The nice thing about the last race in the Canadian-American Challenge Cup series last Sunday was the lack of tension and suspense. One could relax a bit and enjoy it as an art form: see the big super- Porsche come roaring past. See the other racers vainly trying to catch it. See Mark Donohue lead every lap, stroking along at 120 mph or so. Let's add this up. This makes it six races in a row, doesn't it, with the championship long since cinched? It does, indeed.
In fact, when it was all over at Riverside, Calif., the real news of the day came when Donohue announced his retirement. "You just can't go on forever," he noted with resignation, feeling all of his 36 years. And that development, however sad for the sport, stirred a certain amount of jubilation among his competitors.
Donohue will remain as the operational chief of the fearsome Roger Penske Racing Team, and this means that his genius as the tuner and developer of all breeds of race cars will continue to confound his opponents for years to come. Still, it was in a sense appropriate that the big Porsche, the machine he considers to be the technological pinnacle of his career, might be headed for the same inactivity as its last driver.
The car could well be the zenith of this motorized art. No faster road racing car has ever been created. It won the pole position in all eight Can-Am events this year and set the fastest lap in each. And therein lies the crux of a dispute that swirls around the Penske team. Quite simply, the big car is so fast and so expensive that many of its victims are clamoring for its banishment from the circuit. And while Donohue was announcing his retirement, the competition board of the Sports Car Club of America, organizing body for the Can-Am, was gathering for a crisis meeting to examine the question of whether or not to legislate the world's most beautiful automobile right out of the racing business.
Smack in the middle of this high-priced ruckus over Can-Am rules are Penske and a raffish young car owner named Bobby Rinzler, who is the latest entry from a seemingly bottomless reservoir of rich kids who breeze into motor racing with great plans to make it big on the basis of an open checkbook. They usually stay on the scene for a few seasons before the final trust fund is gobbled up and then they drift away, sadder but wiser, to more budget-conscious callings.
Rinzler has tried to operate his Atlanta-based racing team on a prudent, businesslike basis, but he and his partner, Charlie Kemp, a courtly, stone-bald Mississippian who doubles as one of the team drivers, made the tactical mistake of putting their money into the stupefyingly expensive Can-Am—and trying to race head to head against old Captain Whiz Bang himself, Roger Penske. Nobody, and especially upstart Southern rich kids, races head to head with Captain Whiz Bang.
Race fans will recall that the first big turbo Porsches appeared in the 1972 Can-Am series, all muscle and broad shoulders. Penske and his two drivers, Donohue and George Follmer, roared away and won six of the year's nine races. The handwriting might as well have been painted on the pit wall in big letters: the potential of these stubby, 12-cylinder German machines was so great that Team McLaren, the keen Anglo-American operation that had held the Can-Am championship for five consecutive years, announced that it would be economically unfeasible to develop a rival powerplant. And with a tip of the crash helmet, they forthwith dropped out of the campaign for 1973.
Not Rinzler and Kemp, who had been campaigning a Chevy-Lola that was now clearly outclassed. They still dreamed of winning the glamorous Can-Am, and since Porsche had all the power, they approached Penske. Would they buy a used car from this man? Absolutely.
Penske graciously offered to sell his brace of Porsches to Rinzler, secure in his sporting gesture since, back in Stuttgart, Supercar was already taking shape. Rinzler wrote Penske a check for $210,000 and took over the two 917-10 racers, plus four extra engines and assorted spare bits and pieces. Then Rinzler hired Follmer, who had operated as a substitute during a period when Donohue had been injured and who had, in fact, won the Can-Am title. Thus Rinzler had bought himself both the title-holding car and driver in delicious anticipation of the 1973 season.
What happened next makes grown racers cry. Along came Son of Porsche, a gigantic thing called the 917-30, all aburst in Penske blue and gold, turbocharged to the teeth, weighing almost one ton and ready to produce 1,200 horsepower. The car is an artistic delight to the eye, a piece of rolling automotive sculpture.