A century after its inaugural running, the 100th edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours promises to be a vintage occasion.
It will see the return of Porsche, Peugeot, Cadillac, and Ferrari to the Hypercar category, whilst LMP2 and GTE will be enjoying their swansongs before being phased out at the end of the year.
In the experimental Garage 56, NASCAR will have a presence at Le Mans for the first time since 1976 with a single Chevrolet Camaro prepared by Hendrick Motorsport.
Hendrick’ modified next-gen Camaro has been extensively tested over the winter by Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller and has been built in collaboration with Hendrick and IMSA.
NASCAR’ return to the biggest sportscar race in the world is a homage to Bill France Sr, who brought the series to Le Mans when the race was going through a transitional phase.
So how did NASCAR’ first visit to La Sarthe go?
The winds of change see NASCAR come to the rescue
The early 1970s were a weird time for sportscar racing; the glorious Porsche 917’ and Ferrari 512’ had lit up the decade before being phased out for the less powerful open-top Group 5 sportscars.
Matra took up the baton in 1972, winning Le Mans with Graham Hill and Henri Pescarolo before making it back-to-back wins the following year.
But in 1973, the fuel crisis following the start of the Yom Kipper war severely affected the future of sportscar racing, with the 1974 Daytona 24 Hours being cancelled.
Matra would make it a hat trick of Le Mans wins that same year before departing sportscar racing at the end of the year, leaving Mirage and Ligier to fight it out for overall victory in 1975.
Even with limited factory interest, over 90 cars applied to enter the great race for 1976, and it was confirmed that two small NASCAR teams would make the trip to France.
Herschel McGriff, a four-time NASCAR race winner, would enter a Dodge Charger for himself and his son Doug whilst Junie Donleavvy entered a Ford Torino for Dick Brooks, Dick Hutcherson and Frenchman Marcel Mignot.
To add to NASCAR presence at the event Bill France Sr the president of NASCAR and the Daytona International Speedway, would drop the French tricolour to start the race at 16:00 local time on Saturday.
Kids in America take another step to France
The first challenge that McGriff and Donleavy’ teams faced was just simply qualifying for the event, with only 55 of the 58 cars entered guaranteed to start the race.
To add to their problems, their cars were the heaviest on the grid, weighing in at an astronomical 1696kg, meaning that they would be up against it in qualifying.
Luckily for France and co, both cars made it onto the grid, with McGriff’ Charger qualifying 47th ahead of Peter Brock’ BMW 3.5 CSL, whilst Donleavy’ Ford just made into the race starting 54th.
Whether both cars would see the checkered flag on Sunday afternoon remained a difficult question to answer as McGriff’ Dodge blew several pistons in practice forcing the team to change the formula of the fuel.
The great challenge begins
The talking stopped when France dropped the tricolour at 16:00, with McGriff’ Dodge immediately running into trouble after blowing yet another piston down the Mulsanne, forcing him to receive a push start.
Mercifully McGriff Snr made it back to the pits, but it was all for nought as the car remained in the pits retiring after two laps following a terminal oil leak.
Not long after the McGriff’ had conceded defeat, Donleavy’ Ford ran into trouble, losing 10 minutes with a jammed starter motor following its first fuel stop.
When the starter motor was fixed, Donleavy’ Ford roared back onto the track, and by the third hour of the race, the Torino was running in 36th and going well as nightime arrived at Le Mans.
By the 11th hour, Brooks/Hutcherson/Mignot was running 34th and looking good for a finish, only for the gearbox to call it quits an hour later, ending theirs and NASCAR’ involvement in the race.
No NASCAR team would head to Le Mans for 1977, and it would be only in 2023 that the series would return to La Sarthe, hoping to make the finish, unlike the pioneering McGriff and Donleavy.