And that’s how the McLaren team made it look easy at the 1968 Can-Am series
Bruce McLaren is a nice enough little guy, and Denny Hulme shrugs his shoulders at most things including cleaning up the Can-Am championship, but the big question is: How did the two New Zealanders manage to walk away with the races so easily?
You know how it went for them, winning four of the six races and, if you will excuse me for saying so, only failing to win the other two because of freak things like both cars breaking at Bridgehampton and the untimely arrival of the winter monsoon at Laguna Seca. At every race it seemed as though they had come to the track ready to go out and race whereas the other famous hotshoes were using practice as a test session to find out what they should have already known before the series started. I saw the last two races in this year’s series and the superiority of the McLarens was almost embarrassing.
Early in the series the two McLarens were in oiling troubles that were cured when they junked their tweaky arrangement in favour of some more standard GM equipment in the piston ring department. Then they were back up to power par and it was an achievement to keep them in sight, never mind dice with them. Jim Hall and the Chaparral was the combination they feared most, although they knew the canny Penske would ensure Donohue was climbing the championship points ladder without risking his reputation or the motorcar in a track battle. The Penske policy paid off as Mark got 3rd place points money. Andretti, Gurney and Revson, three men who might have fielded a challenge to the McLarens, chanted engines halfway through the series when Ford made a last-ditch attempt to foil the Chevy-powered walk-over. But the aluminium 427 Ford was an oiler and the teams who accepted Ford’s help must have wished they hadn’t.
Bruce McLaren is a New Zealander, he’s 32 and while he isn’t the fastest driver in the world, he makes up for any lack of natural talent with tremendous energy and engineering ability. He’s a cheerful stocky charger who looks like the boy next door, but he has been in the racing business longer than most people. He was racing an Austin 7 special in New Zealand when he was 15 and was Grand Prix racing in Europe when he was 21. He has also been racing in American events longer than most drivers. In 1960 he drove Briggs Cunningham’s prototype E-type Jaguar at Laguna Seca, and in 1961 he almost won Riverside in a Cooper Monaco. The following year he and Roger Penske shared a Monaco fitted with a Maserati engine at Sebring. “After that race I cam back to England and asked Charlie Cooper if I could run the sports car side of the Cooper Car Company because I felt sure there was a tremendous market for this type of car to use an American engine for American racing. I was convinced at that stage that sports car racing was going to really boom providing there were cars available, and that it would be a great market for an English manufacturer. Charlie turned me down flat.”
Two years later McLaren bought the ex-Penske Zerex Special from John Mecom. The car had been sitting in the corner of the Mecom workshops under a dust sheet, along with an aluminium Oldsmobile engine that nobody had gotten around to fitting. After a couple of races in its original Climax-engined form, McLaren and his mechanics, Tyler Alexander and Wally Willmott, switched the engines in McLaren Racing’s first workshop – an unbelievably grimy shed that they shared with an earthmoving grader! McLaren won first time out at Mosport.
The Zerex’s chassis was a willowy affair, so McLaren decided to design a stiffer one. This tubular frame was completed and ready for painting one Sunday, but the only paint that could be found in sleepy England on a Sunday morning was a tine of garden gate green. So the car was christened the Jolly Green Giant. Because Bruce was still with Cooper in Formula 1 the car hadn’t really been called anything, nobody daring to call it a McLaren after the rumpus there had been when Jack Brabham started to build his own cars while still at Coopers! But there was no holding McLaren now. If he could build a chassis, he could build a whole car, so he did. He was convinced that a lightweight engine with a reasonable amount of power would be the equal of a cast iron engine with more power, the equalling coming through a superior power-to-weight ratio. It took two seasons for McLaren to realise that nothing beats cubic inches, and he switched to 6 litre Chevy’s for 1967. The M6As with their cast iron Chevy’s were conventional motorcars that won because they were well sorted, reliable and had impeccable attention to detail.
The M8A by comparison was an exotic motorcar with the aluminium 7 litre Chevy V8 hanging off the back of the monocoque. “We started running a prototype car in March this year. It was really one of last year’s cars with lower profile tyres and the body cut down. Then we tired a cast iron 427 engine in it, a litre bigger than the engine we ran last year. When we first offered the engine up to the chassis, it looked like an engineering impossibility, but bearing in mind our Formula 1 construction with the stressed Ford engine, our Can-Am solution was obvious. The old chassis was cut in half and the engine became the rear of the car with the rear suspension hanging off a subframe. With this mobile test rig we tried a dry-sump setup, wings, new brakes, and all the while the new M8A was taking shape on the drawing board.”
