The Porsche 917 story is among the most significant chapters of the marque’s history. More than five decades after the first iteration of the 917 broke cover, six examples gathered at the Velocity Invitational, a celebration of vintage racing on the Monterey Peninsula.
Velocity Invitational organizers set aside a dedicated display area in the paddock and schedule slots for high-speed exhibition laps. Seeing a 917 in person is rare but six in one place is unusual at best. Seeing and hearing them in motion is just the cherry on top of the sundae.
Few standing at the fences around Laguna Seca Raceway likely had personal memories of the 917 in its competition days in the early 1970s. Regardless, the 917 clearly captures the imagination, judging from the number of eyeballs and cameras trained in their direction.
Did you see all six? Do you know their history? Before going further, Porsche 917 background is in order.
The History of the Porsche 917
The twelve-cylinder monster has an enormously compelling and complex history. Developed in response to racing regulation changes, the original 917 was designed in secret and first shown to the public at the Geneva International Motor Show in March 1969.
Engineer and Porsche family member Ferdinand Piech oversaw the design. In retrospect, taking on the ambitious project was a precursor to a career for Piech, who made a mark at not only Porsche but automakers like Audi, Bugatti, and Volkswagen as well (among others).
The 917 spawned a multitude of variations, shapes, bodywork, and engines. Referencing a 917 quickly brings the question “which one?”
The initial version was a handful for drivers. At the outset, Porsche even brought both 908 and 917 models to race events as factory drivers struggled with 917 aerodynamics.
Legendary team owner John Wyer brought Gulf Oil sponsorship and experience racing the Ford GT40 to the Porsche program. His team also brought knowledge and development skills that improved the breed.
The 917KH (KH stands for “Kurz Heck”—short tail in German) in Gulf livery is perhaps the most iconic of Porsche shapes and paint schemes. The movie “LeMans” with Steve McQueen put the Gulf 917 on the silver screen and made it famous for many who never saw it race in person.
The Wyer-prepared Gulf 917KH made its US debut at Daytona in February 1970 and finished 1-2. In June 1970, the 917KH claimed Porsche’s first overall win at the 24 Hours of LeMans with the red and white car entered by Porsche Salzburg.
The dynamics of Wyer and Porsche in the early 917 days is a tale of push and pull, yet the end result put Porsche racing on the global map.
Meanwhile, the Interserie in Europe and the Canadian-American series (more often known as Cam-Am) in North America offered racing opportunities beyond the traditional endurance racing calendar. Both were known for open-topped spyder cars such as McLaren and Lola.
The Can-Am series opened the door for Porsche, initially through the 917PA, a bespoke spyder variant designed to highlight the Porsche and Audi joint presence in the United States. The pace of progress continued with a new chassis, body, and twin turbocharged engine.
The resulting 917/10 used the widest rims available to fit the most rubber possible, a refined, strengthened and simplified chassis, and bodywork that was wider and shorter. The bodywork refinements gave more consistently high downforce. At the outset, a naturally aspirated engine was used, but the headline for the 917/10 was its role in ushering in the turbo era for Porsche.
Private rather than works teams contested the Can-Am and Interserie series. Customers such as Roger Penske bought and raced the 917/10 and the pace of development continued with engine, suspension and bodywork improvements.
With over 1000 horsepower, the 917/10 was a beast that required taming (particularly with its enormous turbo lag) but it was successful. If that wasn’t enough, the 917/30 comprehensively improved the 917/10, thanks in large part to Mark Donahue’s development prowess.
The most visible difference was a longer wheelbase and refined bodywork, including a longer tail. The 917/30 was absolutely dominant in Can-Am with Team Penske and Donahue.
A twist of the turbo-boost knob summoned more power—reportedly the car was capable of producing over 1500 horsepower. The 917/30 effectively killed the Can-Am series (although the 1973 oil crisis deserves partial credit as well).
With that as background, here is a 917 timeline tour courtesy of the half-dozen variants on hand at the Velocity Invitational.
A Guide to Porsche 917 Models at the Velocity Invitational
917-015 is Bruce Canepa’s personal race car. He has brought it to other historic racing events, including Porsche Rennsport Reunion.
Pedro Rodriguez and Leo Kinnunen drove the Gulf 917 to the overall win at the 1970 Daytona 24 hours with an incredible margin of 45 laps. Brian Redman also drove for a time late in the race. Team chief John Wyer installed him in the car when Kinnunen wouldn’t slow down (or didn’t understand the instructions) to preserve the car and hopefully the win.
Redman spent most of his race driving the second place Porsche 917. Canepa’s car is notable for the Daytona-specific window. The sliver of glass was installed to help the drivers see up the steep Daytona banking.
The precise history of the car is complicated. Most 917s were converted, modified, or repaired during their lives and this one is no different.
After the end of the 1970 season, the car was sent to Porsche and given a fresh chassis, number 035. The original 015 chassis had a second life as a spyder in the Interserie.
Others can debate the nuances of chassis plates and original parts, but 917-015 is presented in Daytona-winning configuration. Filmmaker and Pikes Peak legend Jeff Zwart steered the 917 in the Saturday exhibition session while Formula One and sportscar veteran Stefan Johansson took the controls on Sunday.
