The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the most traditional and prestigious motor race in history. Every year, since 1923, the best race teams and drivers from all over the world go on a pilgrimage to the Circuit de la Sarthe, located in the city of Le Mans, France, for a gruesome 24 hours race, where everything is tested beyond the limits: the skills and physical strength of the drivers, the tactics of the teams, and the speed and reliability of the cars. The event is part of the Triple Crown of Motorsport, with the other two races being the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix.
The 24 Hours of Le Mans has been, mostly, a European gathering, but we all know how much the Americans love to crash that party. From the Hemi-powered Cunningham roadsters and Corvettes to the smashing victories of the Shelby-Ford cars in the 1960s, the American Iron has been a constant presence in the race, but in 1976, the French crowd saw something a bit different from the land of Uncle Sam.
The 1970s oil crisis.
Before we move forward, let’s take a look at the events that triggered some radical changes in the world of motorsports in the 1970s: At the beginning of 1973, the oil producers countries in the Middle East imposed an embargo against the Western countries that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur war. As a result, the price of crude oil rose 300%, causing a severe economic depression around the world.
As one can imagine, motorsports started to lose its magic, it makes no sense to see race teams burning thousands of gallons of gas over the weekend when the average citizens couldn’t afford to fuel up their own cars. On top of that, many racing organizations around the world began to impose some restrictions to save fuel, making the sport less appealing. The rising cost of fuel and maintenance forced some privateers and small teams to quit racing altogether.
At NASCAR, all the races were shortened by 10% in length and the organizers were imposing restrictions on the use of big blocks engines.
Facing a decline in the number of cars on the grid, some race venues started to invite teams from other classes. In the 1976 edition of the 24 hours of Daytona, 8 NASCAR teams competed among the IMSA sports cars.
The negative effects of the oil embargo were more deeply felt in North America but in Europe, life was becoming increasingly hard as well. For the 1975 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the organizers imposed a new rule, no car should be allowed to refuel before completing 20 laps, and the size of the fuel tanks was also restricted. The idea was to force the teams to bring more fuel-efficient cars to the grid. To make matters worse, FIA removed the race from the Sports Car World Championship calendar, and big names like Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, and Matra just dropped from the competition.
The Le Mans organizers had to find a way to fill up those empty spots and by mid-1975, they called NASCAR big boss Bill France Sr. with an interesting idea, an exchange of classes between Le Mans and the 24 hours of Daytona, since Mr. “Big Bill” also owned Daytona Speedway.
The idea was to spice up the race, they didn’t want to bring only the sports cars from IMSA to Le Mans, the invitation was extended to the top three NASCAR finishers at the 1975 24 Hours of Daytona.
This new class was called Grand International and its debut was scheduled for the 1976 edition of Le Mans. The good old boys from NASCAR were amazed, they would be going to race in some fairy tale city, in France, against a bunch of toy cars. They would be not only representing the star and the stripes but also showing to the rest of the world the most traditional and grassroots motor race in North America.
The teams that finished Daytona in first and second position were unable to go to Le Mans but the guys who finished in third place, owner/driver Herschel McGriff and his son Doug, accepted the challenge, with a Dodge Charger, sponsored by Olympia Beer. The second team had to be picked, NASCAR chose the privateer Junie Donlavey with a Ford Torino, to be driven by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.
Le Mans and NASCAR paid for all the teams’ expenses.
The drivers going to France actually had some solid experience outside of the circle-track, Hutcherson was part of the Ford team that beat Ferrari at Le Mans in 1966, he finished third overall that year. The Torino guys also invited the French driver Marcel Mignot, who happened to be a driver instructor at Le Mans.
Another outstanding driver was Hershel McGriff, he remembers the reason he went to Le Mans in 1976: I’m guessing that’s one of the reasons they chose our team to go to France, I won the Carrera Panamericana in 1950 when was I only 22 years old, won 14 stock-car events at Riverside (road course) and ran the 24 hours of Daytona. So they knew I was capable on a road course because I wasn’t just a circle-track guy.” Keep in mind that McGriff wasn’t chosen, he qualified for Le Mans.
The McGriff/Olympia Beer team chose the third-generation Dodge Charger (1971-74) to race in France; at this point, Dodge had already released the fourth-gen Charger, a dull-looking car that not even the most fanatic Mopar guy can remember, therefore the teams racing Dodge decided to stick with the older model.
The decision to take a Charger to France was a bit odd since Hershel himself was more like a Chevy guy. He qualified for Le Mans driving a Nova (picture above), but the team thought the Charger was aerodynamically sleeker than the Chevy.
The engine that powered the car remains a bit of mystery, some of the information found on websites say it was the 426 Hemi, but according to McGriff it wasn’t, it was a 426 Max Wedge. Just like any other NASCAR stocker, the Charger was equipped with a 4-speed manual transmission.
