Jody Scheckter was born in East London on the east coast of South Africa, a sleepy seaside town that actually carried the honour of being the country’s motorsport centre up until the early 1960s. In 1973, Scheckter, by then a 23-year old fast-climbing motorsport star, had moved ‘overseas’ and had been criss-crossing the Atlantic between England and America, competing in different racing series on both sides of river. It was sometime near the start of the ’73 season that he got a call from Vasek Polak to drive the Porsche 917/10 Can-Am Spyder, a hairy monster if ever there was one.
The Porsche 917 had, during the 1970 and 1971 seasons, been the most dominant sports racing prototype the world had known up until that time. But at the end of the ’71 season, the regulations governing the World Manufacturers’ Championship outlawed the big 5-litre Group 5 prototypes (not to be confused with the later-Group 5 silhouette class) in favour of the new 3-litre Sports category, and so several 917 owners took their cars off to race in the European Interserie. In fact, the 917 was already being campaigned in the Interserie in 1971 in the hands of privateer teams and drivers, such as Willi Kauhsen and the Finnish AAW team. But we are getting ahead of ourselves, so let us start the Group 7 Can-Am story with the first 917 to race in America.
The first Porsche 917 to race in the Can-Am series in the USA was the red STP-sponsored 4.5-litre 917 PA driven by Jo Siffert, as early as 1969. This was a naturally-aspirated car and as can be expected, it struggled against the much more powerful cars and teams who were well established. Known as Group 7, the Can-Am series started back in 1966 and catered for just about anything with four wheels that could go very fast and make a lot of noise. That’s a rather crude description for a racing series that in fact generated a level of interest and a following, that was probably unimaginable when the series first started.
But when Porsche created the 917, they knew that the car’s demise would come at the end of 1971 when the rules for the World Manufacturers’ Championship were to change, ushering in the new 3-litre class. So, with an eye on the European Interserie and the Can-Am series in the USA, Porsche was testing the 917/10 to destruction at its own test track in Weissach in 1971, far from the prying eyes of the media and the public. Once the turbocharged 4.5-litre engine had proved reliable on the test bench, it was installed in a car and tested. This was tested until it was proved reliable and so, in the same way, the 4.9- and then the 5-litre engines were tested until eventually the 5.4-litre was given a chance.
Mark Donohue had been testing the 917/10 on the test track back at Weissach since October 1971. Extensive testing was also carried out by Jo Siffert prior to his fatal accident on 24 October 1971, but Donohue continued testing the 917/10 after Siffert’s passing. Porsche stalwart, Willi Kauhsen, was also busy with tests in the 917/10 as he intended driving one in the European Interserie.
The 917/10’s first race in the Can-Am series was at Mosport on 11 June 1972 where the Mark Donohue #6 L&M car (chassis #917/10-011) was fitted with a 5-litre turbocharged engine. Donohue finished second in this race due to a mechanical fault which cost him some pit time. When Mark Donohue suffered severe injuries following a serious accident, George Follmer was drafted in to replace him. Follmer went on to win the series that year with 130 points, double that of the second-placed Denny Hulme, with 65 points.
The 1973 season saw a great deal of interest in the Can-Am series, both from the point of view of competitive teams as well as spectators. Before the Porsches had arrived the previous year, it had been pretty much a McLaren series, but the cars from Stuttgart brought a whole new dimension to the races. The Porsches proved to be both extremely fast and reliable.
Chassis #917/10-015 was built for Willi Kauhsen and this car was completed in November 1972, although the owner only took delivery of the car in January 1973. Chassis #016 and #017 were completed in early 1973, and together with Kauhsen’s chassis #015, these three cars were intended for use in the European Interserie. Fitted with a 5-litre turbo engine, chassis #018 was the last 917/10 built, and this went to the Californian Porsche team run by Czechoslovakian Vasek Polak. The likeable Polak recruited the promising, but somewhat unknown Jody Scheckter, to drive his white and blue 917/10 in the 1973 Can-Am series.
Having learned his trade and worked his way up through various classes of racing in South Africa, Jody Scheckter continued his upward climb through the ranks in the UK. His style of racing was quite ‘slidey’ and this earned him the nickname in South Africa of ‘Sideways Scheckter,’ and while Jody admits today that this was probably not the quickest way around a circuit, it certainly worked for him. Following a telephone interview with the former Formula 1 World Champion in 2017, I was informed that he had bought the very Porsche 917/10 in which he had competed under the Vasek Polak colours in 1973. Containing my excitement was not easy, but I learned shortly afterwards that the car was in Germany for some repairs, and so I was invited to contact Jody in three months to check if the car was back with him.
