Story and photos by Louis Galanos (except as noted)
The Porsche 917 we know today and that was made a movie star by actor/racer Steve McQueen in the movie Le Mans was visually very different from the one that made its racing debut at Spa on May 11, 1969. Coincidentally that was also my birthday and to this day I wonder why the head of Porsche 917 Development, Ferdinand Piech, didn’t invite me to the 917’s first race.
My very first live look at a 917 took place at the 1970 24 Hours of Daytona where the now familiar 917K model was entered by John Wyer Automotive and sporting the orange and blue livery of the Gulf Oil Company.
By the time of the Daytona race in January of 1970 the well-known teething problems dealing with high speed instability and oppressive cockpit heat had been resolved and what stood before me on the grid was probably the fastest production race car ever made and capable of speeds approaching 240 mph.
Porsche won at Daytona that year and the following year. Both times Pedro Rodriguez was at the wheel. Much credit for these victories and others has to be given to the John Wyer organization and their superb team of drivers and mechanics.
At the race I was fortunate enough to spend some time observing the John Wyer Gulf Porsche pit crew in action. I was a little shocked because I had expectations that these pits would be as well run and as organized as the Porsche factory pits I saw at the 1969 24 Hours of Daytona.
The Porsche factory pits in 1969 amazed me. All kind of equipment and tires were neatly stacked and the tools needed for the race were laid out on a felt cover not unlike what you might see in an operating room. Plus all the mechanics were dressed in clean overalls on race day.
The Gulf/Wyer pits didn’t even approach what I saw in 1969. Parts and tools were scattered all around the pit box. Mechanics were in well-worn greasy overalls and I saw a mechanic kick a tool across the pit floor into a corner rather than pick it up. It was organized chaos that in the end produced results. The Gulf/Wyer organization won with maddening consistency and who can argue with that?
The legendary 917 only raced for three seasons that included the latter half of 1969 through 1971. During that short span of time a 917 was entered in 21 major races and came in first 14 times and second twice. This overwhelming success probably contributed to its demise because no other factory race car could compete with the 917. So FIA changed the rules and 1971 would be the last year for the Porsche 917. By the way, the only Gulf Porsche 917 to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans was the one in the Steve McQueen movie.
The 917 didn’t disappear just because of a few rules changes. Porsche decided to enter a higher power version of the 917 in the North American Can-Am championship. The newly evolved cars known as the 917-10 and later the 917-30 were so successful that some automotive writers feel that their success eventually killed the Can-Am series.
Today, with the help of vintage racing events and the movie Le Mans the 917K Porsche lives on in the hearts and minds of racing aficionados around the world. Also, there are companies out there willing to sell you a replica 917K if you have the money. Then you too can relive the glory days of the 917 and The Golden Age of Sports Car Racing.
Porsche 917 Turns 40 Years Old Photo Gallery – Louis Galanos (click image for larger picture)