Think about America's presence at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. What comes to mind? It's probably a trio of Ford GT40s crossing the finish line, the ten-cylinder roar of an Oreca Viper GTS-R, or maybe even the black-and-yellow streak of C6.R. Those are our enduring memories. But there was another.
In 1982, a raced its way to immortality at Circuit de la Sarthe.
The story begins a year earlier at Le Mans when Stratagraph Incorporated, a Louisiana oil services company owned by NASCAR driver Billy Hagan, decided to make a run at tackling the world's most illustrious endurance trial. And what does an honest-to-God stock car guy bring across the Atlantic for European wheel-to-wheel competition?
Cowboy boots, Cale Yarborough, and a second-gen Camaro, of course. Running on a 108-inch outlaw chassis, Hagan's Chevy was stripped down to 2351 lbs. and anchored by a 393 small-block stroker—good for 600 all-American ponies. Even alongside the likes of a BMW M1, which only came up to the Camaro's door handles, Yarborough still managed to qualify in the GTO class (Grand Touring cars with engines exceeding 2500 cc displacement).
After a promising start, Cale was approaching Arnage Corner during the fourteenth lap when his brakes went soft. To avoid hitting spectators, Yarborough took the #35 Camaro into a guardrail hard enough to teepee the hood and wedge the car underneath a barrier. More than a dozen appreciative fans leapt over the fence to help dislodge the Chevy, at one point even tying a rope to the rear bumper in an unsuccessful attempt to tug it out.
A Porsche 936 driven by Jacky Ickx eventually won the race; Hagan, Yarborough and crew were forced to retire after just 52 minutes, 54 seconds of the 24-hour run.
"Next year I'm comin' back here with two cars and I'll blow their damn doors off," a frustrated Hagan told Sports Illustrated hours after the crash.
He wasn't lying.
For the 50th running of Le Mans in 1982, Hagan's Stratagraph team arrived with a pair of GM pony cars, both built by North Carolina's Dennis Frings and set to run in the GTO class. The Camaros wore numbers 80 and 81—the former driven by Herschel McGriff and Talladega 500 winner Dick Brooks, the latter by Gene Felton and Hagan himself.
The #80 car was the same one wrecked by Yarborough a year prior, mended with a radical sloped nose and dramatic rear wing, dubbed the 'snowplow.' Stratagraph's third-generation #81 car made 580 hp from its 358 cubes and opted for a somewhat more conventional stock car look: a tweaked air dam, cowl hood and aluminum thumbnail spoiler.
Combined, the Camaros weighed less than 4500 lbs.
Even at Le Mans, where heterogeneity is cherished, the hulking F-body Chevrolets were standouts, with side-exit exhausts dumping in front of 20-inch-wide rear tires. The bark and thunder of an American V8 was a stark contrast to the suck-and-blow of the Kremer Porsches or the raucous buzzing of a 1.3-liter Wankel engine.
with its extreme airfoil, but found trouble just two hours into the race when its Borg-Warner transmission threw a hissy fit. Hours passed as the team tried to repair the four-speed 'box. The possibility of winning quickly disappeared, but crew chief Tex Powell was determined to avoid a DNF and ordered the mechanics to swap out the entire trans for a spare.
Why the hell not? At that point, they were all grins and racing for fun. After seven hours in the pits, McGriff rumbled #80 back onto the track, eventually finishing 218 laps behind the winner.
By all measures, the #81 Camaro could have been a disaster: Hagan was talented, but also 50 years old, and admitted that he and Felton only raced the car once prior to Le Mans. That, along with the transmission issues evidenced in McGriff's car, set the table for a rough Sunday afternoon. But the second Stratagraph started from 33rd and, against all odds, it just kept on gaining.
When the checkered flag was thrown, Felton and Hagan had given almost everybody on the grid a look at their Chevy's factory-stock taillights. The #81 Stratagraph Camaro finished 2nd in its class and 17th overall at the 1982 24 Hours of Le Mans. Despite losing over two hours to electrical and gearbox problems, it was just four laps behind the class-winning Porsche 924 Carrera GTR.
After its success in France, the #81 Camaro returned Stateside where it continued to be a competitive force. The car not only won IMSA's inaugural Miami Grand Prix in 1983, but also won its class at the Daytona 24 in February 1984. With Hagan, Felton and Terry Labonte driving, the Camaro finally took the 12 Hours of Sebring 12 in March of 1984 before being sold.
In the ensuing two decades, the car was raced intermittently before undergoing a full restoration. Tex Powell, the original Le Mans '82 crew chief, provided input and vintage spares from the Hagan garage to ensure the Chevy remained as authentic as possible.
The may now look brand new, but its soul still carries the blood, sweat and champagne memories of a Le Mans podium.