In 1976, America celebrated its bicentennial to mark 200 years as an independent country — and to do it, we sent a Dodge Charger and a Ford Torino to Le Mans to represent the finest form of motorsport this country has to offer: NASCAR.
With the recent announcement that NASCAR is taking its Next-Gen Cup Series car to the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans, it’s time to take a look back in history to the last time NASCAR hit the international stage at the Circuit de la Sarthe.
In 1975, the organizers of the iconic Le Mans race, the ACO, decided that the race could use a little extra oomph — which led them to America, knocking on the metaphorical door of Bill France Sr., who owned both NASCAR and the Daytona International Speedway, to pitch him an unheard-of offer: a so-called “exchange of classes” between Le Mans and the 24 Hours of Daytona.
Thus, the Grand International class was born, and its test race would be a big one: The 1976 24 Hours of Le Mans.
NASCAR selected two teams to represent its muscular prowess on the international stage. On the first team, driver-owner Herschel McGriff would pilot an Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger. On the second, owner Junie Donlavey would have Richard Brooks, Dick Hutcherson, and Marcel Mignot drive a Ford Torino. In a gesture of goodwill, Le Mans organizers paid their way to the track, and French media nicknamed the two teams Les Deux Monstres thanks to their massive engines and equally massive weights.
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There were plenty of reasons why NASCAR selected those specific teams and drivers to represent its talent as opposed to, say, Richard Petty or Benny Parsons. For one, Le Mans clashed with a NASCAR race at Riverside in California, so the big teams and drivers were interested in sticking with their American racing to earn Winston Cup championship points.
But the drivers that headed to Le Mans were nothing to scoff at. Hutcherson had raced at Le Mans as part of Ford’s GT40 effort, and McGriff had contested come of the most iconic road races of all time, including the 24 Hours of Daytona and the Carrera Panamericana. Mignot, as his name might suggest, was actually a Frenchman — and a driving instructor at Le Mans to boot.
That said, regulations didn’t allow the two NASCAR machines to easily slot into one of the ready-made Le Mans classes, so it got its very own class, the imaginatively named NASCAR Stock Car class. It was one of two classes tacked onto the championship, with the other being the IMSA class, in which four cars entered. As you might imagine, the ACO was eager to get some more American involvement in its classic race.
That said, it wasn’t exactly a stunning debut for NASCAR.
As the checkered flag flew, the Martini Racing Porsche System team of Jacky Ickx and Gijs van Lennep took the overall victory, having run 349 laps of the iconic track. Neither one of the NASCAR teams finished the race. The Charger team dropped out due to an oil leak in the second hour of the race, having completed only two laps. The Torino team lasted until the 11th hour before it, too, bit the dust due to transmission failure. It had lasted a commendable 104 laps.
The IMSA teams fared quite a bit better; the American prototypes weren’t subjected to the same homologation standards as the Le Mans racers, which meant they had totally different — and in some cases superior — standards of performance. Still, only one IMSA GT car finished the 1976 race.
As a result, though, IMSA and the ACO machines grew in tandem for the next five years, with both organizations sharing from the same regulations. The two organizations eventually parted ways in the 1980s due to political changes passed down from Jean-Marie Balestre, who at the time controlled the organization that governed racing in France. Where IMSA had adopted a set of regulations that would become known as the GTP class, Balestre wanted the ACO to instead opt for Group C regulations. The cars, though largely similar, had some massive differences in the location of the driver’s feet, fuel consumption, and production versus prototype engines.
Of course, the NASCAR-ACO exchange could never be a one-to-one. ACO-homologated cars competed at American endurance races like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but you couldn’t easily put a prototype in a field of stock cars and expect it to cope with an oval race.
If some of those acronyms are sounding familiar to you, then that’s because both IMSA and the ACO have seemingly started believing it’s 1976 again. IMSA has revived the GTP name to represent the class of prototype cars it hopes will be able to compete against the World Endurance Championship’s Le Mans-going Hypercars, whose regulations were designed with cross-series participation in mind. And, of course, there’s that whole “NASCAR is going back to Le Mans” thing.
In yet another element of deja vu, NASCAR will once again be celebrating a milestone when it heads to Le Mans. The 2023 race will mark 100 years since the race’s first running in 1923.
We know little about the NASCAR machines that will turn up at the Circuit de la Sarthe in 2023, though the Next-Gen format has allowed this bit of history to repeat itself. This time, too, the stock cars will also be tucked off into their own class — called Garage 56, which is essentially an exhibition-style class used to debut technology. But hopefully this time, the stock cars will make it to the end of the event.