NASCAR at Le Mans: When a Dodge Charger and Ford Torino Raced in Europe
“What are they going to do?” Or? For how long? ”It was probably a common reaction when it was announced that two full NASCAR stockers were going to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1976. Wasn’t it a race in a far away country called France, challenged only by a funny little furrin ‘cars?
No, not since 1966, anyway, when Henry Ford II went there with his conquering GT program and the idea of outdoing Enzo Ferrari at his own game. The result was the original four tourbillon: back-to-back factory wins in 1966 and 1967, plus two private wins for the Gulf-Wyer team in 1968 and 1969 (in the same car, no less). Sportsman / driver / car builder Briggs Cunningham tried it a decade and a half before, with commendable results, including a third overall. Goodness knows the American iron has been here lately, rewriting the GT-class record books thanks to the factory-sponsored Viper GTS-R from 1998 to 2000 and the Pratt & Miller Corvette team almost every year. since.
A New Class for the NASCAR Boys: Grand International
The story goes that the organizers of Le Mans were trying to spice up their game. In mid-1975, they approached Bill France Sr., dean of NASCAR, about a “class exchange” between Le Mans and the 24 Hours of Daytona. France owned Daytona Speedway, and even then what we now call the Rolex 24 had international significance. “Big Bill” was in many ways the ultimate traditionalist and ran NASCAR with an iron fist. Yet he must also be seen as an innovator. Road racing was hardly new to NASCAR: Events held on natural courses like Riverside and Watkins Glen had been part of the NASCAR diet for years, although ovals were – and remain – its staple.
The product of this Franco-American negotiation was called the Grand International class, and its test balloon was scheduled for Le Mans in June 1976. Two teams were selected by NASCAR: owner / driver Herschel McGriff and his son Doug would drive. their Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and eternal privateer Junie Donlavey would bring a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson. NASCAR and the organizers of the Le Mans race paid for the crew and transportation costs.
Don’t think for a minute that these good old boys were served as alligator bait to the European racing elite. Hutcherson had previously traveled to Le Mans as a member of the aforementioned Ford GT40, finishing third overall in 1966 with Ronnie Bucknum. Herschel McGriff was the most experienced road racer among them.
“I guess that’s one of the reasons they picked our team to go to France,” said McGriff, 78. “I won the Carrera Panamericana in 1950 when I was only 22, won 14 stock car events at Riverside and raced the 24 Hours of Daytona. So they knew I was capable on a road course, because I wasn’t just a circular track guy.
The French Love Les Deux Monstres
The French media dubbed the Torino and the Charger The Two Monsters, the two monsters. But it wasn’t out of fear or disdain; it was a term of affection, shared by the enthusiastic and international crowd. According to a vintage racing report by sports editor Randy Hallman, frontman of Richmond News, cars and teams were overrun. “From the moment they arrived in France, the towering beasts of Detroit caused a sensation, fans flocked to the cars wherever they went. Indeed, they looked as out of place as if they had been teleported from a hovering ship – and drew almost as much attention.
According to Hallman, car owner Donlavey said just before 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 car on a parade through downtown Le Mans, just across the main square. There were so many people that people were pressed against the cars on both sides.
Considering what’s going on in a Le Mans effort these days, Donlavey and McGriff’s preparations have been minimal and straightforward. “This car belonged to my son,” says McGriff. “We thought the Dodge would be a bit more aerodynamic than the Chevelle I drove at Daytona. We had to add taillights, wipers, lots of headlights and radio equipment. We used lower compression engines, but otherwise that was about it. It passed the inspection with no problem, although at the pilots meeting several of the guys who ran smaller, lower prototypes requested that we install side mirrors so we could see them.
“That was the first thing that came out of the meeting. “Put mirrors on big American cars!” Of course, we did. You know, we could go down right now faster than anyone. He would go over 200 in the Mulsanne straight, blowing through those Porsches and everything, but when I got to the 90 degree turn at the end of a race I couldn’t stop it.
And what about the rumor that McGriff brought in around 15 cases of Olympia products labeled as “lubricant”? “I think that’s probably true,” he notes with a sneer. “I didn’t drink a lot myself, but I gave a lot when they were my sponsor.” The McGriffs advanced towards the lower end of the grid, while the Brooks / Hutcherson Torino started from 55th and final.