Cutting a long story short, I was able to arrange a photo shoot of the car about six months later, and so towards the end of 2017, I made my way down to car’s place of residence in rural Hampshire. Having arranged all of this with various members of Jody’s staff ahead of time, I was able to set up the photo shoot outside the garage where the car is housed. It was a cold but clear day, and as the autumn shadows were beginning to cast their slim dark fingers across the courtyard rather quickly, I had to work fast.
Together with Jody’s race car manager, Sam and a helper, we pushed the 917/10 into a suitable spot – this was no easy task with the super wide Avons, the locking diff and the car’s limited turning circle. Sam was quick to point out that the car is today just as it was last raced back in 1973, as it still wears its original paint, decals and the scars of battle. This was really great to see, as not only is the fibre glass showing its age, but it just highlights the fragility of these cars and how brave the drivers were back in the day. The skill required to guide a 917/10 with its approximately 1100bhp under your right foot, was monumental.
This race car, chassis #917/10-018, was indeed raced by Jody in the 1973 Can-Am series for Vasek Polak, but once the season was over, the car returned to the Polak workshops where it was wheeled into a dark corner and covered with a tarpaulin. Chassis #018 didn’t turn a wheel for the next approximately quarter of a century. On 17 April 1997, Vasek Polak died of cardiac arrest at the age of 83 years. Around the turn of this century, chassis #018 was offered for sale at auction, and Jody Scheckter was the buyer. So, this race car is a genuine two-owner car, and it is today owned by the only driver to have raced her in period, that’s quite some provenance.
Racing chassis #018 in 1973
Without having so much as even sat in the car, or driven in a Can-Am race by the time of the 1973 season opener on 10 June, Jody Scheckter arrived at Mosport to pilot the Porsche 917/10 entered by Vasek Polak. During practice, while still learning the car and the circuit, Scheckter tells, “I’ll always remember that I thought I was going to kill myself because it was like you were tied to an engine, and then in front of you there were little tubes, about 6 mm in diameter, to hold the front body on. That was the only thing in front of your pedals.”
Born in Essen, Germany, Alwin Springer did more for modern racing with Porsche race cars in the USA than many would realise. Starting with Vasek Polak in 1969, Springer ensured that Polak’s racing stable functioned well and efficiently. In 1971, Polak bought the now-famous red 917 PA Spyder that Jo Siffert had driven in the Can-Am series, then in 1972 they acquired another 917 before adding 917/10-018 in 1973. The records show that #018 was delivered to Polak in April 1973, which didn’t leave much time to prepare the car before its first race with Scheckter at Mosport in June.
Springer was very much a hands-on person, “On 6 April  we got the car, and it was delivered with a 5-litre turbo engine and the 920 transmission, the turbo transmission. I was chief mechanic and manager,” he said. He forgot to mention that he served as truck driver too, because he would transport the car around the country between races. “We had only one engine, and like I said, we would rebuild the engine in between races. One year we did it in the garage at the racetrack at Elkhart Lake. Then we worked at a Volkswagen dealership in Edmonton.” The manager of the dealership allowed them to work in a section of the dealership, as Springer recalled, “He said that it would be good for us to work there and it would be interesting for their customers to see us at work. So, we took the engine out of the car and we overhauled it in the dealership. That is how we did it, and in Watkins Glen we worked in a body shop. Okay, the body shop was not the cleanest environment, but at least we had a roof over our heads.”
About Jody Scheckter, Springer had this to say, “Yes, he was a bit crazy, but you know what I liked about him, he didn’t make a big fuss. There was immediately a bond, and I liked the way that he got into the car and just drove it. There was none of this ‘move the wing by half a degree’, he absolutely mastered the car. For me, Jody was a natural talent.”
At the first race of the season in Mosport, Canada and bearing the number ‘0’ Scheckter put the Porsche on the front row of the grid to everyone’s astonishment, alongside Donohue’s 917/30. “I remember the first time he [Polak] was on the wall at Canada and I came around that corner sideways onto the straight where the pits are. Vasek Polak dived away from the wall and nearly had a heart attack because he thought I was going to crash. But of course, I didn’t crash,” Jody recalled with a smile.
The brake callipers were Porsche’s own design and would therefore only take a bespoke size of brake pad which was supplied by AP. Springer added his comments on the brakes, “The brakes on a 917 were not the best. The brake pads at that time, they were light years behind what we have today. You could not go and get different brake pads from a different company, you had one brake pad from Porsche and that was it. So, we had our hands tied.”
Round 1, Mosport Park, 10 June
Scheckter recounts the start of the race, “I qualified on the front row and Donohue was next to me with the newer one [917/30]. I jumped into the lead and led for two or three laps until I came up against all the backmarkers. If you know American racing, the first few cars were great and then it got progressively worse down the field, and at the back there is just a bunch of wealthy guys going for an afternoon drive. So, I thought I was not going to go through that lot first, so I waved him [Donohue] through and I just followed him.”
