Porsche 917/30 – “the Can-Am killer”
After John Surtees drove a Lola to the inaugural 1966 season championship for the Johnson Wax-sponsored SCCA Canadian-American Challenge (Can-Am) series, the series for FIA Group 7 racing machines was dominated for the next five seasons by Team McLaren in their orange Chevrolet-powered rockets.
Then as now, Porsche, the German sports car manufacturer sold a large percentage of its production in North America, had made previous attempts at competing in the Can-Am series with a spyder (open-top) short-tail version of the 908 sports car for driver Tony Dean in 1969 and 1970.
In 1969 the 183-cubic inch flat six powered 908 was part of a two-car factory effort and the following year Dean himself was the entrant of the 908. Dean in the 908 emerged as the surprise winner of the seventh round of the 1970 Can-Am series at Road Atlanta after four separate accidents eliminated the leaders.
In the latter stages of the 1969 Can-Am season, in addition to the 908 entry the Porsche factory entered a spyder version of the new 917 sports car, known as the 917 PA that was driven by Swiss driver Jo Siffert. The 917 PA consistently placed in the top five finishers but being heavier and with “just” 580 horsepower as it was typically two seconds a lap slower and never in the hunt for victory versus the mighty big-block powered McLarens and Lolas.
Porsche tried again with the revised bright red 917/10 spyder with STP Oil Treatment sponsorship for the 1971 Can-Am series. Powered by a naturally aspirated 305-cubic inch flat twelve-cylinder engine the 917/10 finished in the top five positions in all six races that it appeared in, but it remained heavier and underpowered compared to its competition. That would change for the 1972 season, as the Porsche factory partnered with Team Penske, led by driver and engineer Mark Donohue.
Donohue and the Porsche developed an improved version of the Porsche 917/10 powered by the twin-turbocharged 330-cubic inch flat twelve-cylinder engine that could develop over 1100 horsepower in qualifying trim. The #6 car with sponsorship from the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company’s L&M cigarette brand, won the pole position for at the opening race at Mosport Park and dominated the early stages of the race until Donohue pitted with engine problems.
With the problems solved, Donohue returned to the track three laps down then stormed back to finish second to finish on the same lap as winner Denny Hulme’s McLaren. After Donohue was injured in a pre-race test crash before the series’ next race at Road Atlanta, he was replaced by George Follmer who won five of the remaining eight races and the 1972 SCCA Can-Am championship while Donohue, recovered from his injuries, won one race in his twin 917/10.
Although the McLaren juggernaut had been vanquished in 1972 and McLaren had quit the series, for the 1973 Can-Am season Porsche and Team Penske continued their development program and built the most powerful racing car ever built to that time. The 917/30 was bigger and faster in every aspect compared to the 1972 racer with a longer and aerodynamically efficient body and an engine that developed up to 1500 horsepower for qualifying.
Mark Donohue and the Sunoco-sponsored 917/30 won six of the season’s eight races, finished second once and won the championship in dominant fashion over his ex-teammate Follmer and Charlie Kemp who drove the former Penske 917/10 cars for Rinzler Racing with RC Cola sponsorship.
The Porsche 917’s back-to-back domination of the series combined with the nationwide gasoline shortage led the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) to introduce a rule requiring 3-miles per gallon maximum fuel consumption for the series for 1974. The new rule worked as Porsche withdrew from further Can-Am competition.
Without Porsche and Penske racing, competitor and fan interest ebbed and five races into the 1974 season, the SCCA cancelled the Can-Am series. Although the Can-Am series had already lost teams and spectators through the years, the death of the series was blamed on Porsche’s domination, and the 917/30 was branded “the Can-Am killer.” Penske and Donohue saw it as another example of applying their “Unfair Advantage.”
The history of the 917/30 is worth reviewing. A total of six chassis were eventually built, but only three cars were actually raced in period, and only two of those competed in blue and yellow Sunoco colors. All six cars remain in existence and today five of them are painted in the Sunoco colors.
The first car built, serial number #001 built during 1972 featured an adjustable wheelbase and served as the factory test car. In 1973 #001 was raced three times in the Group 7 European Interserie Championship (the European version of the Can-Am series) and scored a victory at Hockhenheim Germany driven by of Vic Elford. It raced again in 1975 and won at Hockenheim driven by Herbert Mueller. It is part of the Porsche factory collection, painted as it appeared in 1975 in sponsor’s Martini & Rossi colors of silver, red white and blue.
