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The Canadian-American Challenge Cup series is unique in international automobile racing and, although only in its third year, the 80,000 fans expected at the Riverside International Raceway in California Sunday for the fifth event on the season's calendar will testify to the fact that it has already captured the imagination of the racing public. It isn't hard to see why. The series is for Group 7 sports cars, and in the lexicon of the Sports Car Club of America and the F�d�ration Internationale de l'Automobile that means quite simply that anything goes. The cars are loud, the cars are fast (with top speeds approaching 200 mph), the cars are boisterously beautiful, with wildly carved bodywork, with spoilers, airfoils and air scoops sticking out everywhere. Most important, they are sports cars in name only. The only serious restrictions are that they have a passenger seat—although nobody rides shotgun—and that their wheels be covered. Otherwise, the only limitations imposed on design and construction are those of the imagination.
The fans have to be on their toes, for the series is brutally short. There are six races—in Elkhart Lake, Wis.; Bridge-hampton, N.Y.; Edmonton, Alta.; Monterey, Calif.; Riverside and Las Vegas—in the space of just 10 weeks, and the demands on drivers, crews and the cars themselves are punishing. Staccato-fast the races come and go, as do the brief weekends of a football season, and no one dares fall behind. It is not a series in which one plays catch-up.
Above all, it is a rich competition. In 1966 the prize money came to $358,000. Last year the figure was $472,720 and this year it should reach $518,470—all in all, a situation ripe for exploitation by old, reputable and durable racing teams like those of Ferrari, or Lotus, or even the newer American ones of Dan Gurney and Roger Penske. But, in fact, the plucking has been done not by them but by a New Zealander named Bruce McLaren, a quiet, friendly chap, who is about as well known outside of racing as the pre- Miami Spiro Agnew was beyond Baltimore. McLaren walks with a limp, drinks lots of orange juice and has a tooth that sticks out at a 45� angle when he smiles. He is always on the verge of a smile, as though he is carrying out some joke on the world that only he knows about, and there is always the threat of that laugh of his, a great, crisp, male Melina Mercouri laugh that can be heard, easily, over the roar of mere engines.
McLaren is the founding father of Team McLaren, its No. 1 driver and the designer of its cars, which over the last two years have simply spread-eagled the Can-Am competition. This has been done in two ways. The first is through Team McLaren itself, whose road show features the following key personnel:
?Gary Knutson, a lanky Coloradan with perpetually frowzy, just-washed hair and an absolutely stunning wife. Knutson probably knows more about the 427-cu.-in. Chevrolet engine McLaren uses than the man who built it in the first place.
? Tyler Alexander, a very improper Bostonian, who is McLaren's crew chief. Alexander got involved with racing cars because he liked to take pictures of them and is the only man who can talk back to McLaren and consistently get away with it. After three years of touring with McLaren he even laughs like him.
And then there is the driver of the second Team McLaren car, Denis Hulme, the 1967 Grand Prix champion. The fact that he drives for McLaren is in itself unique. Hulme, also a New Zealander, is a faster driver than McLaren, and the boss is surprisingly free of any ego bruises that might impel him to choose a lesser man than himself for the second car. McLaren is content to let Hulme have the glory of winning. "Bruce, I think, realizes Hulme is faster," says a friend, "but he is quite happy to see one of his team cars win, nearly as happy as if he had won himself. They would never dice."
There are, however, driving and personality differences between them—nothing to provoke a clash, but interesting nonetheless. McLaren has an engineering background and an engineer's mind and is a superb car tester. Hulme is much more a seat-of-the-pants driver. "When Denny's testing," Mayer says, "all I want is a stopwatch and for him to say yes or no." Both prefer the company of friends, but where McLaren accepts the possibility of becoming a celebrity and the consequences of it, Hulme is uneasy in the company of strangers, as a pair of incidents last month at Edmonton indicated. After that race, in which Hulme and McLaren finished one-two, Hulme sat on the exposed radiator of his car, the red roses on his victory wreath already wilting, and nibbled at some cheese and crackers and sipped beer that Mayer had provided. Tyler Alexander talked with McLaren about what would have to be done to the cars before the Monterey race, while Chris Charles, a mechanic, was doing his best to finish off a fifth of Jack Daniel's before sundown.
Suddenly an agitated lady burst upon them.