A Charger Yankee in King Sarthe’s court
Good ol’ boy, fish-out-of-water American pride scenarios don’t get any better than this. In 1976, the hallowed grounds of the world’s greatest endurance race, along with its tremendous history and spirit of competition, its pinnacle of racing technology, and its bonds of human strength, were sullied by a NASCAR Dodge Charger sponsored by a beer company. It did so thundering down the Mulsanne Straight at 215 miles per hour. Can we get a hell, yeah? Hell, yeah.
It went like this. Bill France, he of the NASCAR empire, also owned Daytona Speedway, which played host to its own 24-hour race. With Watkins Glen and Riverside still on the NASCAR circuit, France was no stranger to both endurance racing and road courses. And when Le Mans officials found him in mid-1975, proposing a Grand International class to liven things up, Big Bill’s eyes went wide with opportunities for self-promotion. Traditionalism be damned.
Myriad negotiations brought together NASCAR, IMSA, and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest. The result: NASCAR racers could compete at the 24 Hours of Daytona in the Grand International class, under IMSA’s aegis. Whoever won there would get a ticket to France—quite the fitting U.S. bicentennial celebration for the 44th running of Le Mans.
By June of 1976, two teams received their Golden Tickets. Junie Donlavey, Richard Brooks, and Dick Hutcherson brought a 1975 Ford Torino. (Hutcherson was no stranger to the track: 10 years earlier, he had co-driven the third Ford GT40 that had made the Le Mans photo finish.) Father-son duo Hershel and Doug McGriff brought a 1974 Dodge Charger, powered by a 426 wedge engine and sponsored by Olympia Beer, along with 15 cases of their sponsor’s fine product.
The same year, the Porsche 936 and Renault Alpine A442 debuted. A Corvette Stingray and Chevrolet Monza, both from IMSA and sponsored by Camel, also competed.
But it was the two stock cars that captured hearts and minds. “Les deux monstres,” the French nicknamed them, as they fawned over the two Americans from the paddock to the streets of Le Mans. “They looked as out of place as if they’d been beamed down from some hovering starship,” Richmond News Leader reporter Randy Hallman said at the time, “and got almost as much attention.” Donlavey of the Ford team had his own thoughts during the parade: “It was so crowded, people were pressed against the cars on both sides.”
And there couldn’t have been a better choice to push the hulking Dodge around than the Circuit de la Sarthe than Hershel McGriff, a fixture on the NASCAR championship circuit. At 22 years old, he won the first-ever La Carrera Panamericana road race in an Oldsmobile 88. By the time he set foot in France, he had won 14 races at Riverside, a record for a single driver at the track.
During practice, things started well for the McGriffs. Hershel pushed the Charger to 215 mph, blowing past the Porsches. But when it came to the sharp Mulsanne Corner at the end of the famed straightaway, he couldn’t make it stop. They added lighting, wipers, radio equipment, and side mirrors—the latter at the request of fellow drivers in their prototype classes.
Soon the team found that the pistons were melting inside their wedge engines. The 426 motors were designed to run on 93-octane “pump gas,” under ACO rules, but they soon realized that the French had a different system of octane ratings: 93 in France was, in truth, 88 octane. The engines were pre-igniting. With just a few spare motors, they delayed the timing and hoped for the best.
The Charger qualified 47th out of 55 cars. The Torino qualified 55th. Dead last.
So on a bright and hot June 12, 1976, despite the fanfare and the fun they had, neither car did well at all. After only three laps, the Charger suffered a piston failure. The Torino clung on until 11 hours in, when its rear differential blew. Motor Trend wrote, “Le Mans is hell on transmissions; the NASCAR stocker’s four-speeds were charged with approximately 22 gear changes per lap. There have been NASCAR contests where the driver never made 22 gear changes throughout the entire race.”
The Torino placed 42nd, while the Charger, now, was dead last—officially classified as “No Result.”
A disappointed Hershel blamed himself for the failure. But he certainly enjoyed the experience while it lasted. “The most impressive thing was the sound. All the little Porsches sound like bumblebees, and then we’d roll by with those big-block V-8s running straight pipes and no mufflers. It shook the ground, and people loved it.”
Jacky Ickx and Gijs Van Lennep won in the bumblebee-sounding Porsche 936, averaging nearly 124 miles per hour.
“I love the end of that race,” the senior McGriff recalled. “People go crazy. They flood the grandstands. They drink. They have sex out on the grass.”
In 2003, French writer Christophe Schwartz came across a photo of the McGriffs at Le Mans in their beer-fueled Charger. By then, both cars and their respective performances had been lost to the sands of time. But that didn’t stop Schwartz. He traveled to Olympia, Wash., found the members of the original team. He drank the beer. And he found a 1974 Charger with its own racing provenance. Also equipped with a 426 Hemi, it had been the last Dodge to ever win a USAC Championship, in 1977. Schwartz, along with the McGriff team’s head mechanic, Dick Pierson, performed a faithful restoration.
In 2006, 30 years after a Dodge Charger first raced at Sarth, Schwartz brought his Charger for the Le Mans Classic. Despite various engine and driveline issues, it’s been back to every Classic event since, every two years.
What’s it like to drive? “When you come to the corners, it’s really a handful to drive. Imagine trying to yank a locomotive around a tight corner,” he told Road & Track, while gearing up for the 2014 event. “The amazing thing is that the faster it goes, the better it feels. You can feel that it was designed for the Superspeedway. It really starts to wake up at 120 mph. You almost just let go of the steering wheel, and it’s stable. We’ve been at 185 mph, so 180-plus is really no problem for our car.”
In 1983, Hershel McGriff went back to Le Mans with a Chevrolet Camaro—and this time, his co-driver was none other than his Torino rival, Richard Brooks. McGriff was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006. At the time, he was 78 years old. “This is fantastic, getting in the Hall of Fame, but, hey, I might not be through yet,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “When I turn 80, I just might go out to a short track and show the young guys that I can still do it.”
Here’s to one more “hell, yeah” for McGriff, the Yank with a bone to pick at King Sarthe’s court.