McLaren M8B at Texas Speedway
Seen at Texas, the M8B's tall airfoil was mounted directly on the rear wheel uprights (hub carriers), sending the downforce directly to the tires, not through the chassis. This meant the suspension springs could remain supple for good compliance over bumps.

Can-Am McLaren M8B – Profile and Photos by Pete Lyons

Can-Am McLaren M8B – The Perfect Race Car

Story and Photos by Pete Lyons

Bruce McLaren, McLaren M8B, Road America
Arguably McLaren\’s best-ever car, certainly its most successful Can-Am car, the M8B carried Bruce to 6 victories in 1969, including here at Road America.

Some race cars come off the shop floor ready to win their very first race. One beauty famous for doing so was 1967’s F1 Lotus 49.

More rarely, a new car will win its first couple of times out. That same year, Ford’s GT40 Mark IV scored at Sebring and then Le Mans. Because those were its only two races, technically the Mk IV was a perfect racecar.

So what do we say about a car that so dominated an 11-round season that it finished first all 11 times?

That remarkable record of perfection is emblazoned on the memory of McLaren’s M8B, a yellow-orange, winged wedge with a rev-happy aluminum Big Block Chevrolet. Powerful, well sorted and reliable, it totally dominated the longest-ever season of the Canadian-American Challenge Cup series for “unlimited” sports racing cars.

Not only did team principle Bruce McLaren and teammate Denny Hulme win all those Can-Ams, they started from all 11 poles, and ten times it was an all-M8B front row. In ten races the M8Bs set fastest lap, and eight times the second car followed its leader home in second place.

Out of 24 total starts (a third car ran twice, with guest drivers Dan Gurney and Chris Amon) there were only four DNFs.

What made the B so good? Frankly, it wasn’t so much the car itself as the team behind it. New Zealander Bruce McLaren, not only a race-winning F1 and sports car driver but also a sound engineer, built a tight, efficient, ambitious little team that brought F1 expertise and intensity to North American sports car racing. A few rivals built cars nearly as fast as McLaren’s (in ’69 these included Ferrari and Holman Moody) but none could keep them running fast to the ends of the races.

But even Bruce McLaren had to work to succeed. When the Can-Am began in 1966, McLaren’s team couldn’t finish better than second. Stung, he came back in 1967 with an all-new car that won five out of that year’s six races and made “Boss Bruce” the Can-Am champion. The next year, it was four team wins out of six races and fellow Kiwi Denny “The Bear” Hulme was Can-Am king. People started muttering about “The Bruce and Denny Show.”

Still, people loved these big, loud, wild-looking cars driven by the best talent on the planet, and for 1969 officials expanded the series to 11 rounds. Just possibly, they were thinking to give someone else more of a chance to beat McLaren.

Scroll back up to the race results to see how that turned out!

For the first time in the Can-Am’s four years, in 1969 McLaren did not field an all-new car. As the “B” implies, the M8B was no more than a development of the previous season’s M8A design. In fact, that spare B was actually built out of a 1968 A. In the season finale, McLaren used it to secure his second championship.

Most noticeable change on the B was McLaren’s adoption of a rear wing. That half-copied a 1966 innovation by Jim Hall’s Chaparral 2E, which carried its wing high up in clean airflow atop two tall struts that fed the downforce, not into the sprung chassis, but directly into the rear wheel hubs.

There was much more to Chaparral’s novel aero package, but McLaren took only the basic wing idea, leaving out the driver-controllable pivoting feature whereby the Chaparral could be trimmed on the fly for both high downforce in turns and low drag on straights. Mclaren drivers had to leave it to their pit crews to set wing angles to a single compromise position.

Clearly, that was good enough. Perfect, actually.

