“At this time there is nothing in the world any quicker, any better handling, any more advanced technically, or any more fun to drive. It is, to me, the perfect race car.” ~ Mark Donohue, 1973
By 1969, with the 917 program still in its early stages, Porsche had already built a special variant of its 12-cylinder race car for the popular North American Can-Am series. Although the original 917 had been designed to meet the demands of 24-hour endurance events, the platform showed tremendous potential for Can-Am’s 200-mile sprint events and Porsche, eager to return to prominence in US road racing, began to develop an even lighter and more powerful race car.
The first Can-Am 917 was the PA, which debuted late in the 1969 season. Essentially a standard chassis with open bodywork, wider wheels, an extra fuel tank and a slightly revised frame, the largely untested 917PA showed great promise, finishing 4th in the final 1969 Can-Am point standings.
Late in 1970, Porsche decided to move forward with a purpose-built Can-Am 917. As North America, and the US in particular, had long been Porsche’s most important market, there was to be no compromising in the design of the new car – it had to be a winner. Hanz Mezger’s team went to work on a chassis that combined the best aspects of the 917K and the 908/03 with the added bonus of a twin-turbocharged five-liter powerplant. The result was the 917/10.
In 1972, Porsche began an alliance with Roger Penske Racing, a small yet influential team based in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. With L&M Cigarettes as the primary sponsor, Penske Racing’s 917/10 dominated the 1972 Can-Am season, winning six of the nine races.
Although the 917/10s were spectacular cars, Porsche had something even better up its sleeve for the following year: the 917/30.
The 917/30 of 1973 was, for all intents and purposes, an all-new car when compared to its predecessor. At the heart of the car was an enlarged 5.4-liter flat 12-cylinder engine – turbocharged, of course. Along with the larger capacity engine, the 917/30 featured dramatic, low-drag bodywork. To address issues discovered during the 1972 season, Porsche enlisted Charles Deutsch’s SERA of Paris to advise on a suitable body shape and to hone the design in the Eiffel wind tunnel. To cope with the increased performance, Porsche extended the wheelbase, upped the fuel capacity, provided strengthened lower wishbones and designed special extractor turbines to aid in brake cooling.
The result of this extensive development was a sports racing car that weighed just 1,765 lbs. at the curb and produced over 1,000 hp – a monumental figure for a sports racing car. With the boost turned up, over 1,500 bhp was achievable.
The exceptional power-to-weight ratio made for staggering performance figures: 0–60 in 2.1 seconds; 0–100 in 3.9 seconds; 0–200 in 13.4 seconds. Given enough open road, the 917/30 was capable of more than 240 mph.
In Penske tradition, the team’s 917/30 was immaculately prepared, with exceptional attention to detail throughout. Steel components were cadmium plated, removable aluminum tubes were anodized blue and frame tubes were painted gray. Finished in its dark blue Sunoco livery with vibrant yellow and red striping, the new 917/30 was truly a sight to behold.
After a shaky start to the 1973 season, Donohue won six races in a row, annihilating the competition and capturing the Can-Am Championship. The Porsche was so effective that the competition, comprised of the era’s most advanced racing cars, was easily outdistanced on the faster circuits. Following the brilliant 1973 season, Donohue announced his retirement from racing and Porsche ended its Can-Am program.
In 1975, Donohue made one final appearance in the 917/30 – an event that further developed the legendary reputation of Porsche’s ultimate road racing car. The previous year, A.J. Foyt set a world closed-course speed record with his USAC Coyote – running 217.854 mph on the 2.66-mile banked oval at Talladega. Believing that the 917/30 could eclipse that result, Donohue obtained sponsorship from CAM2 motor oil and commissioned Porsche to prepare two special engines for the high-speed run. On August 9, 1975, Donohue drove the CAM2 Porsche to a new official record for the fastest closed-course lap at 221.120 mph.
The record stood for almost two decades.
The 917/30 presented here, chassis 004, is one of just six chassis constructed by Porsche.
Following Porsche’s exit from the Can-Am series, the racing department at Weissach was left with a marvelous, technically advanced racing car made obsolete after just a single racing season. With little or no use for the remaining 917/30s, the cars were eventually sold to privateers with close factory connections.
Sold new to Australian Porsche importer Alan Hamilton, 004 was built to the same basic specifications as the legendary Penske team cars but finished with plain white bodywork. Hamilton, who greatly admired the incredible sophistication and performance of the 917/30 chassis, displayed the Can-Am Spyder in his Melbourne showroom alongside several significant racing Porsches from his private collection.
While never seriously campaigned, during its time in Australia, the 917/30 took part in many local events and in its later days, was a major attraction at automotive events such as the historic race preceding the Adelaide Grand Prix.
In the 1980s, Porsche began purchasing independent distributorships including Alan Hamilton’s Porsche Australia. In 1991, as part of the purchase agreement, Porsche acquired a number of Hamilton’s racing cars; not surprisingly, 917/30-004 was among the group of historic racing cars to return to Germany.