McLaren’s tireless pursuit of success intensified in 1967 as Bruce and his team embarked on an adventure that would seem ludicrous today: pursuing success on both sides of the Atlantic with all-new cars in both Formula 1 and the US-based Can-Am sportscar series.
F1 had proved frustrating since our debut at Monaco in 1966, thanks in part to the difficulty of sourcing the right engine, but the rich prize purse on offer in America would, if Bruce could lay his hands on it, fund bigger investment in his single-seater campaigns.
One moment in particular demonstrates how dominant McLaren became in Can-Am that year, securing our immediate financial future and laying foundations for success in F1.
The US season began in September, overlapping with the final grands prix of the F1 season, enabling the team to complete development of the new M6A sportscar nearly three months early. F1 had been a stop-start affair owing to the late arrival of the new BRM V12 engine; Bruce had to begin the year with a modified version of our Formula 2 car with a slightly enlarged F2 engine. Sourcing power for the M6A was less problematic, and as usual Bruce was fully involved in the engineering side, working alongside Gary Knutson to modify the sportscar’s mighty 5.8-litre Chevrolet V8.
Bruce had completed around 2000 miles of testing in the M6A, mostly at Goodwood, before the team crossed the Atlantic – heading first to Mosport Park for the new V12-engined F1 car’s debut in the Canadian Grand Prix, then on to Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin for the first round of Can-Am a week later. It would be a two-car works assault in Can-Am, with Bruce joined by Brabham F1 driver Denny Hulme, soon to be crowned the F1 world champion. Another new feature was the Can-Am car’s colour: a papaya orange that team manager Teddy Mayer thought “would show up like a beacon on TV”.
“We were setting out with the aim of winning,” said the late Tyler Alexander, then one of Bruce’s senior mechanics. “But I don’t think we ever thought that we were going to do it.”
All that preparation time told as the M6As blitzed the opposition – even though 17 of the 32 cars on the grid at Elkhart Lake were McLarens, thanks to the enthusiastic uptake of M1s by privateers. The new McLaren was simply a quantum leap ahead of its ancestor. Bearing failure ruled Bruce out of race one but Denny won both the first two races. What happened next, though, really underlined how much faster the works McLarens were.
Back at Mosport Park for round three, Bruce found himself with a mountain to climb, as he related later in his Autosport magazine column:
“An hour before the race, when the mechanics went to lower my car off its jack stands, a leak appeared. The car had been sitting with full tanks since early morning.
“Fifty gallons is an awful lot of petrol. Getting it out of the tanks involved filling every vehicle we had around and some we didn’t.
“By the time we had fitted a new rubber fuel bag, refilled the tanks and got the engine running, the race had started. Just 40 seconds earlier, to be precise.”
As Bruce departed the pit lane, the rest of the field was more than half a lap ahead. It was time to put the hammer down.
“I made it into second place with just 10 laps left. Denny was well out in front, but two laps from the flag he had an incident at the hairpin and ploughed off the road, folding the left-front corner in on the wheel. That cut the tyre and it went flat, but Denny limped in with smoke pouring from the demolished front end to win. Another lap and I would have caught him.”
Hulme’s third consecutive victory brought the team’s prize earnings to $60,000 and the wins kept on coming. Soon people would call Can-Am ‘the Bruce and Denny Show’ – and McLaren’s future was looking bright…