The 1969 CanAm series saw the most complete clean-up job in big time motor racing — after 10 of 11 rounds an orange car had won every round, and scored a one-two on every starting grid.
The final round of the 1969 CanAm Challenge Cup was due be run in Las Vegas, but the track was damaged in a desert rainstorm and the Texas International Speedway, a tri-oval with an auxiliary road course, substituted. Bruce McLaren had won round one on June 1 at Canada’s Mosport track from pole position. Denny Hulme was alongside him on the front of the grid and finished second with a staged finish, less than a second behind Bruce. Bruce also set fastest lap with a new record. They’d cleaned up — the M8A of 1968 was dominant enough but the new M8B was faster, stronger and more reliable.
Round two at St Jovite on June 15 — Bruce again on pole, but this time it was Denny who lead the one-two while they shared the fastest lap with another record. Chris Amon and Ferrari rejoined the CanAm for round three at Watkins Glen — it was a New Zealand one-two-three on the grid. Only three cars completed every lap, and all were driven by Kiwis — Denny just from Bruce, and then Chris half a minute behind. Not a bad effort for three Kiwis in upstate New York — with Denny getting fastest lap.
Would round four at Edmonton see the first sign of a chink in the orange armour? Ferrari would be debuting a new, stronger 6.2-litre V12, while Chaparral would launch its latest creation. The stark white Chaparrals had promised so much since the start of CanAm in 1966 but, apart from a solitary win in that first season, there was little to show for their massive investment. John Surtees, CanAm’s first champion, was signed to drive the latest Texan effort.
Whereas McLaren had made simplicity and preparation its specialty from a tight budget, Chaparral pushed boundaries — and invariably bombed. Could its 1969 2H break the ‘Bruce and Denny’ domination — or even challenge the highly promising Ferrari? Wings had played a major part in McLaren’s 1969 lap times, with the M8B as compared with 1968’s wingless M8A. But Chaparral — which had introduced wings when no one else had them — bizarrely ditched them for ’69, and Surtees was nearly five seconds a lap slower in qualifying. Bruce and Denny stitched up the front row with identical times — just as they had in 1968! Chris was third quickest — well clear of the rest, but still two seconds a lap slower than his compatriots. If a breakthrough was imminent, no one was predicting it.
Chris got the Ferrari between the McLarens on lap one, with Bruce leading and Denny in an unaccustomed third. The pace was hot, and Bruce’s 7.0-litre Chev lunched a piston while leading. Denny was in front of the Ferrari at the time and that’s the way they finished — fastest lap going to the 1967 world champion.
At Mid-Ohio on August 17 Denny had pole, a whisker quicker than Bruce, and that’s how they finished with Chris third but, for the only time that year, an orange car didn’t get fastest lap as the Ferrari driver denied his countrymen. It was Bruce from Denny at Elkhart Lake on the last day of August, but the result was reversed a fortnight later at Bridgehampton — Denny nailing fastest lap both times.
Round eight at Michigan — Bruce decided to put old buddy Dan Gurney in the third M8B, but the lanky Californian was forced to start off the back of the grid. Ferrari was missing, but perhaps the result would have been the same if they’d been there, as Bruce headed home Denny then Dan — an ‘orange-wash’ with a one-two-three.
With Ferrari still absent at Laguna Seca, the spare M8B was offered to Chris — the only time our trio at the top all ran in orange. Again the third works McLaren had to start from the back and Chris passed eight cars on the first lap, then another five on lap two — another orange one-two-three beckoned, but the diff in Amon’s car went, meaning the works suffered its second only DNF of the year.
The new 6.9-litre Ferrari was ready for the penultimate round, and Amon was right on it — quicker than the Gurney ‘McLeagle’, quicker than Mario Andretti in another M6B McLaren, except this one had an 8.0-litre Ford, and was way quicker than the Chaparral. In fact quicker than everyone — except for the only other New Zealanders in the field.
Denny got the hat trick — winning from pole with fastest lap. The new long-stroke Ferrari was left on the grid, and the crew push-started it once the field had all left. In no time Chris was right behind second-placed Bruce when, unfathomably, the organisers black-flagged the Ferrari. Bruce, uncharacteristically, crashed out leaving Denny to win.
After 10 races the boys in orange had won five each. Denny had out-qualified Bruce six to four, and the game plan for the final race in the series was for Bruce to win the race with Denny in second, which would be enough for him to clinch the title.
Denny took pole in Texas — Chris was fourth fastest in the smaller engined Ferrari, right alongside Bruce. For the first time that year, the front row wasn’t all orange. The interloper — Mario Andretti in a Ford-powered McLaren — used his 8.1-litre engine to beat Denny into the first corner. After four laps of following that year’s Indy 500 winner, Denny decided it was time and, once he passed Andretti, he started to open a gap. The big-block Ford blew up shortly after, followed by the Ferrari.
Meanwhile Denny had been clocked at 208mph (335kph), but Bruce had gone 210mph (338kph) as he went by for the planned finish — Bruce to win the race, Denny the title. That was until there was just 11 laps to go, when Denny’s engine blew — meaning not only did Bruce win the race but the title as well, with 165 points to Denny’s 160.
Eleven races, 11 wins, 11 poles, 10 fastest laps and eight one-twos — could anything halt the orange steamroller? It sure didn’t look likely as the dust settled at the Texas International Speedway 42 Novembers ago.
By: Michael Clark