn nine just prior to getting the green flag on the front straight still sends shivers down my spine. Then, every racer would accelerate in unison attempting to maintain the precision before all hell broke loose when they were officially let loose with the waive of the flag. It never got old.
For 61 laps around Laguna Seca’s 1.9 mile circuit this was unparalleled immersion into a wonderful world. For an hour and a half (or so) nothing else existed in the universe – just the total experience of top level, state of the art car racing.
Every driver had his own style of approaching a straight or curve. It was always a treat and pleasure to watch these icons of motor racing drive the track. One in particular stands out however. It was truly a clinic in driving on the edge to watch Jody Scheckter do his patented four wheel drift in the UOP Shadow to negotiate turn nine at Laguna Seca. Truly wonderful to watch and an unforgettable moment. Looking at these images makes me realize just how lucky I was to witness it all.