Sports car racing enjoyed its heyday in the 1960s and early 1970s when the Porsche / Ferrari duel for supremacy was the focal point of the racing year. The brand new cars were, in those days, the fastest circuit -- faster even than the Formula Ones. The Le Mans along with the Sebring and the Daytona were the trifecta of the sport, 24-hour endurance challenges that captured the imagination of the public and tested the skill of the drivers.
Starting in the 1950s Porsche cranked out a line of tough, reliable sports prototypes that grew increasingly bigger and faster -- the Porsche 910, the Porsche 908, and finally the iconic Porsche 917, which gave Porsche its first overall Le Mans wins in 1970 and 1971. The long-tailed version of this racing classic made the zero to 62 mph leap in 2.5 seconds and had a top speed of more than 254 mph powered by the Type 912 flat-12 engine (4.5, 4.9, or 5 liters.) It was the 917 that was the real star of Steve McQueen's 1971 film Le Mans, a car famous for its high power outputs and almost mythic speed. (The 1973 Can-Am series was the turbocharged version of the 917.)
The 917 was first displayed at the Geneva Motor Show in 1969. Built around a light spaceframe chassis, the driver's seat was placed so far forward that the drivers feet were actually in front of the front axle. Featuring groundbreaking components machined from titanium and magnesium, designers also took such simple measures as making the gear shift knob out of balsa wood to bring the weight down as much as possible. In initial tests, however the 917 was a demon to drive on the track, unstable, with the engine seeming to overpower the frame. Running just under 20 miles per hour faster than anything ever seen at Le Mans, the 917 suffered from the long tail body which generated too much lift on the straights.
In its competition debut on May 11, 1969, Siffert/Redman clocked an unofficial 3:41.9 lap, but they chose to use the 908LH long tail instead and won the race with the fastest lap of 3:37.1 At the 1969 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 917's instability led to the death of Briton John Woolfe who suffered a fatal crash on lap 1. The first win for the 917 didn't come until the last race of the season, the 500 km Zeltweg with Sieffert and Ahrens. During 1970, under a new partnership with John Wyer and his JWA Gulf Team, the downforce was increased via a new wedge-shaped tail of aluminum sheets taped together, achieving greatly improved stability, a modification that led to the absolute domination of the Gulf-Wyer and Martini Porsches in 1971.
That domination was short-lived, with new rules for 3 liter prototypes, leading Porsche to focus on North American markets with the 1972-1973 Can-Am series. The 917/30 remains, however, the most powerful sports car racer ever built and run -- due in part to McQueen -- and due largely to its own incredible performance. Consequently, the 917 remains to this day, a true racing legend.