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classic car: 1973 porsche 917 canam spyder

1973 Porsche 917 Canam Spyder from the Drendel Collection.Pawel Litwinsky/Gooding & Co.

My 1973 Mosport Can-Am poster – a memento of a brief stint as a PR guy for the circuit – doesn't include an image of a Sunoco blue-and-yellow Porsche 917/30 Spyder like the one sold for $4.4-million (U.S.) at a recent auction of one of the finest private collections of road and racing Porsches in the world.

But I don't need a faded poster-paint image to rekindle to full brilliance a memory of standing on the steps of the pedestrian bridge over Mosport's front straight and watching American racer Mark Donohue exit Turn Ten and open the taps on 12-cylinders, 5.4 litres, twin-turbos and 1,100 hp. The 917/30 launched like a triggered RPG round and was a blue/yellow blur as it flashed past my feet so fast I could barely turn in time to watch it disappear through Turn One.

The Canadian/American Challenge had been created in the mid-1960s as the no-holds-barred racing equivalent of today's Ultimate Fighting Championship and staged on tracks in Canada and the U.S. By 1970, it had developed into an epically heroic form of on-track warfare between race team factions armed with weapons of mass entertainment that were both innovative and, thanks to their 800-hp, big-bore American V-8 engines, prodigiously powerful.

Porsche had entered the fray tentatively, running its first Can-Am in 1969 with a 3.0-litre-engined 908 endurance racing prototype in the Watkins Glen race, piloted by Jo Siffert who finished sixth. He returned later in the year armed with its new 4.5-litre, 917PA in open "Spyder" form and finished the championship in fourth place.

Porsche only ran one Can-Am race in 1970 in a 917K coupe with Siffert finishing second at Watkins Glen. But it was back with an up-gunned to 660-hp 917/10 in open cockpit form for 1971 – although it still shy on power versus the Chevy-engined cars – until Siffert died in a Formula One race that year.

In 1972, the 917/10K Spyder appeared, built with significant input from Roger Penske's organization and talented engineer and really fast racer Donohue. It had the latest aero and chassis tweaks and packed a pair of turbochargers that boosted output of the 5.4-litre flat-12 to 800 hp in race trim (1,000 hp on the dyno), finally topping the American V-8s.

It could accelerate to 100 km/h in a little over two seconds, to 160 km/h in about four seconds and to 322 km/h (200 mph) in under 14 seconds. Donahue was injured in an early season crash and was replaced by George Follmer, who won five races and the championship.

Then came the "ultimate Can-Am racer," the 917/30 Spyder of 1973, which could lop four seconds off the 0-322 km/h time thanks to the availability of a race-reliable 1,100 hp. It's said 1,500 hp had been attained in dyno testing.

It was the most powerful racing machine until the arrival of the turbocharged Formula One cars of the 1980s. And given the huge turbos, driving one must have been like pulling the pin on a grenade just before arriving at a corner apex and then waiting for the explosion.

Porsche 917s won all eight Can-Am racers in 1973, six in a row with championship winner Donohue pushing the pedal. That the 917/30 was simply awesome Donohue also proved by setting a closed-course record at the Talladega superspeedway, averaging 356 km/h (221 mph) and hitting 402 km/h (250 mph) on the straights.

Concerned about the Porsche Panzer's uber-alles dominance, Can-Am organizers imposed a three mile per gallon fuel limit for 1974 and Porsche packed up its turbos and went home. Can-Am died away after that, but was later reborn, although it never regained its original mega-horsepower generated magic.

The 917/30 that went under the hammer at Gooding & Company's auction held during the Amelia Island concours a couple of weeks ago was one of four built by the factory and intended to be the Penske-Sunoco team car in 1974. Instead, it was sold to Australia's Porsche importer, later repurchased by the factory and then found its way into the hands of passionate Porschephile Matthew "Matt" Drendel of Hickory, N.C.

Drendel, who died two years ago the age of 35, was a keen car guy and a racer competing in the Ferrari 355 Challenge when he underwent a conversion to a new "religion" based on "silly 40-year-old, rear-engined, German cars."

He went on to assemble a world-renowned collection of Porsche road and racing cars and established Heritage Motor Werks LLC to look after them, later offering its services to the other Porsche owners. His 917/30 was restored in Sunoco-Penske livery.

The Drendel collection had Amelia Island patrons drooling on their programs while reaching for their cheque books, to come up with a total of $17.7-million to take 17 of his cars to new homes.

Passing under the gavel and setting a number of record prices for Porsches were: the 917/30, at $4.4-million now the priciest Porsche ever sold at auction; a $1.92-million 1984 Daytona winning 962; a 1974 RSR Turbo Carrera 2.14 production racer and now record money 911 at $3.245-million; the first 935 built, a 1976 factory racer run under Martini & Rossi colors that sold for $2.53-million; a 1997 911 GT1 Evolution team car that ran at Le Man that went for $1.265-million.

And the almost-as-tasty rest: a 1980 924 Carrera GT Le Mans; a 1980 Porsche Indy Car; a 1987 McLaren/Porsche MP4/3 Formula One car; a 1981924 GTP "Le Mans"; a 1995 911 GT2 Evolution; a 1992 968 Turbo RS; a 1994 911 Turbo 3.6; a 1986 944 Porsche Turbo Cup racer; a 1988 944 Turbo S; and a 1991 944 ST Cabriolet.

The $36-million generated by the 70 lots sold at Gooding & Company's Amelia Island auction – double its take from last year – would seem to indicate there's no shortage of buyer interest at the top end of the collector car market.

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