When an American car heads to LeMans, eyes are watching, and it’s because it appears that anyone who seriously takes on the Circuit de la Sarthe is deadly serious about the task at hand. Think of the more famous cars we’ve sent over there: the Ford GT40, the Team Oreca Chrysler Vipers, the Corvette Racing program, the Olympia Charger. We don’t f*** around with the 24 Heuers du Mans…we view it as a war that we had better be ready to battle in, and we usually go all-out. The GT40, Viper and Corvette represent the pinnacles of the Big Three’s sports cars, and the Olympia Charger was a re-worked NASCAR racer that was readied for the track. But one American name isn’t normally associated with LeMans: Camaro. Chevrolet’s pony car is infamous in drag racing, road racing, SCCA, and more, but when it came to LeMans, the concept of putting a Camaro onto the Mulsanne Straight seemed more out of place than hearing bluegrass music near the Eiffel Tower.
Enter Stratograph Inc., an oil company owned by former NASCAR driver Billy Hagan. Sometime near 1981, Hagan got a wild hair and decided that he would tackle LeMans. He had a second-gen Camaro built up to compete in the GTO class (2.5L and up), somehow talked Cale Yarborough into driving, and headed over to France to compete. The Camaro qualified, but fourteen laps into the race the brakes took a hike as Yarborough approached Arnage Corner, and instead of plowing through the spectators, Cale decided to stuff the racer into a guardrail hard enough that the nose wedged under the railing. Not one hour into the race and the team was forced to call it a day.
Hagan wasn’t ready to call it a done deal yet. In fact, in an interview with Sports Illustrated immediately after the race, he vented off: “Next year I’m comin’ back here with two cars and I’ll blow their damn doors off!” While anyone would just chalk that up to a man who was pissed off after seeing his race car turn into a very expensive doorstop, the truth was that Hagan was not screwing around…he fully intended to make good on his threat. And in 1982, he did, bringing two Camaros with him: #80, the repaired 1981 car, complete with a spoiler and a nosecone that made a Cheverra Camaro look subtle, and a ready-to-fight third-gen. While #80 was still packing a 393ci stroker motor, #81 had 358 cubic inches of NASCAR-sourced violence, and together the cars weighed in at 4,500 pounds. Compared to the remainder of the 1982 cars (think Porsches, Ferraris, Lancia Monte Carlos, and Mazda RX7s) the two Camaros must have been monstrous by comparison: side-exit exhaust that screamed to the French countryside, huge wheels in even bigger flared fenders, and the nowhere-near-subtle red/white/blue paint schemes announced that Hagan was back and would not be satisfied until he had made up for the prior year’s failure.
With Herschel McGriff and Dick Brooks driving #80, and Gene Felton driving #81 with Hagan, the race started. Two hours in, #81’s four-speed transmission wrote itself off, leaving the team thrashing in the pits for hours before crew chief Tex Powell made the call to jam in a new trans so the car wouldn’t DNF. #81, on the other hand, was kicking ass all day and night, and by the time the flag dropped, had finished second in GTO and 17th overall, with #80 taking 19th overall. Only the B.F. Goodrich-sponsored Porsche 924 Carrera GTR beat the Camaro in-class.
After LeMans, the car raced in IMSA and took home the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1984 before being sold off. It changed hands a couple of times and was intermittently raced before undergoing a full restoration, with help from Tex Powell, who assisted in locating parts and verifying the authenticity of the replacement parts. The last time the Camaro was up for sale was at a Mecum auction in 2014, fully restored to it’s 1982 LeMans livery, looking more than ready for another fight at la Sarthe.