While this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans again sees a large presence of American teams and cars, the legacy of U.S.-based efforts in the famed endurance classic dates back numerous decades.
One of the more intriguing efforts came in 1981 when an all-American team, featuring a NASCAR legend, showed up at Circuit de la Sarthe to do battle in a Chevrolet Camaro.
Three-time NASCAR Winston Cup Series champion Cale Yarborough joined Billy Hagan and Bill Cooper behind the wheel of Hagan’s Stratagraph Inc. Camaro, which was built in Milwaukee and featured stock car-style suspension.
“Our Camaro takes many ideas of our NASCAR program” Hagan said in an interview in 1981. “This is one of the best-built cars and better prepared for the race.”
For former NASCAR driver-turned team owner Hagan, who fielded Winston Cup entries for the likes of Terry Labonte, Sterling Marlin and John Andretti through the 1980s and early 90s, competing at Le Mans was a life-long dream.
“For a long time, I expected to participate in this famous event of motorsport” he said. “It is the realization of one of my fondest dreams of my life.
“My other dream is to win the NASCAR Winston Cup. I wanted to race at Le Mans in an American car.”
Hagan achieved the dream of becoming a Winston Cup championship-winning team owner in 1984 with Labonte, but didn’t manage to quite achieve the same level of success in his two outings at Le Mans.
The Camaro completed only 13 laps in the 1981 race due to an early race accident triggered by brake failure.
However, Hagan returned the following year as a two-car operation, placing second and third in the IMSA GTO class, with fellow NASCAR drivers Hershel McGriff and Dick Brooks among the driver lineup.
Yarborough’s appearance in 1981 still stands as the only time a top-level NASCAR champion has competed at Le Mans.