Smoking at the wheel and snail-phobia: when NASCAR last raced at Le Mans

Le Mans News

A NASCAR entry will be on the Le Mans 24 Hour grid next year for the first time in 1976, when two thundering, lumbering 'monsters' brought stock car racing to La Sarthe

Ford Torino NASCAR at Le Mans in 1976

Ford Torino of Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson was one of two NASCAR Le Mans entries in 1976


The French pitcrew couldn’t work out how Richard Brooks was repeatedly roaring past the pits with lit cigarette in hand, all while tackling the gruelling Le Mans 24 Hours.

It was 1976, the last time that NASCAR entries were accepted into the race, and the Yanks were living up to all of the stereotypes.

In their hefty V8-powered cars, retrofitted with headlights, windscreen wipers and wing mirrors, the pair of stock cars — a Dodge Charger and Ford Torino — were blasting past the opposition on the straights before their advantage was then entirely overhauled in the corners.

It wasn’t just their 1.7-tonne weight that made turning tricky — the heaviest seen at Le Mans that decade. The Torino was still racing with drum brakes.

Behind the wheel, Brooks, the 1969 NASCAR Rookie of the Year and ’73 Talladega 500 winner, had a unique way of keeping his cool.

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As detailed by Tim Considine in his book, Twice around the clock: The Yanks at Le Mans, the Torino featured a cigarette lighter in the horn button on the car, which Brooks, driving with Dick Hutcherson and Marcel Mignot, was happily making use of.

Amid the sleek Mirage GR8, Alpine Renault A442 and Porsche 936 prototypes, it was no wonder the blocky, raucous stock cars were dubbed Les Deux Monstres by wide-eyed fans.

It’s a scene set to be repeated next year, when spectators should see a next-gen Chevrolet Camaro thundering down the Mulsanne Straight. NASCAR has announced that it will return to the race for the first time in over 45 years, as part of Le Mans’ centenary celebrations.

Le Mans organisers, the ACO, describes NASCAR’s previous participation in the ‘76 race as a celebration of the bicentenary of America’s Declaration of Independence.

“Two cars from the NASCAR Winston Cup came to La Sarthe to salute this great time in history,” says the ACO.

“It was about the mutual Franco-American history during the Revolutionary War and the fascination American competitors have always had with the 24 Hours of Le Mans.”

24 Hours of Le Mans (1976)

Hershel and Doug McGriff Dodge Charger alongside Porsche 911 at Le Mans in 1976

ISC via Getty Images

The reality appears to be a bit cloudier: the Grand International class was created following talks with NASCAR boss Bill France Jr, and it came at a time of reducing entries and spectator interest, partly due to the fuel crisis, where additional cars and publicity were particularly welcome.

Not that the 5.5-litre Dodge and 7-litre Torino had anything to teach about fuel economy.

“They had the idea they wouldn’t find anything to eat in France. They were afraid they only ate snails and stuff”

That year’s Le Mans race clashed with a NASCAR meet at Riverside, so France, who also wanted to see stock cars at Le Mans, persuaded two of the smaller teams to send entries. Herschel McGriff, driving with his son Doug, sent the Charger and Junie Donlavey sent one of his Torinos.

The Dodge hit trouble early on in practice: its Hemi V8 protesting at the lower-octane European fuel and destroying pistons.

From the archive

The Torino’s crew was wary of the European diet too. “They were a strange group,” says mechanic Al Roberts in The Yanks at Le Mans. “They never had a windshield wiper on the car or headlights or anything like that. They didn’t know anything.

“And they amused me because in their truck they had all this canned food, all this stuff they brought from America because they had the idea they wouldn’t find anything to eat in France. They were afraid they only ate snails and stuff that these cowboys wouldn’t eat.”

The rumbling V8s may have made a big noise but the Dodge’s 47th place in qualifying and the Ford’s 54th grid slot were a result of their miserable cornering prowess.

Ford Torino NASCAR in 1976 Le Mans 24

Cornering was not a strong point for the Ford Torino and its drum brakes


The race didn’t bring much more joy, with the fuel ending the Dodge’s hopes just after Bill France Jr dropped the Tricolor to start the race.

As Motor Sport reported: “Much further back down the field lurked two of the huge NASCAR stock cars, but they were neither the latest nor the fastest examples of their breed and as expected proved too heavy, bulky and unwieldy to be at home on a road circuit.

“In the race, the Dodge Charger lasted no more than a lap and a half before its engine seized spectacularly, but the Ford Torino ran till after midnight before transmission failure put it out.”

Next year’s NASCAR entry, in the Garage 56 category for innovative cars, will have no expectations of victory, but you can bet on the Chevrolet Camaro — from the self-described “winningest manufacturer in NASCAR” — to challenge the establishment in its own way.

“Even though Garage 56 is a ‘class of one,’ we are competitors and have every intention of putting a bold product on the racetrack for the fans at Le Mans,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, which is running the car.

“It’s a humbling opportunity – one that will present an exciting challenge over the next 15 months – but our team is ready.”