NASCAR comes to Le Mans
June 1976: The United States of America is about to celebrate its bicentennial. And what better way to mark such an auspicious event than conquering a certain French motor racing circuit with some all-American iron?
Three years before, the oil crisis affected the pockets of Joe Public and racing teams alike. Budgets were slashed, ideas sidelined but racing continued if perhaps not as freely as before. The Automobile Club de L’Ouest (ACO), fastidious organisers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans were struggling to fill the fifty-five-place grid for the ‘76 event. They turned to Big Bill France, owner of Daytona International Speedway, home to the Stateside version of the twice round the clock endurance. In a spirit of International Exchange, the ACO would allow NASCAR entries from across the pond under the ‘Grand International’ class.
The Grand National series cars could maintain their hallmarks; namely, a stock body with tubular frame and protective rollcage, body panels in steel, stock suspension components and of course a dirty great big block V8 up front. The only provisos being functional head and taillights, wipers, tow hooks and side view mirrors on both sides. Those low down and darty prototypes might just attempt an overtake on either side. Bill France chose two NASCAR teams – a Winston Cup Ford Torino under the established Junie Dunlavey team alongside a more prosaic entry from one Hershel McGriff. Together, they earned the French nickname, Les Monstres!
McGriff was a privateer but a veteran racer from the late 1940s. Buying an Oldsmobile 88 for under $2,000 he entered and won the inaugural Carrera Panamerica in 1950 propelling him into NASCAR stardom. However, Hershel ran a lumber mill back home in Oregon. Together with a growing family led McGriff to park his racing ideas for over a decade before the racing bug bit back.
Keeping things familial (father and son), once finished at the mill of a Friday evening, Doug would head out to compete in the regional Winston West Cup, the weekend mechanics being lumber mill workers. Their weapon of choice, a Chevrolet Chevelle sporting Olympia Beer sponsorship. The set-up proved successful with victorious campaigns reaping rewards. The Chevelle was replaced by a 1972 Dodge Charger that had been built and prepared by Ray Nichels, linked to future NASCAR royalty Richard Petty.
In the McGriff hands, the Charger won the Oregon State Championship from ‘73-75 whereupon they sold the car, only to hastily retrieve it when the invitation to head to Le Mans came from France. In those far off, innocent days, it was widely considered the Charger’s shape was better aerodynamically for high-speed laps over any other current NASCAR fare.
Fettling the car as per the ACO’s strictures, spares, including engines were crated up in preparation for the trip across the Atlantic. Petty and Nichels had discovered a power advantage by fitting Wedge heads onto (what became known as choaked) Hemi heads. Two spare mills came over – one stock Hemi head, one Wedge topped.
As a means of instilling some interest-class rivalry, teams McGriff and Donlavey were backed up by four IMSA representatives comprising a Chevrolet Monza and Corvette with a brace of 911s – one RS, one RSR. Also consider the Le Mans big guns consisted of a Porsche 936 driven by a victorious Jacky Ickx with Patrick Tambay in an Alpine (DNF). Henri Pescarolo and John-Pierre Beltoise in the Inaltera (18th) with Ford also providing power to both Mirage, piloted by Derek Bell (5th) and a Lola with fellow Englishman Alain de Cadenet, who finished a highly creditable third. Other notable entrants being a Lancia Stratos (20th), five BMW 3.0 CSL’s, the usual flotilla of Porsche 911s and a lone de Tomaso Pantera – sadly, a non-starter – engine fault.
With engine maladies we remain. A standard NASCAR engine was tuned to run on octane over 100. McGriff’s knew the French race ran on standard pump fuel thus the engines (both heads) had visited Seattle-based Precision Engines for a 93-octane tune. The Wedge Hemi had an 11:1 compression ratio – good for 630bhp and 215mph along the Mulsanne straight. The standard Hemi ran at 13:1 with broadly similar outputs.
The problem lay within a measuring anomaly. European and American octane ratings differ; the European style 93 significantly lower than the equivalent Stateside 82, which led to almost instantaneous trouble. During qualifying, such lean running led to burnt pistons after only a single lap – the time of 4:30 meaning a lowly grid start. Short on time in as much engineering tooling, the only workable solutions were to retard the timing, enrich the mixture and even fit a second head gasket to try and reduce compression.
The Americans, though competitive were in holiday mood. Whilst miffed at the problems, the McGriff team thought nothing of filling the Charger with teammates and heading off into town, stretching the car’s legs along the Mulsanne. Fabled tales of a trip to the Tertre Rouge corner café linger long in local minds