Race day: it’s a gas
On June 12, 1976, rose bright and warm; the highs would be fine in the 90s. Bill France Sr. was there, of course, and Bill France Jr. waved the starting flags. Sadly, NASCAR at Le Mans has not lived up to its anticipated billing and immense popularity. McGriff’s engine blew on lap two, so the Olympia Dodge was the first car to come out of the race, officially listed as “No Results”. At Le Mans, you have to do a certain number of laps even to be classified as a finisher.
“I was really disappointed with our performance. We made a big mistake, which I guess I have to blame myself for, on the octane of fuel available in France for racing. I thought the fuel was around 90 octane and sure enough we were used to using 101 or 102. I passed that on to my mechanic, and he built three lower compression engines for 90 grade products. But it turned out that the real octane was more like 82 or 83, ”McGriff told us.
“Those big pistons just couldn’t handle it and we burned the first two engines in training. We added head gaskets to make the third engine last, and NASCAR was trying to round off higher octane gas, but couldn’t. We didn’t do a good job of representing the class, and maybe that’s why she didn’t run a second year. If we had run the whole race and finished, maybe it could have worked.
The Donlavey Ford fared a bit better, but finally retired in the 11th hour. Le Mans is hell on transmissions; the four speeds of the NASCAR storer were responsible for about 22 gear changes per revolution. There have been NASCAR competitions where the driver never made 22 gear changes during the entire race. Hutcherson and Brooks were also unranked.
“It was just a great experience,” recalls McGriff. “The most impressive was the sound. All the little Porsches sound like drones and then we were driving around with these big V-8 blocks running on straight pipes and no mufflers. It shook the ground and people loved it.
Culture problems? Just one. “When I go to Mexico, I can always use hand signals and manage without the language. I can’t do that with the French. I don’t care how much you move your arms or your legs, they don’t understand what you want. Even though neither team participated in a victory celebration, McGriff remembers the scene well. “I love the end of this race. People are going crazy. They flood the stands. They drink. They make love on the grass.
Long live France, all of you.
Jacky Ickx and Gijs Van Lennep won the 44th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Porsche 936, covering 2,963.39 miles at an average speed of 123.50 mph. Father and son McGriff are both alive and well, as is Donlavey. Herschel raced in his mid-1970s, finally retiring in 2002. In 1982 he made another trip back to Le Mans with a prototype-class Camaro. His teammate? Driver of Truxmore Ford Brooks. They were luckier this time, finishing the race, but again failing to accumulate enough miles to be classified as a finisher. If they had, they would have placed 19th overall. Dick Hutcherson died on November 6, 2005. Richard Brooks died on February 1, 2006.
And what about NASCAR’s desire to expand its involvement in road racing? The result, 30 years after that momentous effort in the French countryside that could only have happened in the 1970s, is called the Grand American Road Racing series.
An epilogue to epilogue: Charger Rebrewed
Thirty years after the McGriffs’ courageous, if not entirely successful attempt to lead a NASCAR storer in the world’s largest 24-hour endurance race, Franco-American car enthusiast Christophe Schwartz has built a recreation of the Original Olympia Charger with support from France, England, Switzerland and the United States Its co-driver will be Dick Pierson, an original member of the McGriff team. The aim is to get the car rolling in the vintage Le Mans Classic race this summer.
Schwartz’s Big Bad Dodge, which is an accurate – but not identical – replica of the original McGriff, is FIA certified for vintage car events. Herschel McGriff tells us that he thought the engine was a 440 Wedge, but he is convinced it was not a 426 Hemi, as seen in the game. A 426 Wedge, perhaps, like several official documents. indicate 7.0 liters?
Regardless: On the car’s first day of testing at Portland International Raceway in late March, the Charger simply stunned. Christophe specifies: “While being braked and overtaken by the small cars, I had to lift in the straights so as not to push them off the track. The brakes are vintage Hurst / Airheart rotors on all four corners, and they work to slow down the car’s 3,800 pounds. The 700+ horsepower of the 426 Hemi resonates inside the cockpit louder than you might imagine.
The car looks and sounds stunning. Running PIR in its original Olympia livery, the new Charger has captured the attention of all within sight or voice. For those attending the Le Mans Classic this summer, the French countryside will hear the rumble of 7.0 liters of classic NASCAR muscle for the first time in three decades.
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