Combo Breaker - 1982 Stratagraph Chevrolet Camaro IMSA GTO

Shortly after the horrors of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, the global racing scene was in dire circumstances. Throughout the Western world the recession that followed shifted the public’s focus towards saving as much money as was humanly possible. This meant the average customer was no longer looking for the biggest, fastest, most powerful and most stylish vehicle he could afford. Instead the talk of the day was fuel efficiency and low cost motoring.

Naturally this caused a big shock for manufacturers that relied heavily on these formerly attractive attributes. As the public coldly turned its back on performance and the world’s economies crumbled, fewer and fewer people were willing and able to attend races. This resulted in numerous factory motorsport programs intended to promote the brand being cancelled, leaving grids empty as well. The dramatic series of events lead to the Automobile Club d’Oest, organizers of the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans, to take a new direction. In an effort to regain the interest of the public they invited four American entries to fill out and spice up the grid for the 1976 race. The foursome included two IMSA GT machines and to everyone’s surprise, two brutish NASCAR's.

The 1972 "Olympia" Dodge Charger NASCAR was one of four US-machines invited in 1976.

The 1972 "Olympia" Dodge Charger NASCAR was one of four US-machines invited in 1976.

Inviting the thunderous American machines over proved to be a masterstroke for the ACO, despite the NASCAR’s experiencing embarrassing engine blowups due to dismally poor quality French fuel. The arrival of Les Deux Monstres had been a resounding success in terms of publicity, and attendance figures surged.

After this spontaneous marketing gimmick, the IMSA GTO/GTX class gained something of a foothold at Le Mans. In 1979 another oil crisis struck the world due to the Iranian Revolution, and the world of racing was recovering once more. Because of this grids were still lacking entrants, and IMSA kept it’s relevance, even reaching highs of as much as fifteen cars. However, the class usually served to enter American versions of familiar European sportscars like the Porsche 911, Ferrari 512BBi and BMW M1. Very rarely a piece of full burger Detroit iron dared to make the trip across the big pond.

The doomed 1979 Stratagraph Camaro at Le Mans, 1981.

The doomed 1979 Stratagraph Camaro at Le Mans, 1981.

For 1982 this the status quo would be shaken up substantially. Back in Louisiana, an oil services company and race team called Stratagraph Incorporated was preparing a set of pony-car sized bombs to be dropped on the French countryside. The company was headed by NASCAR team owner/driver Billy Hagan. Besides racing titanic stock cars, Hagan also enjoyed his fair share of road course action.

To this end he had commissioned an IMSA GTO-machine based on a 1979 Chevrolet Camaro from veteran builder Carl Frings. Not content on only roaming the domestic tracks, he decided to enter the car into the 1981 24 Hours of Le Mans. Hagan was supported by IMSA racer Bill Cooper (USA) and NASCAR legend Cale Yarborough (USA). Sadly their adventure only lasted 13 laps, as the car’s brakes failed with Yarborough at the wheel.

Next year I’m comin’ back here with two cars and I’ll blow their damn doors off!
— Billy Hagan
The brand new third generation Camaro was set to make its debut at Le Mans.

The brand new third generation Camaro was set to make its debut at Le Mans.

Bill Hagan wasn’t a quitter however, and he pressed on to enter two cars for 1982. The ‘79 Camaro was rebuilt and reused with a new radical aerodynamics package. Joining it was the latest installment of Chevrolet’s most successful coupe, a brand spanking new 1982 third generation Camaro.

Contrary to its wild bewinged predecessor, the new car presented a much more subdued stock appearance. It was instantly recognizable as a new Camaro, with its biggest modifications being a front air-dam and a rather tasteful duck-tail spoiler. In truth the once again Carl Frings-built pony had little in common with the standard car, featuring a bespoke tube frame chassis in the vein of NASCAR. Along with its unusual body shape, blaring full length sidepipes exiting in front of 20 inch wide rear wheels made sure the Camaro stood out from the crowd.

The stock car-like Camaro was powered by good old American V8 muscle.

The stock car-like Camaro was powered by good old American V8 muscle.

Within these tubes a quintessentially American drivetrain had set up shop. Powering the car was the ubiquitous small-block Chevy V8, displacing the correct 5.7 liters (358 c.i.). In spite of its no-nonsense warm apple-pie origins, the puritanical powerplant incorporated an advanced dry-sump oiling system to prevent oil starvation during fast cornering. It produced a hefty 580 horsepower through a classic Borg Warner T10 4-speed manual transmission which was connected to a blasphemous Ford 9-inch rear axle.

Unlike the clumsy 1976 NASCAR entries, the Camaro was made to feel at home at both the twisty and brake-y bits of a racetrack as well. The suspension and chassis design had taken this into account, and large four wheel disc brakes on all four corners ensured the blunders of 1976 would not be repeated. Another uncharacteristic feature was found with the use of some scales. Despite it’s rather massive appearance, the big V8 brute only weighed 1020 kg (2250 lbs).

In good clueless tradition, the confederate flag traveled wherever the Camaro went.

In good clueless tradition, the confederate flag traveled wherever the Camaro went.

The Camaro’s appearance at Circuit de La Sarthe caused a massive amount of media buzz, just as intended by Billy Hagan. Bellowing out of its gigantic sidepipes and sitting on massively wide tires, the car looked like serious business. So serious in fact it managed to get the European establishment to break a minuscule controlled sweat.