917/30 chassis serial number #002 was one of two cars built for use by Team Penske and Mark Donohue in the 1973 Can-Am challenge series. Donohue drove it to his first 1973 Can-Am victory in the third round of the season at Watkins Glen.
Serial #002 was later seriously damaged in a testing crash then was completely rebuilt and served as the Penske backup for the remainder of the 1973 season. After the Can-Am program had ended chassis serial number 002 was returned to Porsche and it has since been part of the factory museum collection.
The car on display at “The Porsche Effect” exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum, chassis 917/30 #003 is the most historically significant as it was the most successful, driven by Mark Donohue to six consecutive victories in the 1973 SCCA Can-Am series.
Mark won both heats at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, followed by a win at Road America (where he won the pole position by over three seconds), Edmonton International Speedway, Laguna Seca Raceway (where he won by a lap) and the season finale at Riverside International Raceway.
With the withdrawal of Penske and Porsche from the 1974 Can-Am series following the SCCA fuel mileage rule change, the car sat in Penske’s Pennsylvania shop until 1975 when the bodywork was modified and painted in red and white to represent its sponsorship from “Cam 2” motor oil (a new hobbyist oil from Sun Oil Company) for Mark Donohue’s attempt to break the world’s closed course speed record.
In preliminary testing at Daytona International Speedway, the team broke the original 330-cubic inch engine as they discovered that the mighty flat-12 engine was not designed for sustained wide open throttle operation. This meant they had to use the smaller 305-cubic inch engine from 1972, and with help from Porsche engineers, massive intercoolers were fitted to cool the charge air.
The track chosen for the record attempt was the 2.66-mile long Talladega Motor Speedway oval in Alabama. Donohue, who had returned to driving after a short retirement of eight months, cut short his first attempt due to an engine wiring fire that destroyed the rear bodywork.
After overnight repairs, Donohue’s second attempt the following day on August 9th, 1975 in rainy and windy conditions opened with a lap of 195 miles per hour (MPH) from a standing start, followed by a 220.027 MPH lap, then on his third lap he set a new closed course standard of 211.160 MPH, with a recorded trap speed on the long back straightaway of 240 MPH.
The team expected faster lap speeds, but Donohue confessed after the run "I might have gone a little faster, too, but I got chicken," as he cited the weather conditions. Ten days later Donohue was killed in an accident while practicing for the Austrian Grand Prix, but his speed record stood for 11 years until it broken by Penske IndyCar driver Rick Mears, who reset the record at 233.924 MPH at Michigan International Speedway.
In 1976 Porsche chassis 917/30-003 was sold to noted American collector and Los Angeles Times owner/publisher Otis Chandler who had the car returned to its 1973 Can-Am appearance as part of his extensive collection. Following Chandler’s death, the car changed hands several times, and within the last few years it was purchased by investment banker racer and NASCAR team owner Rob Kauffman who had chassis serial #003 recently meticulously restored by Canepa Motorsports of Scotts Valley California.
Chassis 917/30 #004 was under construction intended for use for the 1974 Can-Am season, but became obsolete following Porsche and Penske's withdrawal from the Can-Am series. It was sold as an unpainted car to long-time Porsche racer and Melbourne Australia Porsche dealer Alan Hamilton who displayed it in his showroom and later sold the car back to the Porsche factory in 1991. Porsche had #004 painted in the Sunoco livery and fitted with a rebuilt engine which reportedly produced 1,200 horsepower during a dynamometer test. At one time 917/30 chassis # 004 was owned by comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
Chassis 917/30 #005 was never completed as work stopped with the termination of the program. In 1979, it was found at the Weissach factory as a bare chassis by Florida Porsche/Audi dealer and Porsche collector Gerry Sutterfield. After the factory’s discovery of a mislabeled 917 engine in storage and the exchange of a huge sum of money Porsche completed the car for Sutterfield and was delivered painted white with the Porsche logos. 917/30 chassis serial #005 was used for a track test that was published in the March 1982 issue of Motor Trend magazine, and a subsequent owner had it painted in its current Sunoco livery.
Chassis 917/30-006 the final chassis was acquired by legendary Porsche dealer Vasek Polak in 1982 along with existing parts were after he found sufficient parts to complete the car in 1995 and had it painted as it might have appeared in the Group 7 European Interserie Championship. The car has since been painted in “Cam 2” motor oil livery to resemble the 1975 record attempt 917/30 serial number 003.
Color photos by the author