Donohue passed Scheckter only to hit one of the backmarkers that Scheckter had so cleverly avoided, forcing the American to pit for repairs. Scheckter then took the lead but later retired with a blown tyre. This race resulted in a DNF for the South African.
Round 2, Road Atlanta, 8 July
At Road Atlanta, the second race of the season, the brakes on Scheckter’s car would glaze over after two laps, earning him the reputation as a late braker, but as he recalls, “Not long into the race I had no brakes, and they used to say that I braked so late, but in the meantime, I had braked much earlier and I just went past everyone. Actually, in the middle of the season the brakes seemed to be at their worst.
During practice Scheckter lost it due to this brake problem, as he recounts, “So I put it sideways coming out of the corner before you go into the pits and where you go down [the main straight] to start your next lap. I couldn’t brake in time, so I just put it sideways, but I eventually gathered it up and I shot [unexpectedly] into the pit lane – and so I said to them that I was just going on to do another lap, because the brakes didn’t work. But it was so hot that day I remember.” The unintended trip into the pit lane had taken Scheckter by surprise as much as it did his team, and in an effort to reduce the attention this might have attracted, he simply announced that he had decided to do another lap, and left the pit lane as though everything was quite normal.
The Road Atlanta race consisted of a combined 90-mile race, divided into a 40-mile race on the Saturday and a 50-mile race on the Sunday. The first leg was won by Donohue while George Follmer won on Sunday, also taking the combined win. Jody Scheckter netted a combined third place behind Donohue.
Round 3, Watkins Glen, 22 July
The Watkins Glen round was again divided into two heats of thirty laps each. Donohue dominated in both, taking two wins. Scheckter came home in a combined third place once again, behind David Hobbs who finished a combined second in a McLaren M20.
Round 4, Mid-Ohio, 12 August
The Mid-Ohio race started strongly for Scheckter as he thundered into the lead ahead of Donohue, but his race was over when he left the track trying to avoid a backmarker. Scheckter damaged his suspension in his off-course excursion, and was forced to retire.
Round 5, Road America, 26 August
The two-heat race was a little different here in that the first heat was used to determine the order of the grid in the second race. Scheckter finished second behind Donohue in the race, his highest finish in the season.
In the final three races of the season, Scheckter scored three DNFs: Edmonton (blown engine), Laguna Seca (clutch) and Riverside (suspension/wheel). Scheckter recalls the season-ending race at Riverside, “They didn’t have curbs on the inside [of the corners], they had tyres half buried in the ground. I clipped one of those tyres, and I can remember that because Vasek Polak wasn’t very happy.”
“One time, Jody ripped off the left front corner in warm-up, all the suspension rods were gone, and I thought how am I going to adjust the car now because you know, it’s not a five-minute job. So, I went to Helmut Flegl and I said look, you have to help me here because I don’t know what to do, I can’t get it repaired in time. At that time, we didn’t have calculators, so he got out his slide rule and he said alright make the top link so long, make the castor link so long, and all the rest. The toe-in and camber I had to check, that was easy to do and I tell you that did it, it was all in line, and Jody did very well. Although you are by yourself [at the track], you are not completely by yourself, because you can rely on good people, and that actually laid the foundation for a friendship that I still cherish today with Helmut Flegl.”
Everything in life has its season, as Springer continued, “At the end of 1973 he [Polak] closed down the racing shop and I continued to work for another one and a half years at the dealership. Then in 1975 I left Polak and formed ANDIAL, my own company.”
Jody Scheckter results 1973 Can-Am season:
|2||8 July||Road Atlanta||3|
|3||22 July||Watkins Glen||3|
|5||26 August||Elkhart Lake||2|
|7||14 October||Laguna Seca||DNF|
Overall results 1973 Can-Am season:
|1||Mark Donohue||Roger Penske Racing||Porsche 917/30||139|
|2||George Follmer||Rinzler Motor Racing Royal Crown||Porsche 917/10||62|
|3||Hurley Haywood||Brumos Racing||Porsche 917/10||47|
|4||Charlie Kemp||Rinzler Motor Racing Royal Crown||Porsche 917/10||45|
|5||Bob Nagel||Nagel Racing||Lola T260||44|
|6||Jody Scheckter||Vasek Polak Racing||Porsche 917/10||39|
In eight races, Scheckter scored only one second place and two third places while the rest were DNFs. This record, though, does not paint an accurate picture of Scheckter’s season because in most of the other races, the car retired with tyre problems, not mechanical issues. Springer expands on the reasons, “The 917/10 was a beast. You see, the biggest issue with these cars was that you would go into a corner and actually in the middle of the corner, you would have to give full throttle. That is contrary to anything that your brain is telling you, but those were the fast drivers, and the other ones waited until the car was straight, and only then would they give it full throttle. But you needed balls to do that! In the last four races, he had flat tyres because we didn’t have any technical failures, I just think that he over drove the tyres.”
