Ernie, Tuna, Eric and I had enjoyed our first trip to Road America (RA) in the hearse so we were back in July for the RA round of the United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC). It was a two-day event with the Badger 200 for small-bore sports racers on Saturday and the feature event, the Road America 500, on Sunday. This was to be the eleventh running of the RA 500 that year, but the entry list was a bit lean.
This was because 1967 was the second year of a new professional series called the Can-Am, which was coming to Road America for the first time that year. Most of the teams that would have entered the RA 500 chose not to because they did not want to put 500 miles of wear on their cars before the big bucks race of the Can-Am. In addition, Mark Donahue had won five of the six previous USRRC events in Roger Penske’s Lola. The championship was already his. As a result, only 21 cars were entered for the 500. Twenty-one cars on a four-mile track was a bit sparse.
Saturday morning, while nursing our hangovers, we settled in on Canada Corner for the day’s activities. We were rewarded with history being made that day in qualifying for the 500, when Chuck Parsons drove the first 100 mph lap of the track in Carl Haas’ McLaren Elva Mk. III. He circled the four miles in 2:22.8 seconds for an average speed of 100.83 mph. His amazing feat was matched a bit later by Jerry Hansen who turned in a 2:23.2 for a 100.02 mph average speed.
The Badger 200 race turned out to be just a two-car show won by Warren Fairbanks in his 289 Cobra. He finished over two minutes ahead of Dave Ott’s Corvette.
We were back in Farmer Miller's cow pasture on Saturday night for a dinner of brats and corn, followed by a campfire accompanied by lots of beer. The next morning, not unexpectedly, we were back on the steep slope of Canada Corner. While there were 21 cars entered for the 500, only 14 had engines over 2 liters. These included 7 McLarens, two McKee’s and one Lola. The other four were field fillers including a ten-year-old Lister Chevy.
Of the 14, only three mattered. Two of these were the cars of Parsons and Hansen, running as a team. Their third teammate, Skip Scott, would share Parson’s car while Parsons would relieve Hansen for a while in his car. This extra duty would be no problem for Parsons since he had won the 500 the previous year running solo. The third car was a Danna Chevrolet entry for Peter Revson, the heir to the Revlon fortune. Revson was the regular team driver but was paired with Lothar Motschenbacher for the 500. They were also in a McLaren Elva Mk III. Other notable drivers in the race included Sam Posey and Skip Barber.
At the start of the 500, Hansen took the lead and led all but five laps until the first fuel stop. Parsons turned his second place car over to Scott and jumped into Hansen’s car. He unexpectedly had to pit that car for oil and the Parson’s/Scott car went on to win. The Revson/Motschenbacher machine lasted only 42 laps but had the honor of turning the first 100-mile an hour lap in competition. Some historians will tell you that that honor went to Revson, but I distinctly remember the PA announcer excitedly telling us that Lothar Motschenbacher had just set the first competition lap over 100mph.
Motschenbacher is not a name you can forget easily. Well, I suppose the announcer could have been mistaken as to which driver was in the car at the time. Still, it was an historic event and I was there to see it.
Lothar Motshenbacher at Road America in the McLaren Elva MK III
The Road America 500 was the first road race I had seen with professional drivers and I was very impressed. I wanted to know more about the drivers and the races so I began to buy magazines like "Road and Track" and "Car and Driver" to read more about what was becoming my favorite sport. But I had no favorite driver or anyone to really root for until I learned about a lanky Californian named Dan Gurney.
Gurney was the only American racing at that time at the top level of the sport in Formula One and had recently won the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa in a car of his own design. This was just a week after winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans with co-driver A. J. Foyt. Instead of drinking the traditional champagne on the podium, Dan shook up the bottle and sprayed it all over everyone within range. This was the start of a tradition as common now at races as the checkered flag. The winning Ford GT 40 they drove at Le Mans with is on display in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. There you can see the bump in the roof put there to accommodate Gurney’s 6’4" frame
Dan Gurney in the Le Mans winning Ford GT 40 MK IV
I read that a Dan Gurney fan club, called the All American Racers Eagle Club, was being organized. I quickly sent in my money and became a charter member. I proudly slipped my membership card into my wallet and looked forward to the coming Can-Am at Road America because I knew Dan would be competing in the event.
The Can-Am concept was very simple. The basic rule was that there were no real rules. The cars had to be two-seat, envelope-bodied sports racers with a minimum displacement of 2.5 liters. That was it. There was no top engine limit, no aerodynamic restrictions, and no rules on the type of engine used, number of cylinders or materials of construction. The freedom these rules, or no rules, provided designers resulted in some amazing looking cars in the next few years and this was really the beginning of a golden age in road racing.
The first year of the Can-Am had been a big success, so when the track at Ste. Jovite, Canada gave up its date due to money problems, Cliff Tufte jumped on the opportunity and brought the series to Road America. The race was to be the first of a six-race calendar and was held on Labor Day weekend. It was to be a weekend of records. The word of the excitement of Can-Am racing had spread and some 51,000 fans showed up for the event. Naturally, we were among them.
