With a resounding bellow, the Oly Express startles the French racing faithful at Le Mans. The hulking 1972 Dodge Charger dwarfs the alien-shaped Mirages and Porsches parked nearby and if the muscle car’s shape doesn’t completely cast a shadow over the pint-sized sports cars, the idling Chrysler 426 Wedge drowns out their small-bore buzz just the same. The year is 1976 and NASCAR has come to Le Mans.
Just a few days before the United States’ bicentennial, a pair of hulking American coupes came to conquer the world’s biggest endurance race. Both would return to France many years later, but on 4/26, it’s only fitting to talk about the 426-powered Mopar at Le Mans. The Oly Express’ racing tales in ’76 may have been short-lived, but the French remembered the car fondly when Christophe Schwartz returned with the Olympia Beer-sponsored ’72 Charger, a bit changed, 30 years later.
That the Charger appeared at the 24 Hours of Le Mans at all was a confluence of strange circumstances. The worldwide 1973 Oil Crisis pushed many factory teams from competition as budgets tightened and companies reined in racing programs. By 1975, organizers were struggling to fill all 55 grid spaces for the full-day race. Inspired by both the United States’ impending bicentennial and by the need for more cars, the Automobile Club d’Ouest (ACO), who govern Le Mans, opened the competition to IMSA sports cars and American stock cars. It was all part of an “exchange” program with Big Bill France, who owned Daytona International Speedway and who hosted the 24 Hours of Daytona that was perhaps the second-biggest sports car race at the time.
Called “Grand International” as an appeal to NASCAR’s Grand National series, the class kept most of the hallmarks of the NASCAR class: stock body with a tubular frame and rollcage, steel body panels, stock suspension, and allowance for a Big Block V8. The biggest changes involved night and poor-weather driving. To race at Le Mans, the stock cars would need headlights, taillights, running lights, a tow hook, windshield wipers, and sideview mirrors to see the waist-tall prototype cars.
Bill France picked two NASCAR teams to compete in Grand International for 1976. Junie Donlavey sent from his North Carolina shop a Winston Cup Ford Torino with a 351 cubic-inch Ford V8. The other chosen team was a veteran stock-car star, racing privateer, and lumber-mill operator from Oregon named Hershel McGriff. The International Motor Sport Association (IMSA), who ran the American sports car contemporary U.S. series, also was invited and sent the Greenwood Corvette, a widebody Chevy Monza, and a Porsche 911.
Hershel McGriff made a name for himself before NASCAR by winning the first Carrera Panamericana race in 1950 with an Oldsmobile 88 he’d bought for $1,900. McGriff moved on to race in NASCAR in the early 1950s, still with Oldsmobiles, and he won four races in 1954. Carl Kiekhafer offered Hershel a seat in one of his cars for 1955, but McGriff instead returned to Oregon to tend to his growing lumber mill and family that included an eight-year-old son named Doug.
Hershel’s racing story slowed for many years while growing his lumber mill, but he got the racing itch again in the late 1960s. His crew, both in the shop and at the track, were culled from lumber-mill employees. They would work the mill all week and then hit the road with McGriff for the race weekend. The team ran an Olympia Beer-sponsored Chevelle in Winston West, a regional NASCAR series, and, unsurprisingly, Hershel started winning races again. He proved tough to beat, particularly on road courses.
After several successful campaigns with the Chevelle, Hershel and his son Doug obtained a 1972 Dodge Charger built by Ray Nichels, who was a Mopar-building competitor of the Petty family. Doug McGriff racked up Oregon State Championships in stock cars from 1973 to 1975 before selling the family sold the Charger after the ’75 season. The McGriffs quickly bought it back after Bill France picked Hershel, a respected road racer in stock cars, to represent NASCAR at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The team thought Charger’s aerodynamic shape better-suited to reducing drag on the long straights at Le Mans.
Going along for the race in France would be several of the sawmill crew along with expert stock-car crew chief Pat McElreath. However, someone would have to be left behind to tend to the lumber mill. That ended up being Dick Pierson, a mechanic at the mill who also drove the race car hauler and crewed at Winston West races. Hershel trusted Pierson to run the shop in his absence, but before that, he also entrusted Pierson to get the Charger cross-country to Norfolk, Virginia, from Oregon so it could be shipped across the Atlantic.
To get the Charger and its spares to Virginia, the McGriffs had a special trailer built. The Charger sat behind several crates of spares, which included two engines (in addition to the one in the car). The primary engine and first backup were both 426 Hemi-Wedges, built using Wedge heads atop a Hemi block. After NASCAR restricted Hemi heads, Richard Petty had discovered that a set of Wedge heads on a Hemi block would make more power (“Mopar,” even) than the choked Hemis. A second backup engine, installed in the car for shipment and likely for the practice sessions at Le Mans, was a complete 426 Hemi. All of the engines had been built by Precision Engines in Seattle.