The initial test with the first of the new cars was on July 16th, but England’s traditionally showery summer weather interrupted continuous concentrated development. Bruce crashed one wet morning at Goodwood knocking a corner off the car and setting progress back even further. While development on the first chassis and the construction of Denny’s chassis was coming along in England, Gary Knutson, an ex-Chaparral man from away back, and Colin Beanland, a Kiwi who had been McLaren’s racing mechanic in 1958, were pressing on with dry sump development on an aluminium 7 litre Chevy V8. Initially they worked on the engines in a shop in Capistrano Beach, California, but later they shifted in with Al Bartz when he moved to bigger premises in Van Nuys. By now McLaren’’ Engine Division also employed American Lee Muir.
Back at the ranch, Don Beresford (ex-Aston Matin and Lola) was supervising the chassis construction and was later to take over Denny’s car working with Kiwi ex-Brabham mechanic Gary Taylor. Tyler Alexander was crew chief on Bruce’s car. Bill Eaton was sheet metal bender par excellence. Haig Alltounian came in from Shelby and Frank Zimmerman was taken on as a Gopher. “The best gopher we’ve ever had,” comments McLaren.
Teddy Mayer as team manager was generally trying to be in three places at once with a worried frown and his yellow legal pad on which he painstakingly recorded all details of testing and development. Phil Kerr (Brabham’s ex-manager) looked after Formula 1 operations back in England.
In the drawing office, Jo Marquart was a new face. Of Swiss birth, he was immediately christened “The Foreigner” by a bunch of Americans and New Zealanders working in England. Marquart had left Switzerland to become assistance to the chief engineer of the Scottish Omnibus Company in Edinburgh, leaving there to go to Lotus and moving on to McLaren Racing when Robin Herd joined Cosworth. “Hanging the engine off the back of the monocoque was pretty much my idea.” says McLaren. “Gordon Coppuck and I worked out the rear bulkhead, the suspension detail was a group effort, the front half of the chassis was largely Jo’s work and I worked out the body shape and general layout with Jim Clark of Specialised Mouldings.
Team Manager Mayer burst in on one design huddle over new hubs, blustering that he had to have cars to ship out in August and he couldn’t race just hubs and wheel bearings! The Foreigner won instant fame and affection on the factory floor when he replied. “Better we race hubs and wheel bearings than drawings only ,,,,”
McLaren reckons his Can-Am offensive – it was planned like a military campaign, let’s face it – cost around $180,000. “It cost us about $80,000 to run the engine division, and we’ll probably recover about $25,000 on the sale of engines we have left. The cars cost us something in the region of $50,000 each and these will remain on the books as assets worth probably $25,000. We won about $180,000 altogether, so if we were able to sell the cars and all the engines we would have a profit of about $100,000.”
McLaren illustrates his escalation into the successful big time with a story from early in this year’s series when one of Shelby’s crew borrowed McLaren’s portable engine hoist. “I was reminded that it used to be us who did the borrowing and it used to be us who ran the little setup with one car. This time we had vie chassis men, five engine men, three spare engines, two cars, three trucks, 4500 lb of spares and even a radio telephone!”
It appeared in the final races of the series that the works McLarens were running against very weak opposition. “We were very surprised. Our actual improvement over last year’s car had been slight, working on our testing yardstick at Goodwood. I eventually managed to get the new car down to 1 min. 12.7 sec in a Banzai effort which at the time was calculate by me as an attempt to instil confidence in the new car. We’d had the old car with the cast iron engine and everything just jury-rigged on it down to 1:13 regularly, and the previous year we’d done 1:13.4 with the 6 litre engine, so our actual improvement was under 1.5 percent and this was the sort of improvement in lap times we saw at Riverside and Las Vegas. On other circuits we had almost a 3 percent improvement and yet it wasn’t until the final races that we were back up to power after solving our piston ring problems.
“We expected Gurney and Shelby to give us much more opposition. Gurney had proved that his Weslake-headed Ford was capable of producing more than 550 horsepower for 500 miles at Indy and we felt sure that he would get 580 bhp out of his fairly light engine over 200 miles with relatively little effort. In the standard McLaren chassis this engine would have been very quick. We figured Dan in his combination would be a big threat but it didn’t materialise. I suppose during our development season we were more worried about what Hall was doing than anyone else. I must say I was surprised – surprised and delighted – at the lack of competition.”