Can-Am McLaren M8B – Photo Gallery (click image for larger picture)

Can-Am pace lap at Road America
The Bruce and Denny Show pace Road America in 1969. Behind the twin M8Bs (#5, Hulme on pole and #4, McLaren) come the Lolas of Peter Revson (#31) and Chuck Parsons, then the #16 Ferrari of Chris Amon alongside the #98 McLaren of George Eaton. Behind these high-wing cars are, left to right, Jo Siffert\’s Porsche, George Follmer\’s Ford and John Surtees\’ Chaparral. (Mario Andretti\’s McLaren should be third on the grid but has already broken). After 200 miles the finishing order will be McLaren, Hulme and, a lap back, Parsons.
Dennis Hulme sitting in McLaren M8B listening to Bruce McLaren
Denny \’The Bear\’ Hulme, seen in the cockpit of his M8B at Watkins Glen, was a former (1967) world F1 champion who took to the much bigger, much more powerful — and usually faster — Can-Am cars as if they were made for him. And in a sense they were, as he was active in their design and testing and even could be caught working on them. Still, the team\’s style and direction primarily reflected the conservative, pragmatic, efficient personality of Bruce McLaren, right.
McLaren M8B Trio at Laguna Seca
Portrait of a Powerhouse: McLaren, challenged to retain its Can-Am dominance with nearly twice the number of races in 1969, stepped up by becoming the first team to bring a spare car. Most times it sat idle, although twice other drivers talked Bruce into letting them race it. Fellow New Zealander Chris Amon drove it as #3 here at Laguna Seca. But when McLaren\’s primary car crashed at Riverside (broken rear suspension), the spare was ready for him to win the season finale in Texas.
McLaren M8B at Texas Speedway
Seen at Texas, the M8B\’s tall airfoil was mounted directly on the rear wheel uprights (hub carriers), sending the downforce directly to the tires, not through the chassis. This meant the suspension springs could remain supple for good compliance over bumps.
Bruce McLaren, McLaren M8B engine, Edmonton
Bruce McLaren trained as an engineer, and his hands were always on his race cars. Here in the pit lane at Edmonton, he\’s blipping the throttles of the M8B\’s 430-inch, all-aluminum Chevy. The magneto ignition was chosen because it\’s simple and reliable. Also, note the rear wing\’s fore-aft bracing rod plus the vertical link by which the wing\’s angle can be manually adjusted. Tragically, this buoyantly friendly, deeply experienced, notably prudent driver would die the next summer in a testing accident.
Bruce McLaren, McLaren M8B, Laguna Seca Corkscrew
Typical View: Bruce McLaren flies his winged M8B off the Laguna Seca Corkscrew enroute to another victory. His natural engineering caution kept his team from adopting Chaparral\’s high, suspension-mounted rear airfoil for 3 years. They were just in time to make the most of them before such \’moving aerodynamic devices\’ were banned.

[Source: Pete Lyons]

Show Comments (36)

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  1. Brilliant!!! Always great to read about the “big bangers”. Look forward to seeing more of your work here on Sports Car Digest in the future.

  2. Oh geez, this is too much. Fabulous story and photos. Pete, you have no argument with me. The McLaren M8B is and always will be McLaren’s best car ever.

  3. Pete.
    Lets see and read more from someone who was there and on the lines.
    The last image of Bruce going down the Corkscrew shows how much racing has ‘advanced’. No armco, tire walls or yards of runoff just common sense to keep the photographers safe. Today with all the armco, runoff and tire walls these images are gone forever.
    Today standing between Laguna’s eight and nine with just a little nudge I can remember the low rumble of the Can-Am start then up through the gears around two and up the hill suddenly popping over the crest of 8 and down the Corkscrew. If you missed the original Can-Am to bad.
    Thanks for the nudge.

  4. Many thanks SCD & Pete!
    These images, and the wonderful perspective Mr. Lyons provide. is extraordinarily mesmerizing.
    What a treat!

    Y’all have a fantastic ‘time machine’ with this combo.
    Picked me up and plunked me down into the middle of it all.
    Most appreciated.
    Just WOW!

    Can’t wait ’til the next installment.

  5. I can remember a couple of years that my friends went to every Can-Am race east of the Mississippi – the sound of those McLaren’s was magical.

  6. I missed the original series, but have made it to several reunions. What an experience !! Body numbing sounds, and incredible speeds.

  7. Anything by Pete Lyons is worth a read. Pete was there and is the right person to write about the Can-Am. It was one of my favorite series, and I was able to attend races at Road America and Donnybrooke in 1971 and 1972 and Riverside in 1972. I look forward to many more contributions by Pete to SCD.

