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Charger 1976

When NASCAR Challenged at Le Mans

Having American cars race at world stage endurance races isn’t novel or unique.  Before the all-conquering Ford GTs, American cars at Le Mans included Cadillacs, a mixture of Corvettes and Mustangs, the odd Camaro, and Panoz.

2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the unfortunate loss of ‘The Intimidator,’ Dale Earnhardt, Sr., who himself was a competent road racer.

We take a moment to recall that back in 1976, a pair of unlikely Yankee racers (the cars and the people) ventured into a run at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with 3800 lb NASCAR stockers.
1976 Olympia Charger Nascar which competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1976. Source: HistoricRacingHD

Among them were Washington States father and son team Herschel and Doug McGriff.

Doug McGriff had proven his success as an endurance road racer by obtaining victory in the 1950 Carrera Panamericana Mexican road race and many road races at Riverside International Raceway. 

The now 93-year-old McGriff was principally a Chevy pilot in the NASCAR ranks in the 1970s, but considered the Dodge Charger’s conceivably slipperier profile would be greater suited to Le Mans’ many high-speed areas. 

In a Charger that son Doug already owned, they built it up, using a big-block Chrysler V-8 (either a 440 or a 426 “Wedge,” exactly which is uncertain) mated with the usual 4-speed manual transmission. 

They attached exterior rearview mirrors at the scrutineers and other competitors’ request in addition to all kinds of head- and taillights for racing through the night.  Sponsored by Olympia Brewing Company and painted white and gold, the McGriffs were destined for Le Mans. 

The other NASCAR competitor was an equally enormous Ford Torino. The Torino was entered by perennial independent Juney Donlavey and shared by drivers Dick Hutcherson and Richard Brooks. The Le Mans race organizers paid the expenses for the NASCAR transportation and the teams.

NASCAR Ford Torino at Le Mans

Despite being in unknown territory, both vehicles were well-adapted, and given the inclusion of the lighting, mirrors, and windscreen wipers, passed scrutineering straightforwardly. 

The French media affectionately named the Ford Torino and the Charger ‘Les Deux Monstres‘ – the Two Monsters. 

The cars and teams were popular amongst the locals. Both owner/driver Donlavey and McGriff often remarking how the cars were continuously inundated by fans, who embraced and applauded their thundering V-8s.

Sadly, the promise proved more powerful than the outcome.  McGriff noted that it was intriguing to compare the cars – the big Yanks would “blow past all the Porsches and other GT production class machines on the straights, and then the smaller cars would come buzzing by us in the corners.” 

McGriff Dodge was, unfortunately, the race’s initial failure in the contest’s first hour after two laps. The team had produced lower compression engines calibrated to 90 octane fuel. However, the gas used was more like 82/83 Octane, and the car developed an oil leak from a blown engine. 

The Donlavey Ford fared somewhat better, unsurprising being one of the fastest cars on the Mulsanne Straight. It did, however, finally gave up in the 11th hour after 104 laps with transmission failure. 

1976 would end up being the single and only year of the NASCAR/Le Mans attempt.            

It’s sad that Earnhardt, Sr., never raced at Le Mans, although he exhibited his road course and endurance racing courage at the 24 Hours of Daytona in a factory Corvette, the car that would dominate the GT ranks at Le Mans for many years.

We can only imagine what could have been if The Intimidator lived past February 2001 and maintained long-haul racing with the Corvette team; the results could have been historic.