Helpless Hulk - 1972 Dodge "Olympia" Charger NASCAR

In 1975 the Automobile Club d’Ouest (ACO), governing body of the world famous 24 Hours of Le Mans, was looking for a change of scenery. The global racing scene was still busy recovering from the blow dealt by the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, which had lead to a decline in public and manufacturer interest in motorsport in general. As a result the entry list for the 1976 event had hardly been filled. What the ACO needed to promote its image was a true showstopper. Something that would make the general public gasp for air and revitalize the need for speed.

To this end the organization sent representatives to the office of one Bill France Sr. “Big” Bill was the man solely responsible for the establishment of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR. Since its humble beginnings on the beaches of Daytona and small dirt track ovals in 1948, the series had grown into one of the most popular of the country. Bill France Sr. had amassed a vast empire in the process, and left the reigns to his son Bill France Jr in 1972. The ACO-representatives explained a proposition to both Bill’s to “exchange classes” between the European Le Mans event and the American 24 Hours of Daytona, an event France also sanctioned due to his ownership of the famous speedway.

Herschel and Doug McGriff presenting their Charger.

Herschel and Doug McGriff presenting their Charger.

The negotiations lead to two Chevrolet IMSA-class cars making the trip across the pond, a Greenwood Corvette and a DeKon Monza. Another change was the introduction of an entirely new category called Grand International. The new category was created to accommodate two top of the line Grand National NASCAR road racers.

One of these specially selected entries was the team owned by driver Herschel McGriff. McGriff was an experienced road racer, having won the grueling Carrera Panamericana road rally in 1950, scoring 14 stock car wins over the course of his career at Riverside Raceway and finished 3rd in the 24 Hours of Daytona. Together with his son Doug, he was now taking on the most prestigious endurance event of the world. Initially he planned to run the Chevrolet Nova with which he scored his podium at Daytona, but the car was destroyed in a crash a few weeks after. This meant a replacement had to be found in a hurry.

The Charger being prepared for its ordeal alongside its compatriot, a 1975 Ford Torino.

The Charger being prepared for its ordeal alongside its compatriot, a 1975 Ford Torino.

Doug McGriff had used a 1972 model year Dodge Charger in NASCAR Grand National competition from 1973-1975. The car was the final guise of the B-body Charger, and was nearing the end of its competition life. Nonetheless it still possessed a 426 cubic inch (7.0L) Max Wedge dry-sump V8 that produced around 550 horsepower. The furious grunt was however hampered by the beast’s sheer size.

The Charger weighed a massive 1660 kg (3659 lbs), which made it the heaviest car in in the Le Mans field by a wide margin. Another factor slowing down the car’s progress in the competitive European competition was its plainly prehistoric engineering. The V8 behemoth fired its power to the humongous rear tires through an outdated Chrysler 833 4-speed manual transmission, which was connected to an archaic live rear axle suspended on leaf springs which employed drum brakes. It was apparent that the big lump of Detroit iron had all the sense and sophistication of a landslide.

Everywhere it went the Charger attracted a massive crowd.

Everywhere it went the Charger attracted a massive crowd.

But what the Charger lacked in technological wizardry, it more than made up for with rugged charm. The French motoring press affectionately referred to it and its compatriot, the Ford Torino of Richard Brooks/Dick Hutcherson, as Les Deux Monstres. Both cars were so unusual and brash looking to the French public that the teams gathered a gigantic, almost religious following everywhere they went. To many a fan this was the first time they’d ever seen a NASCAR in the flesh and they seemed to want to explore every inch of it. The ACO’s attention grabbing scheme appeared to be working out perfectly.

The burly brute making its way to the grid, Le Mans 1976.

The burly brute making its way to the grid, Le Mans 1976.

In preparation for the event the Charger received radio equipment, taillights, a bank of headlights and little else. It was only at the insistence of the prototype teams at the drivers briefing that the Charger was fitted with rear view mirrors. The danger of the colossal machine accidentally running over one of the smaller and lower prototypes was treated as a legitimate concern by the other drivers.

After all the attention and handshakes it was finally time for the team to get to business. Herschel McGriff strapped in for his first ever laps of the mesmerizing Circuit de la Sarthe. Predictably the cumbersome muscle car was hesitant to corner due to its massive weight and medieval oxcart suspension, but as soon as the road straightened out McGriff had little to complain.

When all was said and done he reported a top speed of some 200 miles per hour (321 kph) down the seemingly endless Mulsanne Straight. Unfortunately for McGriff the straight did end eventually, and revealed a tight, almost 90-degree right-hander of the same name. This meant it was time for some hard braking, but the Charger scoffed at the suggestion of such a ludicrous idea. Herschel McGriff struggled to get the rumbling titan to shed speed, but ultimately succeeded. After a very interesting qualifying session, he managed to put the car on the 47th spot on the grid.

"Stopping" was definitely not one of the Charger's favorite pastimes.

"Stopping" was definitely not one of the Charger's favorite pastimes.

The session had however revealed a fatal flaw in the ACO’s plan to use NASCAR for publicity. NASCAR engines were used to running on what was for the time very high octane fuel, with a rating of at least 102. The pumps at Le Mans were not in the possession of such exotic liquids, which prompted McGriff to instruct his mechanic to build three low compression engines.

The lowered compression would prevent the pistons from getting too hot because of the reduced cooling effect of the lower grade fuel. In theory this was a sound plan, apart from one thing: McGriff had estimated the rating of the available fuel at around 90 octane. In reality the French devil juice was closer to a scarcely believable 80 octane. As a result two of the three engines had already melted their pistons in the practice session.

Qualifying, Le Mans 1976.

Qualifying, Le Mans 1976.

McGriff quickly instigated a desperate search for higher octane fuel, but it was nowhere to be found. As a last resort the third and final V8 was hastily modified by fitting extra head gaskets. This increased the gap between the cylinder heads and the pistons, which McGriff hoped would sufficiently reduce compression. His battle against the French sewage water proved to be in vain however. The lumbering Max Wedge choked on its dose of watery white wine on only its second lap. The whole adventure that had started out so positively, sadly ended in a spectacular disaster.

The Olympia Dodge Charger was part of a desperate experiment by the ACO to combat the difficult times of the mid-1970’s. Sadly the experienced and capable organization made a catastrophic blunder by failing to communicate. A simple set of questions about the American’s needs might have prevented the embarrassing display of woeful reliability that followed.

As a result of the Charger’s failure, the Grand International category was formally dissolved at the end of the season. The 1976 24 Hours Le Mans therefore remains the one and only edition that experienced the thundering roar of NASCAR.

Nowadays a close replica of the original can still be seen at selected historic racing events. Now running on adequate fuel, the mad machine never fails to entertain a crowd.

Racing StoryDylan SmitComment