The trailer served its purpose, though it almost came apart near the journey’s end. A crack in the trailer required emergency welding in West Virginia and a local welder liked the car enough that he worked in exchange for hearing Pierson fill the Appalachian air with the sound of a revving Wedge-head 426. Once Pierson got the Charger to Norfolk, RJ Reynolds—the tobacco company that sponsored Winston Cup and this endeavor—took on the rest of the shipping to Le Havre and on to Le Mans.
The McGriffs and their crew unloaded the Oly Express on a typically scorching June day at Le Mans. Shirts were shed and the American crews, just days from celebrating America’s 200th birthday, set to work firing up the ground-shaking 426. The sound of an American V8 was not totally foreign to the French. The race-dominating Ford GT40s were powered by 427 cubic-inch V8s and Briggs Cunningham’s specials before that had run early Chrysler Hemis, but those were big engines in small cars. The scale and raw brute force of the ‘72 Charger was unprecedented, save for possibly the pre-war Bentleys or the “Le Monstre” 1950 Cadillac. As a result, the Charger made fans quickly with its spectacular, loping V8 that turned to a rippling roar with a bit of throttle.
The crew were also an anomaly to the French crowd, who were used to straight-laced-and-stern-faced mechanics. Le Mans was serious business for the Porsche and Renault teams, after all. The Oly Express crew instead reveled in the moment. Between race sessions, they weren’t averse to packing the entire crew—and maybe a few young local females—into the Charger and driving their race car into the town of Le Mans with the engine revving and banging and scaring passersby.
“Those guys were having a good time and having fun, not taking themselves too seriously, both the McGriff crew and the Donlavey crew,” said Christopher Schwartz, who runs the replica Olympia Charger today. “They took the race cars to drive into the city. With those big NASCAR cars, they could fit six, maybe even 20 people inside because there’s no seats, just a couple of rollbars. The Americans were just like ‘We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’re here to have a good time.’ It was quite a sensation, those cars driving in downtown Le Mans.””
They ended up, so go the stories, at a small cafe near Tertre Rouge, the corner that leads onto the miles-long Mulsanne Straight where the Charger would eclipse 200 miles per hour. Nobody—at least in the 1970s—was taking their race car into town to sample the local libations. It made such an impression that when French journalist Schwartz brought back an Oly Express Charger to the Le Mans Classic in 2006, some of those young female fans of the car in 1976 raved about their memories of it.
Unfortunately, it became apparent very early that there were major issues with the engines’ compatibility with French fuel. A normal NASCAR engine was designed to run on fuel of more than 100 octane, but knowing that Le Mans regulations mandated the use of pump gas, McGriff had Precision Engines build motors to run 93 octane. The primary Hemi-Wedge 426s had been built at 11:1 compression to make around 630 horsepower while the Hemi was a higher-compression engine at 13:1.
The McGriffs opted to run the Wedge in qualifying and in the race since it was a little bit lighter. However, the Oly Express crew had misunderstood information about the octane measurements, which were taken differently in Europe. As a result, a 93-octane measurement in France was closer to 88 octane (or lower) in the United States. Predictably, the first engine ran too lean and burned up pistons during qualifying. Before it went, Hershel managed to run a best lap of 4:30 and blazed through the Mulsanne Straight’s speed trap at 215 miles per hour. While that lap time put the Oly Express near the back of the grid, Hershel still had managed to bank a lap so that the car could start the race.
With a problem obviously at hand, the McGriffs conferred with Precision Engines’ Orv Rupp and John Todd, who had built the engines. With no time to tear the engine apart for a last-ditch effort like milling the pistons, they were short on options that could keep the car alive for 24 hours. They threw out the most obvious—adding an octane booster—because they wanted to be sportsmanlike. Instead, they retarded the timing and richened the mixture as much as they could while adding a second head gasket to reduce compression.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to make the engine livable and the engine installed for the race burned up on the Mulsanne Straight during the car’s fourth lap. Hershel, who had started the car, pulled it off the track at Mulsanne Corner at the end of the long straight. Since engine changes aren’t allowed during the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Hershel would have had to get it back to the pits anyway, the McGriffs’ race was over with just three laps in the books.
After the race, the Oly Express headed back to Oregon for a few more years and the 426s were all sent back to Precision Engines as part of their lease agreements. The engines were rebuilt and put back into circulation for Precision. When the McGriffs liquidated their lumber mill around 1980, they sold the rolling Le Mans Charger chassis as part of the auction to a buyer whose name has been lost to history.
