One for the Little Guys

On the eve of the 1968 Monterey Grand Prix, Seattle’s Don Jensen kneeled in a smoke filled motel room. One hundred percent chance of rain was forecast for tomorrow’s race so he was cutting thick grooves in his tires. Somewhere nearby, Portlander Monte Shelton was seething. He had been promised a special set of tires for his closed cockpit Porsche Carrera 6 and his tire distributor had let him down. Now any advantage he may have had in his under-powered sports racer had vaporized.

Canadian John Cannon may have been in the worst frame of mind of all. He was broke and so he had agreed to sell his three year old McLaren to a group of enthusiasts for $7,000. They would take delivery at the conclusion of the series. The former pilot in the Royal Air Force had been trying for a decade to make it as a professional race car driver. He had won some races but mostly it had been a losing proposition. The McLaren’s small block Chevy engine was scabbed together with old parts and Cannon did well to qualify mid-pack against his high dollar, large displacement competition. In desperation he took a knife to his goggles, cutting slits to allow them to drain. If the race was to be run in a downpour, he would need to be able to see.

Then on race morning Cannon got a break. He had done some testing for Firestone and his friend on the tire truck had a set of rain tires for him. A formula car driver had ordered them for Saturday and they had gone unclaimed. Cannon mounted them on his car for the morning warmup session and noted a marked improvement. Perhaps even more encouraging were his goggles which worked like a charm.

Misfortune beset some competitors before the green flag was displayed. Second fastest qualifier Jim Hall’s winged Chaparral refused to fire. The new McKee of Charlie Hayes which was slated to start a couple rows ahead of Cannon; was also forced to scratch. The race was started in a deluge and there was an immediate reshuffling of positions as some of the front runners tip-toed around the course. Cannon, able to see, began passing cars in his sure-footed McLaren. Fast qualifier Bruce McLaren led the first lap followed by Peter Revson in a 427 Ford, McLaren teammate Denny Hulme and Mark Donohue in Roger Penske’s entry. Cannon had advanced to eighth and by the seventh lap had passed the foursome in front of him.

“It was just bloody incredible,” reflected McLaren after the race. “Cannon was driving as if the track was dry!” Dan Gurney report that when he saw Cannon pull alongside, he thought it was a hallucination.
There were other drivers that performed well in the wet. George Follmer, who had started the race on Firestone “intermediates,” clawed his way up to second before spinning off into the ice plant. Another Canadian George Eaton, piloting a car very similar to Cannon’s, started 18th and quickly advanced into the top ten.

By lap fifteen, Cannon had lapped all the cars up to eighth place. McLaren (who hung on to second in the early going) continued: “He could go around a whole pack of people in a corner and make it look routine. I couldn’t believe it.” Within a few more laps, Cannon had a thirty second lead over the marque’s namesake. Though he was undoubtedly enjoying himself, the same cannot be said for his competitors. “Everybody went off course at least once,” remembered Shelton. Drivers stopped in the pits for replacement goggles; some just pulled over to the side of the track to clean theirs.

By the thirty fifth lap Cannon had lapped the entire field and continued to pull away. Eaton meanwhile was up to fourth. “All Canadian drivers are good mudders,” he explained after the checkered flag “We dash about in the worst kinds of weather without really knowing any better.”
In the second half of race, Cannon’s dominance continued although there were a number of close calls. Hulme (a native of New Zealand who had also done his share of racing in the rain) advanced to second and Eaton ran third.

“My only problem,” Cannon related later, “was that we didn’t have very good pit equipment. We just had a blackboard and in the wet, it wasn’t very good. Then one lap I came around, there was a real pit board with information on it!” Turned out that Team McLaren rival, Jim Hall had taken over direction of Cannon’s race.

At the finish Cannon was one lap plus five seconds ahead of Hulme in the factory McLaren effort. Series rookie Eaton held on for the show position. In spite of the many off course excursions and fender crunches, twenty of the thirty starters completed the grind. Jensen finished five laps behind the winner in thirteenth but tied Hulme, Eaton and five others for the fourth fastest race lap. Sheldon was scored nineteenth-a full twelve laps behind Cannon.

Later that evening at the victory banquet, Cannon received a standing ovation from his fellow drivers (and a check for almost $20,000- a huge purse for that time).

“I’m going to get a tribe of Indians to do a rain dance at every race!” the jubilant winner chirped. And in 1968, no one would have had a problem with (him saying) that.

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