I had been reading magazines, learning as much as I could about this fantastic, exciting sport and had learned the names of all the great drivers like Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme, John Surtees, Jim Hall, George Follmer, Mark Donahue, John Cannon, Roger McCluskey, Ludwig Heimrath, Brett Lunger, Jerry Grant, Ron Courtney and, of course, Dan Gurney. I had already seen some of these guys race in the RA 500, like Chuck Parsons, Peter Revson, Lothar Motschenbacher, Sam Posey, Jerry Hanson and Skip Barber. And they were all going to be at Road America for the Can-Am! I could not wait to see it!
All of the usual gang was there, except Tuna, for the first Can-Am at Road America. On Saturday morning, we found a nice spot on the side of the hill and settled in to watch the day’s activities which included Can-Am Qualifying and a 200-mile race for under-2 liter sports racers. The day sported bright sunny weather and we had found a nice shady spot on the hillside, at least one that should be shady for most of the day.
In the inaugural Can-Am season, New Zealand native Bruce McLaren had hired Chris Amon to drive his second factory car and they had a decent year as both led races and scored fastest laps during the season, but their best finishes were three second places. This year, McLaren had replaced Chris Amon with fellow Kiwi Denny Hulme in his second car. Both were equipped with a new orange McLaren M6A with a 6.0 liter Chevy V8 bolted into it. This was the first monocoque McLaren sports racer and had an aerodynamic, wedge-shaped body. This year was to be the beginning of "The Bruce and Denny show" and McLaren dominance in the series.
Denny Hulme in the McLaren M6A
Can-Am qualifying got under way and what a way it was!!! No fewer than 19 cars broke the lap record! The buzz was that the favorites for the race would be the brace of orange McLaren’s driven by Bruce McLaren and Denny Hulme and this was quickly proven to be true as they posted the top times in qualifying. The fastest was Bruce McLaren who covered the four-mile lap in just 2:12.6 for a speed of 108.594 mph! This was over 10 seconds faster than the previous lap record set earlier in the year at the RA 500.
There were a couple of reasons one could attribute to this enormous jump in speeds. First, you had some of the top drivers in the world, including two standouts from Formula One, McLaren and Hulme. Second, they had the latest cars and new tires to put on them. Goodyear had developed a new soft tire with a very sticky compound and made them to fit on wider rims than had ever been used before. Remember, in Can-Am, the only real rule was that there were no rules. The fastest car on Firestone tires, driven by Follmer, was three seconds slower than the pole sitting McLaren.
Dan Gurney in his Lola T-70
My new favorite driver, Dan Gurney, qualified third on the grid with his dark blue All American Racers Lola T-70 powered by a 5.7 liter Ford engine with special Gurney Westlake heads. Westlake was the company that built the engine for Gurney’s Formula One entry.
The Under-2 liter race was for the Doug Revson Trophy. Doug was the younger brother of Peter Revson and had often raced in this class. Unfortunately, he was killed in a Formula 3 race in Denmark earlier that year. Peter had quickly arranged for a five race series for the U-2 cars to race along with most of the Can-Ams, with the winner taking home the Doug Revson Trophy.
The race featured 17 cars with five of them being Porsche 906’s, which were the favorite and so drew the most attention. Like the RA 500, having only 17 cars on the four-mile track looked a bit bare. Still, it was a good race dominated and won by Freddy Baker of Mound, Minnesota in his Porsche 906.
Sunday came after another party night in farmer Miller’s dairy pasture. We packed up our camping gear, checked the ice in our coolers and headed for the track. We took our normal positions on the slopes of Canada Corner and I eagerly waited for what I was sure would be the best race I had ever seen. Since I had seen only a few road races, this was a given.
1967 Can Am pace lap in Thunder Valley
On the first lap of the race, I was not surprised when the two orange McLarens appeared in Canada Corner first with a commanding lead. As the field of big block V8 powered cars exited Canada Corner and went up through the valley towards the Billy Mitchell Bridge, you knew Thunder Valley was aptly named! The hillsides reverberated from the combined roar of those powerful engines. My whole body tingled and I had a grin from ear to ear as I soaked up the sights and sounds of that first lap thundering through Canada Corner.
Dan Gurney was running a distant third in the early going, his car and the rest of the field clearly out-classed by the McLarens. Soon, to my disappointment, Gurney began dropping back with gearbox problems. John Surtees, on the move up from his seventh spot on the grid, slipped into third place. Then on Lap 6, Bruce McLaren’s car coasted quietly to a stop in front of us. His machine had lost all its oil and he had to park it. Hulme, however, continued to easily lead Surtees, Donahue, and Hall. Surtees looked like a lock for second even after we heard he had hit a dog on the track!
Late in the race, John Cortes blew his engine big time in corner five and spun in his own oil. Surtees was right behind and had no chance to avoid the oil and also spun directly in front of Donahue, who managed to avoid both the oil and Surtees to move into second. Surtees recovered and managed to hang on to third place.
Hulme won easily averaging 104.454 mph, over 4 mph faster than the previous lap record. He also set a new race lap record of 2:14.9 for a speed of 106.746 mph. Donahue came home second, with Surtees third followed by Jim Hall, Skip Scott, and Jerry Hansen.
We climbed the hill and loaded our depleted coolers into our cars and headed for home. This took some time, however, as the huge crowd of some 51,000 clogged all the roads, most of them headed south for Milwaukee and Chicago. No matter, we had seen an historic record-breaking event and I, for one, was very satisfied.
Copyright © 2006 by Terry Aasen