King Wrong - 1975 Ford Gran Torino NASCAR

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In the late 1970’s, motor racing found itself on loose screws. Following its creation at the hands of Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz, the motorcar had seen decades in which it was seen as a sign of progress for the ever more industrializing world.This all changed with the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, a political conflict which sent the daily lives of ordinary motorists into a violent tailspin.

 Long lines at the gas station, America in 1973.

Long lines at the gas station, America in 1973.

With normal motoring already quickly becoming something of a luxury, the relatively frivolous activity of motor racing suffered even more. Across the affected countries entry lists became short and shorter, and crowd attendance dwindled as a result.

Backed into a corner, the world’s motorsport organizers were forced to adapt or die. Over in the US the wildly popular and fantastically extreme Can-Am series failed to survive, leaving many more struggling series in its wake.

 Gulf-Mirage GR8 of Jacky Ickx / Derek Bell on the way to victory, Le Mans 1975.

Gulf-Mirage GR8 of Jacky Ickx / Derek Bell on the way to victory, Le Mans 1975.

One such organization was the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the governing body responsible for the management of the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans, the most famous endurance event on the planet. Despite the formidable stature of the event, the ACO was also faced with a diminishing number of entrants.

The Frenchmen were at the end of their rope, when suddenly someone made the bold suggestion to contact the Americans for help. Realizing their impeccable talent for promotion and showmanship, the ACO reached out to the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. Eventually they got a hold of Bill France Senior, the man responsible for NASCAR’s inception back in 1948.

 NASCAR provided high-octane fun for the whole family, something the ACO desperately needed.

NASCAR provided high-octane fun for the whole family, something the ACO desperately needed.

ACO officials traveled to the United States to meet with Bill France Sr. and his son Jr., who had been the president of NASCAR since 1972. The two parties discussed the possibility of a collaboration entailing the exchange of classes between the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the 24 Hours of Daytona run on the famous France-owned speedway.

The team-up was intended to benefit both events, since they were struggling in the aftermath of the oil crisis. Thankfully the ACO and NASCAR reached an agreement, the first step of which was to send four American entries to the 1976 edition of Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans. The package contained two Chevrolet IMSA GT machines with a Greenwood Corvette and a DeKon Monza. American GT cars were no strange sight at La Sarthe, but the other two entries definitely were.

 The clunky Torino caught the eye of the French public in an instant.

The clunky Torino caught the eye of the French public in an instant.

Immediately following the drama of the devastating oil embargo, NASCAR had seized the moment by convincing the International Motor Sport Association to incorporate big ol’ stock cars in the 1976 edition of the 24 Hours of Daytona.

Under the name Grand International, several teams entered often outdated stockcar chassis to take the fight to dedicated GT-machinery. Since IMSA had taken a similar hit to the ACO in terms of attendance, the organization was more than happy to bring the big brutes in as grid fillers and crowd pleasers. In the end, two of these cars would make the trip across the Atlantic, their expenses fully paid by the ACO.

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One of these cars was the McGriff Dodge Charger, while the other came from veteran NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey. The car in question had started life as a 1975 Ford Gran Torino, very similar to the model made famous by maverick TV-cops Starksy & Hutch.

Like all NASCAR’s, the Gran Torino was built up from a stock body supported by a sturdy tube frame chassis. As the car was built for the high-speed savagery of large ovals, its brakes were normally antiquated drums. For Le Mans though, Donlavey’s crew took the liberty of mounting space-age disc brakes.

These sci-fi stoppers would have their work cut out for them, as the booming behemoth weighed a hefty 1678 kg (3700 lbs), meaning it would take a lot of force to stop in time. Motivation was provided by a 570 horsepower 5.8L V8, which fed a reinforced Borg Warner Super T10 4-speed manual transmission powering the rear wheels. The immense engine gave the Ford substantially more power than even the front-running Porsche 936 prototype.

Suspension was suitably medieval, as the rear axle had to make do with gigantic leaf springs, while the front enjoyed the services of double wishbones on stock frame rails. The immense power coming from the beefy engine was more than enough to pull the iron giant to a steady 195 mph (313 kph) on the endless Mulsanne straight.

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Together with its Dodge brother in arms, the Gran Torino received an uncharacteristically enthusiastic response from the French press. Affectionately dubbed Les Deux Monstres (The Two Monsters), the enormous cars became a major hit with the international crowd present at the legendary race.

From the moment they arrived in France, the hulking Detroit beasts created a stir, fans flocked around the cars wherever they went. Indeed, they looked as out of place as if they’d been beamed down from some hovering starship-and got almost as much attention.
— Randy Hallman, Richmond News Leader.

Eager to cash in on the media buzz, the ACO toured the two cars right through the heart of the small town of Le Mans. As very few people in the area had actually been to America, the gargantuan stockcars were like alien spacecraft to the locals, making the crowds grow to almost dangerous levels.

 The Gran Torino struggled to cope with the challenges of an unfamiliar circuit.