Asked if the Porsche 917/10 intimidated him at all when on the limit, Scheckter replied, “Yes absolutely, but that is what the accelerator is for. When you are in the car, you have got to accelerate and if it is frightening, then you don’t push the accelerator down so hard. But you are right, from a spec point of view, it was a monster, but I suppose whatever you are driving, you will be driving it to the limit.
“It was the first turbo really that I had driven, so you were trying to put your foot down when you’re halfway through the corner, where you normally wouldn’t be accelerating. With the turbo, there was quite a big lag and it didn’t always give you the horsepower it was supposed to. In fact, the Chevies used to sometimes pass us down the straight because the 917/10 didn’t have an intercooler, so it was not getting the 1100bhp. But driving the car was fine really, you just tried to get the best performance out of it.
“I had a lot of respect for [Mark] Donohue, he helped me a lot in understanding the engineering side. He talked to me from a technical point of view, and I learnt a lot from him. He was a really good guy.
“With Donohue’s car, everything was better. The 917/30 had a longer body, it had more downforce and immediately they were two seconds a lap quicker than us, without any trouble. They really weren’t even in the same race. George Follmer was probably the toughest guy around, he had the same car as I had.”
Porsche 917/10-018 today
At the end of the 1973 Can-Am season, the Porsche was wheeled into storage at the Vasek Polak dealership. Apart from the occasional reprieve when it was shown in the showroom at the dealership, the car wasn’t seen in public until it was brought out of retirement for one Riverside vintage race meeting around 1997. Scheckter’s Porsche, chassis #018, is today pretty much the same as it was when it last raced at Riverside in 1973. The car is today looked after by Sam Kendle of Kendle Adams Motorsport Ltd, which is based at Jody Scheckter’s estate in Laverstoke, Hampshire. Kendle remembers, “I’m sure that it has not been repainted, that is the original patina.”
The car was acquired for the Jody Scheckter Collection around 2000 by Kerry Adams, directly from the Vasek Polak estate. The car then sat in the UK for some time before being given out for restoration work on amongst other things, the ignition and brakes. However, after nine years and with little progress having been made on the car, Jody took it back.
When it arrived back, Kendle recalls, “We did one shakedown test with it at Turweston airfield near Silverstone. It wasn’t running right and the brakes were locking on solid midway down the runway, to the point that we had to take a wheel off and release the calliper. We had to take the bleed nipple off the calliper to actually release the pressure. We literally managed a couple of runs up and down the runway, and then as soon as you touched the brakes suddenly the brakes were locking on. There we were messing about trying to fix the brakes on the runway, and the whole thing was a bit of a disaster really.
“And then Jody decided to send it off to Freisinger [Germany], and they changed the ignition system from the old one to a more modern electronic ignition, because with what Jody wants to do with it, it would just be more reliable. They took a look at the brakes and realised that they had the wrong pushrods in them. As soon as you put the pressure on it, it jammed sideways at 45° and locked on totally.
“One of the things we learned about this car, is that a set of plugs was like a consumable item. Every three times that you start it, you will have to change the plugs because it would foul them up so quickly because on tick over it was over-fuelling so much that you would soot the plugs up almost instantly. So as soon as you can, you pick the revs up a bit and don’t just let it tick over because it would just foul the plugs up, and then you would struggle to clear them.
“Once the car came back from Freisinger, we tried it at Car Fest South this year (2017) and we attempted a run on the Friday as a dress rehearsal before the public got there. But Jody wasn’t sure if it was even in the right gear, it was massively understeering and you wouldn’t want to hit boost with it because the stretch of track just isn’t suited for that. Jody just said, ‘Look it’s silly, it is not even worth it, you can’t hit boost and if I do hit boost I’m not going to be able to stop and turn.’”
Car Fest South is an annual charity event that is held on Laverstoke Park Farm, Jody Scheckter’s home, where a delicious selection of classic and historic (and some new) road and race cars sprint along a piece of tarmac. The problem is that it isn’t a very long stretch of road, and this just isn’t the right place to put the Porsche 917/10’s approximately 1100 bhp to the test.
But it is great that the brakes and ignition are now sorted out correctly and that Porsche 917/10-018 is back in the hands of the race car’s only driver to have raced it in period. With the growth in historic racing events across Europe, hopefully Porsche enthusiasts will be able to look forward to seeing this car out and about at some of those race events in due course.
Note: Thanks to Jody Scheckter for his time during our interviews, and for making this famous race car available for the photo shoot. Perhaps, with the author being born in the same sleepy seaside town as the race car’s owner, it made this whole journey a little easier.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale & Porsche Werkfoto