Chris MacAllister has owned 917-016 since 1996. He has driven his 917 regularly in historic races over the years. His Gulf 917 shows original patina—the rock chips on the nose are a magnet for cameras to show the wear and tear.
The car was loosely assembled in 1969 as one of the original 917 cars, but was rebuilt properly by Wyer’s team in England for racing in 1970. It won on debut at the 1000km of Brands Hatch with drivers Pedro Rodriguez and Leo Kinnunen.
Victory at Monza and Watkins Glen followed but it failed to finish at LeMans. The car served primarily as a back-up the next season and was returned to Porsche after the 1971 campaign concluded. True to form, MacAllister donned a Rodriguez tribute helmet and drove his car in both exhibition sessions at the Velocity Invitational.
917/10-003 is likely the most famous 917/10. George Follmer and Mark Donahue drove the Penske car in the 1972 Can-Am competition with L&M sponsorship (for Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company), giving Porsche its first Can-Am championship.
The car featured a number 6 when Donohue raced it, and a number 7 when Follmer sat behind the wheel. Donohue was the lead driver until he was injured in a testing crash. Subsequently, Follmer drove until Donohue could heal and rejoin later in the season—this time in a second 917/10.
Follmer won five of the nine rounds and the championship. The chassis was sold to Rinzler Racing for 1973 and Follmer drove it with Royal Crown colors. He finished second—mostly because Penske and Mark Donahue showed up with the 917/30.
Laguna Seca Raceway is familiar territory for 917/10-003. Follmer won there with the car on October 15, 1972. Thereafter, the car went through a succession of owners and most recently sold at the 2012 Mecum auction in Monterey.
Canepa’s team restored the car in 2016. At the Velocity Invitational, the owner opted to make the seat available for guest drivers. On Saturday, Derek Hill drove. Hill was a professional racing driver and is the son of racing legend Phil Hill.
On Sunday, Billy Johnson took a turn at the wheel. Johnson has professional racing time with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing in the World Endurance Championship with the Ford GT, as well as many wins and podiums in IMSA competition (not to mention serving as a development driver for Ford and Multimatic).
917/10-017 is reportedly one of the most original 917/10 examples in existence. The red spyder has been in Bruce Canepa’s care for many years. It was raced by the German Gelo Racing team in the European Interserie.
Georg Loos drove in 1973 and Tim Schenken ran in 1975 (the car apparently did not race in 1974). Loos logged a succession of podiums and Schenken won all three races he entered (Zandvoort, Hockenheim and Nürburgring).
Canepa drove his own car for both Saturday and Sunday exhibitions at the Velocity Invitational. Much to the delight on onlookers, he departed the false grid on Sunday with plenty of wheelspin, leaving a pair of long black streaks on the pavement.
The third 917/10 in attendance, the very yellow 917/10-015, opted to remain on static display and did no exhibition laps at the Velocity Invitational. This car is best known for the Willi Kauhsen Racing Team in the European Interserie. It won Interserie races at the Nürburgring and Imola in 1973 with Kauhsen driving.
Kauhsen raced again in 1974, winning the Silverstone round. The car was apparently sold to American amateur Randolph Townsend sometime after the 1974 season. It was owned by Dan Hannah and Monte Shelton before finding its way to the Rosso Bianco Museum near Frankfurt, Germany in 1984.
The museum went bankrupt and the car was sold at the Bonhams & Butterfields auction at The Quail Lodge in 2006. Porsche Motorsport North America and Canepa restored the car and returned it to the original Interserie Bosch livery.
917/30-003 is the most significant 917/30 of the six produced. This Penske car with famous blue and yellow Sunoco colors is the car that Mark Donohue used to win the 1973 Can-Am championship.
Penske and Donohue were heavily involved in the 917 development (read “The Unfair Advantage” for the full story). This track weapon required work to wrangle, but was unbeatable once the pieces clicked together.
Donohue won six out of eight races. Wins at Mid-Ohio, Road America, Edmonton, Laguna Seca, and Riverside came with 917/30-003. The other win came at Watkins Glen with 917/30-002.
If that wasn’t a strong enough statement, 917/30-003 was the car that set a closed course top speed record in 1975 at Talladega with a lap average of 221.160 miles per hour. The record proved to be bittersweet as Donohue died the following week in a practice crash ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix.
Six 917/30 chassis were built but only three raced in period. Only two raced with Sunoco colors. Los Angeles Times owner/publisher Otis Chandler acquired 917/30-003 in 1976. He drove the car often, even taking it to local Porsche club events and giving rides to kids.
Eventually, the car was acquired by Rob Kauffman who engaged Canepa to conduct a full restoration. Kauffman drove the car for Saturday’s Velocity Invitational exhibition laps. A sticky throttle thwarted a Sunday run.
Gathering a half-dozen Porsche 917 examples was just one of the highlights that made the Velocity Invitational compelling. It remains remarkable that cars built more than 50 years ago can exert such a strong, gravitational pull in a paddock filled with amazing machinery.
The historic racing groups included many marvelous Porsches and the event featured demonstration runs from the McLaren Formula One team, a reunion of Ford GT LM race cars, a cluster of Gurney AAR open-wheel cars, a Mercedes 300SLR, and a number of significant Ferraris. If the Velocity Invitational, only in its second edition, can offer a place where special motoring moments can find a home, the event is worth keeping an eye on in the future.