McLaren was also rather surprised at the low standard of preparation. “There is no standard of preparation other than in the Penske area. In my opinion there is a regrettable tendency for the average American mechanic with very little background to feel he knows it all and never be worried,” says McLaren. “Our chief mechanic Tyler Alexander is fond of saying ‘Hell, I’m worried all the time –anything could go wrong with the damned thing’ and he doesn’t presume to have an answer at his fingertips to every situation like some other crews pretend to have. Penske’s people are good because of Penske. There are some good mechanics on the series, but there are also some who think they are very good – they could take lesson from any of two dozen Formula 1 racing mechanics who wouldn’t presume to know everything …”
Talking about improvements he would like to see in the Can-Am series, McLaren mentions standardisation of starting procedure. “I’d like to see minute boards before the start with a 5 min board, 2 min and then 1 min so that drivers can start their engines sometime between the 2 min and 1 min boards and then at 1 min everyone is cleared off the grid and at zero the pace car pulls away. Las Vegas was a shambles. Nobody knew when to start engines, in fact Moss took off in the pace car a couple of times and then stopped. But that’s only a detail thing. Taken overall the Can-Am series is definitely on its way to being the great thing that has ever happened to motor racing. I think we should continue to have no limitations on engine size and as few rules and regulations as possible. The fact that the cars have all-enveloping bodies has led to relatively safe racing. If we had all been in single seaters in Turn 1 at Las Vegas, it would have been terrifying. Of course there is always the possibility that it wouldn’t have happened then because people wouldn’t have been game to tangle, but I reckon sports cars are generally safer in the event of the odd fracas. Sports cars are more spectacular, and more important, there’s room on which to put decals and other messages from your sponsor!”, grins McLaren.
McLaren Racing enjoyed financial backing from Gulf and Goodyear on the series and both Hulme and McLaren basked in yards of prime print publicity as the series progressed. Features in Time and Sports Illustrated plus local press helped to make the two New Zealanders better known in the United States than they are in England. McLaren has certainly been on television more often on the West Coast than he has in either England or New Zealand!
The McLaren team finished the series in good shape with the drivers reversing last year’s position. Hulme winning and McLaren taking second place. “In a way we did a little better than last year. First and second was what we had hoped for but we weren’t very confident about it. We had pole position at every race this year, whereas Gurney beat us once last year in the final couple of races, but this year we had completely licked our engine problems and we were both in top form as the series ended. So at the moment we’re feeling good, but I hasten to add we’re not complacent. We’re well aware that this season was probably our last easy one. That big Ferrari didn’t get a chance to show its race pace, but I followed it in practice and its power to weight seemed pretty close to ours. Chris could run down the straight with almost identical acceleration and top speed to us. Brabham was at Vegas nosing around so you can reckon he’ll be chasing greenies next year with a new car and Gurney has quit Formula 1 to concentrate on Can-Am and Indy racing, so he isn’t going to be hanging about. I even hear talk that Honda is considering trying its hand at Can-Am. Then there’s the new 2H Chaparral. So you see what I meant about having had our last easy season …”
The Chevy domination of Can-Am has become an embarrassment to Ford since General Motors is supposedly out of racing and Ford is supposedly very much in, and rumour said that McLaren might be tempted to use new aluminium 429 Fords in his cars next year. I asked McLaren is he planned to can his engine development program on the lightweight Chev’s in favour of the new Ford. “No. No and no comment.” When McLaren doesn’t have anything to say on any given subject you can assume that the issue is fraught with deep political and financial undertones, and Bruce isn’t about to be drawn into discussion about it. Getting information about 1969 plans was like pulling teeth. Jim Hall and John Surtees are conversationalists by comparison with McLaren when he wants to clam up. “Plans are being made. I’m sure if I told you at the moment, you’d say ‘ v-e-r-y interesting.’ We don’t intend to expand our California operations, in fact we are bringing everything back to England to set up shop with our own dyno and test house.”
Mixing Can-Am and Formula 1 is nigh on impossible as Gurney, Surtees and Ferrari discovered. McLaren was able to avoid disaster by flooding the projects alternately with staff, but even he had problems. At one stage only one mechanic was working on the Formula 1 cars while the others slaved to complete the Can-Am cars for shipment.
Did McLaren plan to favour the extended Can-Am series next year at the expense of his Formula 1 effort? “We’re going to work it 50/50 right down the line except that we plan to do our own engine development in Can-Am which means that in total we’ll have more people on the Can-Am project.”
Denny Hulme, fellow countryman and Formula 1 world champion in 1967, plans to drive for McLaren again next year. The pair get on well together, Hulme respecting McLaren’s urge to design and build his own cards while reckoning himself to be a better driver than Bruce, and Bruce happy to acknowledge the point if it makes for a smooth running operation and lets him concentrate on new ideas.
Team Manager Mayer is a 24-hour-a-day operator seemingly pledged to transfer McLaren sketches and scrawled notes into race-winning reality. McLaren puts as many hours in at his 10,000 sq ft Colnbrook factory near London Airport as his staff does. His work day starts at around 8.00 a.m. and seldom finished before 8 p.m. in the evening.
For McLaren the actual races are just the top of the iceberg – but he’s beginning to notice that his efforts are making the berg turn green. Dollar green.
First published Field & Track 1969 by Eoin S. Young
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