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Hairy monsters – the Porsche 917/10 Can-Am Spyder

Porsche 917/10-018 (1973) Jody Scheckter, photographed at Laverstoke House, Overton, UK, 2017

1973 Vasek Polak Porsche 917/10-018 Cam-Am Spyder driven by Jody Scheckter
1973 Vasek Polak Porsche 917/10-018 Cam-Am Spyder driven by Jody Scheckter

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 the 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.

1973 Vasek Polak Porsche 917/10-018 Cam-Am Spyder driven by Jody Scheckter
1973 Vasek Polak Porsche 917/10-018 Cam-Am Spyder driven by Jody Scheckter

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.

1973 Vasek Polak Porsche 917/10-018 Cam-Am Spyder driven by Jody Scheckter
1973 Vasek Polak Porsche 917/10-018 Cam-Am Spyder driven by Jody Scheckter

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.

1973 Vasek Polak Porsche 917/10-018 Cam-Am Spyder driven by Jody Scheckter
1973 Vasek Polak Porsche 917/10-018 Cam-Am Spyder driven by Jody Scheckter

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.

1973 Vasek Polak Porsche 917/10-018 Cam-Am Spyder driven by Jody Scheckter
1973 Vasek Polak Porsche 917/10-018 Cam-Am Spyder driven by Jody Scheckter

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.
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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.

1972 Penske Racing #6 Porsche 917/10 Can-Am Spyder driven by George Follmer
The 1972 L&M PorscheAudi sponsored Penske Racing #6 Porsche 917/10 Can-Am Spyder driven by George Follmer (chassis #917/10-003)

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.

Engineering drawing of the Porsche 917/10 Can-Am Spyder
Engineering drawing of the Porsche 917/10 Can-Am Spyder dated 22 June 1972 in scale 1:4

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.

1973 Vasek Polak Porsche 917/10-018 Cam-Am Spyder driven by Jody Scheckter
1973 Vasek Polak Porsche 917/10-018 Cam-Am Spyder driven by Jody Scheckter

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.”

1973 Vasek Polak Porsche 917/10-018 Cam-Am Spyder driven by Jody Scheckter
1973 Vasek Polak Porsche 917/10-018 Cam-Am Spyder driven by Jody Scheckter – chassis plate #018

[full_width]Alwin Springer
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 [1973] 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.”[/full_width]
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.

Jody Scheckter at speed in the #0 Vasek Polak Porsche 917/10 Can-Am Spyder in 1973
Jody Scheckter at speed in the #0 Vasek Polak Porsche 917/10 Can-Am Spyder in 1973

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.”

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