    1. You are exactly correct in any Lyons read is worth it. I was lucky enough to see #races of the ’69 Bruce and Denny Show. The picture of all 3 car is special to me, as I saw Gurney drive the #3 car at Michigan International Speedway that year to a 3rd place finish behind (of course) Bruce and Denny. That 1-2-3 McLaren M8B finish is etched in my brain for life. I will idolize Bruce forever, and am so glad an F1 and a street car carry the McLaren logo.

  8. Incredible story and photographs all about my childhood hero. I was 9 years old when I was taken to Laguna Seca for my first race to see the Can Am and was smitten by those big, loud, and fast orange cars. My addiction to motorsports and aspiration towards racing photography began that year at Laguna. Back then the Monterey Peninsula went absolutely nuts over “the races” with posters all over town and amazing front page photographs in the Herald.

    Best of all, the story and photos are from a legend himself who I have admired for decades.

    Thank you for sharing Pete.

  9. A great author and his photography is excellent. Each of the books that he has written on CanAm have been excellent. I hope more books are forthcoming?

  10. Pete and SCD,

    Congrats for the Great Read and photos for this great Mclaren Can Am M8B. I had the distinct honor to drive Bruce’s actual 1969 Championship winning M8B for Oscar Koveleski’s Auto World, entered as the Jerobee McLaren M8B in the 71 Can Am Season. By then the high wing suspension mounted rear wing was banned and I was relegated to running a chassis mounted low wing. I had met Bruce & Denny in 1968 at Bridgehampton, NY Can Am, certainly not in a zillion years would I have thought I would drive Bruce’s M8B.

    Unfortunately we prematurely & tragically lost Bruce in a testing accident. I was fortunate to spent time around the Mclaren Team when I was competing with my FA5000 Gurney Eagle Mk 5 as we worked along side them at the Carroll Shelby shop in Torrance, Ca. My Team Manager,mentor the late great Carroll Smith were close friends with Bruce, Denny , Tyler and Teddy. We were privy to many of the Mclaren team secrets of race preparation, applying many to my high wing Eagle to win my 1969 Continental Championship.

    Side note: The Auto World team with master mechanic Jack Darren expertly prepped Bruce’s M8B during the 71 season. We became the JR Team Mclaren, I recall Denny coaching me how to drive this great car. He indicated ” Just think about being in your living room chair, watching TV, relax and don’t over drive this car, nice and easy does it ” His advice was well taken and we became the highest placing independent team that year, our highest place finish,3rd OA behind Jackie Stewart and Jo Siffert in their current works cars at Mid Ohio. Oscar Koveleski from the beginning of the season instructed me to “drive hard, win if possible, but don’t crash Bruce’s car, it will be in a museum one day ”

    See more period pic and recap of the 71 Can Am season at
    http://www.a2zracer.com/page53.html

    My Thanks to Oscar Koveleski, Jack Daren and Auto World for
    the once in a life time opportunity to drive this historic McLaren M8B.

    Cheers ! Tony Adamowicz, the a2z Racer

  11. Great. These race cars were real race cars. I marshalled at Mosport in the 60s and standing at Moss Corner working the flags on the first lap of a CanAm race was amazing. The field was still bunched together and the ground shock with the power and you couldn’t hear yourself think. The McLarens would round the corner at about 30 km/h and then accelerate up the back straight – I’ll never forget it.

    I still go to Mosport for the ALMS series, but prototypes are not the same as the CanAm cars.

    1. Many thanks, Pete, for this article.  I watched Bruce & Denny at the Glen in 1969 as a 12-year-old boy.  That powerful memory still makes me smile.

  12. thanks
    Great reading.
    Brought me back to the time when I was there too.
    BTW your new Can-Am Cars in Detail is absolutely amazing and should be in every Can-Am collectors collection.

  13. Thanks, Pete, for bringing back great memories of a great car and a great team. Was there ever a Can-Am car so pure in purpose, simplicity, and performance?