What happened to the original Ray Nichels-built Charger from the auction remains a mystery still. It’s a pretty safe bet that it continued to race in some capacity, possibly with bodywork changed over to something else along the way and a small-block Chrysler LA powering that stock car. It may well be gone—like the Donlavey Torino, a story for another day—but Christophe Schwartz and Dick Pierson have a gut feeling that it’s still sitting in the weeds behind somebody’s barn.
Sometime around 2002, French freelance auto journalist Schwartz (above, center) became the surprise catalyst behind the Oly Express story’s revival. As a lifelong fan of American cars, he had been tasked with researching a single-page story about American cars at the 24 Hours of Le Mans for NITRO Magazine. While flipping through file photos, he came across a picture of the Charger at Le Mans in ‘76, whose existence was mostly a forgotten piece of racing history at that time. With so many questions, Schwartz eventually found a Winston West fans message board in the internet’s early days and was surprised whn an inquiry got a quick response from Dick Pierson’s son, Kevin.
Before long, the story of the Charger, the McGriffs, Pierson, and Schwartz had all become entangled and the French auto writer had embarked upon a renewal of the Oly Express. With the car long-since disappeared, Schwartz had been gifted an opening by an obscure FIA ruling that would allow period-correct replicas at vintage races. He eyed a 30th anniversary return to Le Mans for the 2006 Le Mans Classic and started assembling a plan for a new Oly Express with Pierson, who had been out of racing for decades.
While researching the project, Pierson introduced Schwartz to Chuck Shafer, a former stock-car driver and Silver State Classic record holder who also owned a several classic Mopar stock cars. Among Shafer’s collection was a ‘72 Charger that had won the 1977 USAC Stock Car championship. Schwartz had talked to Chuck a few times about buying the USAC champion to be the new Oly Express. “[Chuck] had said, ‘Yeah, I don’t know if I want to sell it, maybe in a few years,” Schwartz remembered. “But we had developed a good relationship over it.”
Tragically, Chuck Shafer died in September 2005 in an accident while working on his raspberry farm in Washington. Two months later, Christophe received a call out of the blue from Chuck’s wife, Cindy. She had known that Chuck had considered selling the Charger to him and she offered to sell the USAC car to Schwartz. Pierson arranged the purchase of the car, which was fully restored and functional, with an original NASCAR Hemi in it. Dick made some updates, the most important of which were a bronze plaque honoring Chuck Shafer on the dashboard and the Olympia Beer livery that the McGriffs’ Charger had worn in ‘76. Shortly thereafter, Christophe flew to Portland to test it for the first time at Portland International Raceway and the revived Oly Express crew invited Cindy to that first test.
“She saw that bronze plaque and said ‘That’s very kind of you, since you barely knew him,’” Schwartz said. “Being Mopar guys, we got along well and I had thought it was great thing that he’d done [with his restored stock cars].”
For Schwartz, running a vintage car was his only chance to race at Le Mans, a race that was embedded in his French car-guy DNA. While it was possible as late as the 1980s to run a self-funded, garage-built car in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, that possibility was rendered far more difficult by the Group C era and long-since extinct by the early 2000s. However, the Le Mans Classic put vintage cars on the famed French circuit to relive the glories of sports car racing past. That was an opening for Schwartz to race the hallowed endurance grounds, but there was more to it than his own aims.
Because Dick Pierson had stayed behind to run the McGriffs’ sawmill in 1976, Schwartz saw an opportunity to give Pierson the glory he’d missed out on because he’d been Hershel’s most reliable sawmill employee. Schwartz also flew Cindy Shafer and her sister to Le Mans as well to see Chuck’s old Charger return that Mopar roar to the French. Throw in the nostalgia from the Le Mans locals who remembered the original Oly Express and that first return to Le Mans in 2006 was an emotional test for everyone.
For Pierson, tears flowed as he drove the first time past the small bar where the McGriffs and the Olympia Charger had visited in 1976. The moment had caught up with him on his first trip down the Mulsanne Straight with the 426 echoing off the trees.
“When I popped up and started talking about Le Mans, Dick had gotten so excited to go,” Schwartz said. “When he drove at last, he said he had been crying while he was doing 180 miles per hour on the Mulsanne Straight. He was just flying. It was a dream come true for which he’d had to wait 30 years.”
Cindy Shafer, too, was overwhelmed by the experience. “A lot of things reminded her of Chuck and she was very sad,” Schwartz said. “But a lot of things reminded her of him in a way that made her happy. It was an emotional rollercoaster for her, those four days at Le Mans, but she said, ‘It’s good what you’re doing because Chuck’s legacy keeps living through what you’re doing with this race car.’