The Ford Torino that went to Le Mans has a very interesting story, the car was completely restored a few years ago by Rhine Enterprise and during the process, the technicians found out the car is a 1969 model that had all the body panels replaced to look like a 1975 model. That was a widely used practice back then; the teams would go to the extreme of morphing a “B” body Mopar into a Ford Torino (and vice-versa) just swapping body panels (and the engine, of course).
Finding information about the engine that equipped the Le Mans Torino can be confusing as well, many sites will tell the car was equipped with a “Boss” 429, but according to Rhine Enterprise, the engine was a 358 small block “Cleveland”. The picture above shows the engine bay after the restoration and as you can see, it is not a “Boss” 429.
At Le Mans
Upon arrival at Le Mans, the two stockers immediately became the stars of the show, the European fans just couldn’t get enough of the cars, they fell in love with the badass attitude and the thunderous sound of the V8s.
According to sportswriter Randy Hallman, the cars and teams were swarmed. “From the moment they arrived in France, the hulking Detroit beasts created a stir, fans flocked around the cars wherever they went. Indeed, they looked as out of place as if they’d been beamed down from some hovering starship–and got almost as much attention.“
According to Hallman, car-owner Donlavey said just prior to the start of the race, “Everywhere we go, and I mean everywhere, there’s a big crowd following us. They took our car and Herschel’s on a parade through downtown Le Mans–right through the main square. It was so crowded, people were pressed against the cars on both sides.”
The French media affectionately called them Les Deux Monstres or The Two Monsters.
Among many interesting stories about that weekend, there is a rumor that McGriff brought a few cases of Olympia beer disguised as “lubricant”. When asked about it, he neither confirm nor deny: “I think that’s probably true,” he notes with a smile, “Didn’t drink much of it myself, but used to give a lot of it away when they were my sponsor.”
At the first drivers meeting, the others teams required the “big American cars” should be equipped with side-view mirrors, and they were promptly installed. The two cars were also fitted with tail lights, headlights, windshield wipers, and radio equipment.
The gas problem
The biggest problem faced by the Americans was the low octane French gasoline, they knew the 102 “race gas” couldn’t be found at Le Mans and both teams ordered low compression engines for the race, set up for 92 octanes. Later on, they found out that the gas available there was somewhere around 85/87 octanes. The Olympia team tried to install one extra head gasket to lower even more the compression but it was noticeable the big block Mopar was not enjoying the diet of crappy gasoline. McGriff melted a couple of engines during practice and qualifying.
The Torino was, somehow, doing ok, and even with the gas issue, both cars were among the fastest at the Mulsanne straight, blowing off those tiny Porsches as they stormed down at 300 plus Km/h, only to see them catching up again after a couple of turns.
The NASCAR boys did what they could but it isn’t easy to make those big and heavy cars go through all the corners of Le Mans, McGriff and the Charger qualified 47th out of 55 cars. Hutcherson and the Torino qualified 55th, the very last car on the grid.
Saturday, June 12, 1976, it was a glorious sunny morning. The NASCAR big boss, Bill France Sr. was there and his son, Bill Jr., had the honor to wave the starting flag. The expectations were high, it was supposed to be the first of many races with cars from IMSA, NASCAR, and the European GT racing together.
Unfortunately, the stokers didn’t live up to the fanfare, the Charger’s engine blew up after 2 laps, being officially the very first car to abandon the race.
The Torino bravely survived for 11 hours when the transmission gave up, and that was the end of the NASCAR presence at Le Mans.
It was very frustrating, no doubt about it, as Hershel McGriff recalls: “We didn’t do a good job of representing the class, and maybe that’s why it didn’t run a second year. If we’d have run the whole race, and finished, maybe it could’ve worked.”
Besides the fiasco, both teams enjoyed the experience and the affection of the French fans. NASCAR never returned to Le Mans but McGriff did, he was part of a team that raced two small-block Camaros in 1982. His car had transmission problems but they managed to finish the race, the other Camaro finished 17th overall and second in the GTO IMSA class. Not bad at all.
- Note of the editor: You can find some cool videos about Le Mans stockers on YouTube. While the Torino is (allegedly) the actual one that raced in 1976, the Charger is a “tribute car”, built in 2006 by the Frenchman and Mopar maniac Christophe Schwartz. At first, the clone was equipped with a 426 Hemi but in 2010 it received a correct 426 “Wedge” engine. When the Charger is not being raced in some classic car event throughout Europe, it patiently sits still in the Le Mans museum.
- Note #2: Olympia beer still exists, the brand has a long history in connection with motorsports, for a while they sponsored the legendary stuntman, Evel Knievel.