    I remember going to Road America to see the “Bruce and Denny Show,” and it was awesome. Just seeing them perfect their line nose to tail at track-record speed during practice was a thrill. Then spending a couple hours in the garage after practice and qualifying and watching the team tear down and rebuild the cars to perfection was mesmerizing. 1969 and the M8B will forever be the best year in racing that I can remember.

    Tim Kemmis

  14. Love the McLarens, and Bruce, and was very sad when I read about his testing crash. However, the most amazing thing I saw in Can-Am was Donohue taking the 930/17 down the Glen straight (before anyone even thought about putting the bus stop in). Could never have this series now, and I am very grateful to everyone who built the cars, drove them, and sponsored them, and permitted me the priviledge of buying a ticket to a number of races. My only regret is living too far from Fort Ord to make it to Laguna Seca for the series, when they were racing in anger.

  15. Thanks, Pete and SCD.
    You always manage to capture in pictures and words some of my fondest memories. Coming of age in the 60’s I look at as a blessing. Seeing and hearing those “Big Bangers” race at venues like Donybrook and Road America can never be equaled. I’d like to welcome you to SCD and I’m anxiously looking forward to more articles on these Can-am warriors.

  16. I worked on Lothar Motchenbacher’s Mclaren M12 customer car that year, we tried hard to be competitive, we always had the orange Mclaren way out in front of us.
    Mclaren Chief Mechanic Tyler Alexander put together a wonderful race team of dedicated mechanics. (In those days we all worked very hard).
    The Mclaren engine shop was no small contributor to their success. The iron sleeved big block aluminum Chevy was difficult to make reliable, but Mclaren was able to achieve success.
    Hats off to the Mclaren Cars 1969 Can Am Racing Team!

  17. Great having Pete Lyons with Sports Car Digest Weekly. I’ve been a big fan of Pete since I discovered the Group 7 racers in Autoweek in the early 1970s and have about a half dozen of Pete’s books in my racing library. This was a great story about a great car, part of a great team and a wonderful age of racing.

    I look forward to more. Cheers

  18. Dennis Gray is right – check out the last image again. From what I can tell, there is no guardrail between Bruce McLaren’s beast and that photographer. Perhaps he is planning on jumping behind the tree if things went bad. Haven’t been to the corkscrew in years, but me thinks that wouldn’t be possible today!

    Great read – thank you. PLEASE keep posting stories of this nature so we can nurture them for future generations.

  19. I’ll be a “Yes” man: love the era, the year, the cars, and one of my (ahem) principAL heroes, Pete Lyons. Some people just know to string words and pictures together. /Molto/ thanks to SCD and to Pete for another fine example of the way it was and the way it should be done.

  20. SCD,Don’t you think Pete Lyons deserves a raise? Nevertheless, thanks for putting him in your great publication.

    Pete, thanks for being there then and doing what you do for The Can-Am now. Your stories and captions always give me that “checker flag” sensation and satisfaction.

  21. Wow, guys, thanks for all the kind words. Obviously SCD is pulling together All the Right Readers!
    Seriously, it’s heartwarming to this old Can-Am apologist that so many of you seem to agree that it was the amazing machinery that made the series worthwhile. At the time, you may remember, we heard a lot of carping about how McLaren domination was making it “boring.” But I agreed with Bruce himself when he wrote in his Autosport column about how people go to the circus to watch the elephants and nobody complains that they’re bigger and stronger than other animals. They simply enjoy them. In homage to that sentiment I started calling McLaren’s cars “the Orange Elephants.”
    And then there were Jim Hall’s incredible Chaparrals. The beautiful Lolas. The wierd, wonderful and ultimately successful Shadows. And many more, an historically unique racecar extravaganza capped by the stunning powerful Penske Porsche Panzers.
    “Boring?” Hah.

    1. I agree totally with David Davis. You cannot do anything with a well-organized team and inferior cars. I saw these cars close up and in person and they were truly awe-inspiring. Whenever you thought they might have a real challenge, it would turn out that they had plenty in reserve. The only reason Andretti got to 2nd fastest in the 69 Texas CanAm was his bigger Ford engine and by and in large, the only reason that the Team McLaren cars were finally defeated in 1972 was the big horsepower advantage of the Porsche 917-10K. As Donohue admitted before the season, “If we don’t get that turbo motor going, we are going to get smoked by McLaren.” This was echoed by Follmer when he said that they finally outhorsepowered the McLarens.