“It got me thinking that it’s the cars that bring us together, but it’s the people that keep us together,” Schwartz said. “We ended up all being good friends. We all see each other from time to time and stay in touch. The Olympia Charger story is very much a story of the people around it.”
The initial emotion never wore off that first weekend for anybody involved, although driving the car proved to be enough of a handful to be a momentary distraction for Pierson and Schwarze. Because the second Oly Express was originally a USAC short-track car, it was still set up for ovals at that first Le Mans Classic. That meant unequal length A-arms at the front that would make the Charger want to turn left all the time. Since they weren’t intent on competing at that first race, nobody planned on driving so hard to make it unmanageable, although there was plenty of nervous laughter about driving 180 miles per hour with the steering wheel turned hard right.
“When you let go of the steering wheel, it would turn left,” Schwartz said. “On the Mulsanne Straight, it was quite odd. Back then, we all thought it was funny, but now it seems completely crazy.”
Nevertheless, the Oly Express finished up its first race at Le Mans in three decades without incident. The sheer brutality of the car was incredible and the feeling of just strolling past Ferraris and, well, everything else on the straights is fantastic, Schwartz said, although the braking performance is a bit underwhelming by comparison.
After that first race, the Oly Express was returned to road-racing form with symmetrical A-arms to fix the “wandering left” problem. Later, the Charger would get an improved gearbox, as well. The original Chrysler 833 four-speed transmission was great for oval racing, but it didn’t enjoy being shifted two dozen times during a lap. They went through three of them in five years before Schwartz installed a Tex Racing four-speed that could take the abuse better.
Incredibly, one of the original Hemi-Wedge 426s turned up in 2010 on CraigsList in Phoenix, Arizona. The seller had bought it at an auction in 1994 after it had spent some of the intervening time in an altered-wheelbase drag car. While that seller planned to put it in a pro-street car with a supercharger, he instead held onto it, knowing it was something special though not quite sure of its transatlantic provenance. Word of its existence got to Schwartz and it was Tom Hergert from Rocket Restorations—who would later run his own Oly Express car, a ‘64 Plymouth Barracuda, in the 24 Hours of LeMons—who picked it up from the seller and sent it to Schwartz.
The block carried the signature mark of the Le Mans engine’s builder, John Todd from Precision Engines. With the stamping, they were able to confirm that they had found one of the three Le Mans engines, though it’s unclear if it was the engine used in the race or in qualifying. After a long rebuild, Schwartz ran that engine at Le Mans again at the 2012 Le Mans Classic. Not wanting to ruin that engine, however, he soon reverted back to the 630-horsepower Hemi NASCAR engine that the Oly Express has run since. He still has the original engine.
Today, Christophe still campaigns the Oly Express at the Le Mans Classic and at other vintage races at Monza, Spa, Hockenheim, La Castellet, and wherever else the Charger takes him. Drivers like 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Stephane Ortelli have taken turns behind the wheel and Dick Pierson has driven it a few more times. It still gives Christophe a rush every time he sits behind the wheel.
“The faster you go, the better it feels,” he said. “Once you get above 80 [mph], you can really tell it comes from that stock-car, high-speed background. From there to 180, it just feels great.”
Now more than a decade into a racing the Oly Express replica, Christophe Schwartz still hopes that the original Olympia CHarger will turn up. The hope is that somebody roots around in the “car patch” section of their back forty to discover that grandpa’s old stock car is the ’72 Charger that raced at Le Mans more than 40 years ago.
“I’m pretty sure the original car is sitting out there somewhere in the Pacific Northwest,” Schwartz said. “I cannot imagine the car has just vanished. It was surely turned into a short-track racer sometime in the late ‘70s or early ‘80s, maybe with an Aspen or a Magnum body on it, I don’t know. Dick Pierson and I are still on that quest for the holy grail to find it someday.”
Until that happens, he’s happy to be honoring the legacy of Chuck Shafer with a big slice of American muscle alongside priceless European sports cars.
“When you walk into the paddock where all the race cars are lined up, you always have the biggest crowd around the two NASCARs, the Charger and the Torino*,” Schwartz said. “They’ll always be lined up next to cars that cost at least 10 times more, but people will inevitably say, ‘This car, this American car, is the one I came here to see. This is the cool one.”
Go to Christophe Schwartz’s Olympia Charger blog to see tons of great old photos and read even more about the backstory.
* Another French collector followed Schwartz’s lead and commissioned a Torino replica in the early 2010s. We’re hoping to have that story soon, too.