Camaro Generation at Le Mans
Restored third-generation racer carries privateer IMSA GTO heritage
By Mike Bumbeck
Photography courtesy of Chris Kelley/Fantasy Junction and Mecum Auctions
The tale of a second and third generation Camaro running Le Mans in 1982 runs back to the formation of the International Motor Sports Association or IMSA in 1969. Then IMSA head John Bishop delivered road course endurance racing to America with the Grand Touring or GT Class in the 1970s. In a great leap of forward thinking Bishop brought Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile or FIA cars into the international mix, and the IMSA Grand Touring or GT series was off and running.
Roughly speaking the IMSA GT racing was divided into two production-car based classes. GTU and GTO. The U in GTU stood for under 2.5-liters of engine and the O in GTO stood for over two liters of displacement. A later GTP class were full-race prototypes. This chain of events led to a race series that brought Porsches and Chevrolets alike battling it out on track and street courses across America, which included the 12 Hours of Sebring.
FIA rules sharing made for international racing on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1981 Billy Hagan brought his Stratagraph Camaro IMSA GT entry to Le Mans. That race ended with a wreck and DNF, but Hagan vowed to return. He did just that in 1982 with the Stratagraph All-American Racing Team with Tex Powell as crew chief and not one but two Camaros. The slope nose 1981 Camaro nicknamed the snowplow was co-driven by Dick Brooks and Hershel McGriff. Team owner Billy Hagan and Gene Felton co-drove the second car - a 1982 third generation Camaro.
The number 81 1982 Camaro is shown here at Le Mans and restored to its Le Mans racing state. The chassis was built by Dennis Frings, with Tex Powell and the Tex Racing Enterprises crew taking care of the Camaro bodywork and powertrain. A 358-cu.in. small block Chevrolet V-8 kicked out 580 horsepower with a dry sump oil system and a magneto for spark. A prepared T-10 transmission with heavy-duty multi-disc clutch sent the power out through a Ford 9-inch rear.
Wheels and hubs were what were and still are known as wide fives and packed disc brakes. The alternator made power for the Marchal head lamps required to run the Camaro in the dark of night. At speeds of 220 mph down the Mulsanne straight the drivers needed all the light they could get. "I remember going through a forest, and all you could see was the outline of the trees. There was no way you could have enough lights", said Gene.
Gene Felton was on the team after a successful outing at Pocono in the winged second-generation Camaro. "I was at Pocono, and they were having a little problem qualifying. Tex asked me if I would jump in and take a ride in it and come back and tell him what I thought. I think I went out and qualified top ten overall with it. I got hired right then on the spot. That's how I got hooked up with Billy", said Gene.
With a small crew and a tool kit in what Gene said looked like a fishing tackle box, the All-American team hit Le Mans as they would any other on the IMSA GT Circuit. "We qualified very well. So well that they invited us to the office for a little talk. They just about tore the car down. They found nothing wrong with it. They couldn't understand why we were so fast. We were faster than a lot of the very high dollar teams - the GTP IMSA cars, European stuff. I was impressed with the whole scene. Not so much with the cars and the teams and the money. I just knew we could run right up with the best of them."
And run they did. The fight for the GTO class came down to the number 81 Camaro and the number 87 Porsche 924 Carrera GTR turbo driven by Jim Busby and Doc Bundy. The battle intensified after the Porsche lost a multi-lap lead due to mechanical issues, and subsequent fifth gear failure, crucial to top speed on the Mulsanne straight. Gene said the number 81 Camaro suffered its own share of problems, but had an edge on the Porsche by its last fuel stop.
"The Camaros both had transmission problems. Several episodes. The best legal transmission we could run was not much more than a stock four-speed. I ran flat out the whole time. 24 hours. I think we had an alternator go out. The car was quite simple. On and off switch. Manual fuel pump. Switch for the lights, a starter button - and that was about it."
Few would have predicted the success of a privateer entry from the United States. In the end the GTO battle was taken by Porsche. The number 81 Camaro took 2nd place in GTO, and placed 17th overall at the 50th running of Le Mans. The Camaro returned to the USA and won the inaugural Miami IMSA GTO Grand Prix in February of 1983. In 1984 Billy Hagan, Gene Felton and Terry Labonte took the GTO win and 6th overall at the Daytona 24 Hours with a GTO win and 8th overall at the Sebring 12 Hours in March 1984.
Gene Felton remembers the Le Mans experience as at once unique and a race that had to be run, and had no doubt of the capabilities of the car and crew. "I knew our team could run with those guys. We probably had four or five guys, maybe six for the two cars. That's maybe a little bit short. We did what we were not supposed to be able to do."
The car restored to its number 81 Stratagraph All-American state packs a small block Chevrolet in a Dennis Frings chassis prepared by Tex Powell's Tex Racing Enterprises.
The Camaro in action at Le Mans in 1982. With a crew of about six and a privateer budget the team placed 17th overall and took runner up in the GTO class in an endurance a race that thirty six race car entries simply did not finish.