When a pair of Camaros took on Porsche at the 1982 Le Mans
In 1982, it was the 50th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the year Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell won together for the second year in a row; it was the debut of the incredible Porsche 956, which not only took home a 1-2-3 finish but would go on to win at Le Mans every year until 1985. Feel that tradition in the air! That proud European sports car tradition, intermingled with legends at the Circuit de la Sarthe. And it was the same year that a pair of badass Camaros crashed the party with a field of NASCAR ringers.
It’s important to remember that, sometime before the GT40’s last victory and the resurrection of Corvette dominance, a big honkin’ V-8 tank ripped straight from Daytona would occasionally line up at the grid of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The Europeans loved it. The 1976 running saw a NASCAR Ford Gran Torino, a Dodge Charger sponsored by Olympia Beer (“The Two Monsters,” the French called them), and a 600-horsepower Chevrolet Monza built by Dekon Engineering all squaring off at Sarthe. Before the ‘70s ended, a pair of AMC Spirits tackled the 24 Hours of Nürburgring. In 1982, at the beautiful golden beginning of the Porsche 956’s dominance, a shovel-nosed, box-flared 1982 Camaro would finish second in its GTO class—with NASCAR driver Billy Hagan of Lillie, Louisiana, and IMSA Camel GT champion Gene Felton of Atlanta, Georgia, driving number 81.
The story begins a year earlier. Hagan owned an oil field services company called Stratagraph, and therefore had both the money and the talent to give this sort of thing a shot. In 1981 he enticed the legendary Cale Yarborough to join him in France with a stripped-down, 600-horsepower second-generation Camaro. “This is one of the best-built cars, and better prepared for the race,” he bragged. After 13 laps, a brake failure forced Yarborough into the wall. He narrowly dodged some spectators, who later helped him push the car out from under a guardrail. “Next year I’m comin’ back here with two cars and I’ll blow their damn doors off,” Hagan told Sports Illustrated.
1982 came, and Hagan made good on his promise. In addition to Yarborough’s aforementioned second-gen, he secured a new-for-1982 third-generation Camaro, and immediately sent the new car to Tex Powell of his eponymously-named Tex Racing Enterprises in North Carolina. It received a 358-cubic-inch Chevrolet V-8 producing 580 horsepower and a T-10 four-speed manual transmission that attempted to send all that power to a Ford nine-inch rear end and massive rear tires.
Race car builder Dennis Frings supplied the chassis. It weighed hardly a tick over 2000 pounds. Shovel-nosed and box-flared, the #81 car was ugly in the brutal way your average ‘80s race car was—stripped down inside and out, with thumbnail rear spoilers and SEV Marchal lights. A red, white, and blue stripe package fit perfectly. A golden USA decal left no question to its provenance.
For the recycled second-gen #80 car, Hagan enlisted NASCAR drivers Richard Brooks and Hershel McGriff—two drivers who had once faced each other in 1976, with Brooks in the Torino and McGriff in the Charger. And in the #81 car it was Hagan and Felton, who had won the IMSA American Challenge Series championship four years in a row. Powell served as chief of a very small crew. Their tools amounted to what Felton labeled a fisherman’s tackle box.
“We qualified very well,” Felton reminisced in 2014. (Hagan passed away in 2007, at the age of 75.) “So well that they invited us to the office for a little talk. They just about tore the car down. They found nothing wrong with it. They couldn’t understand why we were so fast… I just knew we could run right up with the best of them.”
There was one Achilles heel: the Borg-Warner four-speed. After just two hours, #80 was in the pits, and Powell’s crew sought to swap out the transmission. It would take hours.
So it was down to Hagan and Felton in the #81 car. They started 33rd, but they just kept on gaining, and gaining, and gaining. Eventually it was down to them and Porsche’s 924 Carrera GT, fighting for the GTO class. It was a hard and bitter battle that scarred them both. The Porsche lost fifth gear, laming it for the Mulsanne Straight. The Camaro’s alternator went out, and with it the Marchal lights it had powered. “I remember going through a forest, and all you could see was the outline of the trees,” said Felton, “There was no way you could have enough lights.”
In the end, the Porsche took the GTO class—just as it took the whole race. Hagan and Felton’s Camaro finished just four laps behind it, a second-place finish for the class and 17th overall. The other Camaro? After a seven-hour transmission swap, it finished—218 laps behind the winning 956. Not ideal, but it finished with its dignity.
The #81 Camaro went back to America and immediately kicked butt—winning its class at the Miami Grand Prix, at the 24 Hours of Daytona, and the the 12 Hours of Sebring. In 1984, it retired to upstate New York. Powell kept in touch with the owners. In 2013, the car underwent a full restoration, and reemerged shining, triumphant, and brutally quick as it ever was.