The Gran Torino struggled to cope with the challenges of an unfamiliar circuit.

Everywhere we go, and I mean everywhere, there’s a big crowd following us. They took our car and Herschel’s (McGriff) on a parade through downtown Le Mans-right through the main square. It was so crowded, people were pressed against the cars on both sides.
— John Dunlavey.

The car’s undeniable star power raised expectations, but the team swiftly found out the Torino didn’t exactly take kindly to the French countryside. As expected, the car was right at home on the 6 kilometer (3.7 mile) long Mulsanne straight, but found itself agitated on any section of track even slightly twistier than that.

This presented a rather large problem. Whereas the Dodge had the luxury of seven liters of V8 Wedge hurtling it over 200 mph (320 kph) to compensate for its horrible handling, the Gran Torino was forced to rely on a much smaller engine. Just as the car had made its debut, NASCAR imposed a 358 cubic inch (5.8L) displacement limit, which left the Donlavey Ford at a considerable disadvantage compared to its compatriot.

Owing to its major inherent flaws, the Gran Torino failed to make a big impression in qualifying. Even though it was backed by 1973 Talladega 500 winner Dick Brooks (USA), 1966 3rd place Le Mans finisher D!ck Hutcherson (USA) and Le Mans circuit guide Marcel Mignot (FRA), the car couldn’t get higher than 55th on the 57 car grid. The big bore McGriff Charger fared much better by comparison, setting a time good enough for 47th.

At the first drivers briefing, the front-running prototype drivers became very vocal with the ACO, demanding the Americans modify their cars. What they wanted most of all, was for their guests to take the time to fit some rear view mirrors. Thanks to the colossal size difference, the Alpine’s, Porsche’s and Rondeau’s were too low to be seen from either NASCAR. Back home the big bruisers never ran mirrors, but the issue was quickly rectified after some tinkering in the pits.

 The Gran Torino heading up to the iconic Dunlop Bridge, Le Mans 1976.

The Gran Torino heading up to the iconic Dunlop Bridge, Le Mans 1976.

On race day though, the Torino’s biggest rival suffered an early defeat. Herschel McGriff had failed to take into account the truly appalling condition of what to French referred to as fuel. NASCAR officials had already been given a heads-up before the race, as the 102 octane fuel used by the Americans vastly outperformed the local brew.

Taking his information through the official channels, McGriff had counted on 90 octane fuel, for which he had built two bespoke engines. Sadly, the reality was closer to 82 or 83 octane, fuel so light it probably had small fishes swimming in it. Two engines exploded in practice, and the third gave up two laps into the race even with an assortment of head gaskets fitted to further lower compression.

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The less powerful small-block Ford seemed to be better equipped to deal with the French flower water. In fact the car went on for an impressive amount of laps without burning out one of its pistons. Despite the car lacking any sort of pace, it was going rather well. It even got to the point where the team had to begin preparations for the long night to come.

However, the strain of running a full day on a road course was starting to get to the mighty leaf-springed monster. The drivers reported a staggering 22 gear shifts per lap, which was wreaking havoc on the four-speed transmission. In a normal NASCAR race, a driver would rarely shift 22 times at all, let alone in one lap.

 The Donlavey crew taking a look at the overheating differential, Le Mans 1976.

The Donlavey crew taking a look at the overheating differential, Le Mans 1976.

Further exacerbating their troubles, the differential was starting to severely overheat. Both issues eventually added up to each other, making a race finish seem like a very distant proposition. After just eleven hours, the team had to throw in the towel.

The transmission had been battered into a pulp, and the rear differential was near its melting point. Tragically, the Gran Torino hadn’t even made it to half distance. Because of this, it was registered as a non-finisher, with just 104 laps completed. By contrast, the winning Porsche 936 of Jacky Ickx (BEL) and Gijs van Lennep (NED) completed 349.

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Sadly, NASCAR’s French excursion had been cut uncomfortably short. The ACO had hope for a large publicity boost, and initially got what it wanted. Unfortunately, that initial interest quickly waned following a major mistake by the race’s organizers.

Severely low grade fuel put an end to the Dodge Charger in no time at all, leaving the huge crowd dejected. The plucky Ford Gran Torino kept them entertained for most of the day, but it too had to give up as darkness set in. The NASCAR-gearbox simply wasn’t up to the task of running 24 hours through the French countryside.

The Ford Gran Torino NASCAR was the result of desperate measures taken in desperate times. Because of the 1973 oil embargo, the world of motorsport started to slide off a cliff. The ACO hoped to keep itself afloat by calling in the American cavalry, but their mission largely failed.

Miscommunication about fuel and the incredibly harsh nature of the race took their toll on the American teams, relegating them to being nothing more than a novelty item. If the cars had completed the race or even run enough laps to be classified, Grand International racing might have had a short-term future at Le Mans. Instead, it laid the base for something which would become a stereotype, several years later: the unreliability of American-built cars. NASCAR would never race at La Sarthe again.