  22. Interesting article, but I do not agree at all about the team itself being better than the car. A great team will go nowhere without the right machine. The M8B was perfected and honed by the best racers and testers in the business, and Gordon Choppock was/is arguably, a great designer. Bruce innovated just enough in having the engine as stressed member and the high quality and durability of the ocnstruction was ideal to handle the power of the Chevy and aero loading.

  23. To Pete Lyons and all at SCD
    Thanks for a terrific article. I never tire of reading Pete’s first-hand accounts of the Can Am. I was born a little too late and about 5000 miles too East to have been there but any excuse to see Can Am cars in action here in the UK is eagerly taken. And Pete, please can you send me a new copy of “Can Am” because I’ve worn mine out…:-)

  24. The Can Am series was the most enjoyable and exciting era of racing that I could have ever wished for. Going to Riverside each time looking for the latest cars and developments in style and power was always thrilling and something I miss a great deal in other forms of racing today. Love the stories presented by all you wonderful writers.

  25. Mid Ohio ’69 for me at 12 years old. I was awestruck at the sound and power and speed of my first road race, but especially the high wing McLaren. Almost could not sleep that night as the roar and orangepage through my memory. We could only wish that a rule set like this could be achievable in the present, never happen…this was the mightiest of the mighty, the best road racing ever.

  26. In 1969 I was a mechanical engineering major at Michigan State, and completely, totally enthralled with the CanAm series, and more specifically, Team McLaren. A good buddy and I spent the summer of ’69 driving an old VW beetle to Elkhart Lake, Mid-Ohio, Mosport Park, and Watkins Glen … all to drool over the McLarens and essentially be Team McLaren groupies. The noise, the sounds, the smells, the colors, the celebrity status of the drivers …it was an extraordinary world we just couldn’t get enough of. I especially remember a young Tyler Alexander, Chief Mechanic for Team McLaren. I envied him as much or more than the drivers! Thanks Pete, for bringing back those memories and good times … it was WUNderful.

  27. Pete Lyons does justice to the Can Am story as only he could do it, Some writers just have the knack of taking you front and center to the time and place of their memory, Thanks Pete

  28. This race had rolling start. Sir Stirling Moss drove the convertible Corvette pace car. I was lucky enough to ride shotgun with him, in radio contact to the starter. Our job was to advise him if they were ready to go coming out of (then) turn 9). To prevent overheating of the race cars we had to maintain a good clip. Stirling did a fantastic job. Driving at, I calculate 90 mph, one hand one the wheel and waving to the spectators! I was impressed and overawed. Bruce and Denny sheperded the pack very well, we took the slip road and they were off.
    Thanks Pete, and Stirling for a wonderful memory. And thanks to SCCA’s Jim Kaser who gave birth to the CanAm.

  29. For a fascinating account of Chevrolet’s R&D deep involvement in supporting the racing activities of Chaparral, Penske, McLaren and Smokey Yunick during this period (when GM was “officially” not involved at all), seek out a copy of “Chevrolet – Racing? Fourteen Years of Raucous Silence! 1957 – 1970”, by Paul Van Valkenburgh, a Chevrolet R&D engineer during this time. Originally released in 1972, it was reprinted in 2000 as written, to maintain the period feel. If you can find original 1972 hard copies, they cost a mint. But SAE Publications has made digital copies available at a very reasonable price and it is well worth it.

    Chevrolet supported Chaparral vehicle development by, among many other things, making the first aluminum Chevy big blocks available to Jim Hall. His first season running the new engine was less than successful for Chaparral, as there were numerous teething problems to sort out. For one thing, it blew oil out of top end gaskets like an oil gusher until they determined oil was being trapped in the top end due to inadequate oil return galleries. The joke was Chaparral and Chevrolet R&D worked out all the bugs before the engine, finally reliable, was turned over to McLaren, who ran it with great success. The many anecdotes as related by Van Valkenburgh are incredible but apparently all true. It was reported that when John DeLorean, division head of Chevrolet, read the book, he asked “Did we really do all this?” Yes they did!