Even though the car looked thoroughly menacing, it was still completely new and unproven. Driving with veteran Camaro-racer Gene Felton (USA), Hagan had only raced the car once at the Riverside 6 Hours before shipping it off to France. Worryingly, the car had failed to finish that event, which was only a quarter of the distance of the grueling Le Mans affair. Hagan and Felton would continue their collaboration for the Le Mans. The pair was joined by IMSA-racer Tom Williams (USA).

The Camaro side by side with its maniacal "Snowplow" sister.

The Camaro side by side with its maniacal "Snowplow" sister.

For the 1982 edition the IMSA GTO class consisted of just 6 cars. Aside from its older, wilder sibling, the Camaro had to compete with a BMW M1 and three Porsche’s 924 Carrera GTR. Hagan realized these weren’t simple hobby machines with silly names, but he was still confident his big bruisers would steal the show in more ways than one. The team’s easy-going attitude to the race bore little evidence of this. Stratagraph treated Le Mans like any old IMSA GT race, and packed no more than a simple set of tool boxes and spare parts. Fitting extra lights to the Camaro also became a necessity, as Gene Felton quickly found out.

I rememeber going through a forest, and all you could see was the outline of the trees. There was no way you could have enough lights.
— Gene Felton.

Surprising friend and foe, the two Chevy’s topped the IMSA GTO time sheets at the end of qualifying. Split only by the #86 Porsche, the cars finished 1st and 3rd, with the newer model leading the GTO field. Amazingly, the hip and square Camaro had beaten the Porsche by a scarcely believable six seconds, pitting a 3:52.590 lap time against the 924’s 3:58.650. The car’s performance was so formidable it even managed to beat three purpose-built Rondeau Group C prototypes, a Group 5 BMW M1 and mighty IMSA GTX machines like the infamous Porsche 935 K3 and the Ferrari 512BB/LM.

The Camaro performed well above all expectations.

The Camaro performed well above all expectations.

The car’s blistering speed immediately caught the attention of the ACO’s always vigilant and always stoically French technical stewards. Quivering at the mere suggestion of a ludicrously quick pile of decadent American pig iron, they immediately contacted the Stratagraph team for a technical examination. The stewards proceeded to diligently dissect every inch of the car, but could find nothing illegal whatsoever. Apparently, the Americans had simply built a very very fast bit of kit.

We qualified very well. So well that they invited us to the office for a little talks. They just about tore the car down. They found nothing wrong with it. They couldn’t understand why we were so fast. We were faster than a lot of the very high-dollar teams - the GTP IMSA cars, European stuff. I was impressed with the whole scene. Not so much with the cars and teams and the money. I just knew we could run right up with the best of them.
— Gene Felton.

On race day the Camaro started from 33rd on the 57-car grid. Leading its class by a wide margin, the barking bow-tie settled in for the long haul to the finish. After a few hours the Camaro had entered into a ferocious fight with the #87 Porsche driven by Jim Busby (USA) and Doc Bundy (USA). The Porsche managed to get the upper hand at first, but was set back by a number mechanical issues, including the loss of 5th gear.

With the Porsche in trouble the Camaro was able to reel it in again, and the pair continued their struggle into the night. Unfortunately the American also encountered mechanical woes. It’s older sister had already dropped back with a ruined transmission, and the same issues were starting to take effect on the newer car. Eventually these failures dropped the Chevy back again, leaving the rebuilt Porsche to take the IMSA GTO lead once more.

The Camaro’s both had transmission problems. Several episodes. The best legal transmission we could run was not much more than a stock four-speed. I ran flat out the whole time - 24 hours. I think we had an alternator go out. The car was quite simple. On-and-off switch. Manual fuel pump. Switch for the lights, a starter button - and that was bout it.
— Gene Felton.

The electrical and transmission complications set the Chevrolet back a great deal, leading to it trailing the Porsche by three laps. By this time the 924 and the Camaro were the only two IMSA GTO competitors left in contention. The only other entry left was the second Camaro, but it had lost an insurmountable seven hours in the pits, which saw it still running but outside of qualification.

The distance between the two cars remained at three laps throughout the closing stages of the race. After 24 hours, the proud Stratagraph team took the checkered flag and second position in the IMSA GTO class. In the process they had finished 17th and second to last overall, beating out the #61 BMW M1 Group 5.

The amazing finish defied all expectations from both the European establishment and Stratagraph Inc. itself. No one could have guessed the Camaro would have taken second place, let alone finish the harrowing 24 hour event. With this extraordinary achievement 50-year old sly fox Billy Hagan had kept his word. He had truly blown the opposition away. After its trip back to the States, the Camaro kept on winning. It proceeded to conquer the inaugural 1983 Miami IMSA GTO Grand Prix, the 1983 Daytona 24 Hours (6th overall, 1st IMSA GTO) and the 1984 12 Hours of Sebring (8th overall, 1st IMSA GTO). In the end this pony seemed totally unstoppable.

I knew our team could run with those guys. We probably had four of five guys, maybe six for the two cars. That’s maybe a little bit short. We did what we were not supposed to be able to do.
— Gene Felton.

The Stratagraph Camaro IMSA GTO was a wonderful anomaly in the world of endurance racing. Against all odds it swiftly revealed itself to be world-beating material. Although born form a small privateer team, it was more than able to take the fight to much better funded machinery.

In fact, the car was capable of punching far above its surprisingly low weight. Happily beating prototypes and extreme Group 5 silhouette monsters, the Camaro remains in history as one of the most unusual success stories in the history of Le Mans.