Created in 1948, NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) is now one of the most popular motorsport competitions in the U.S, with 36 races held at oval circuits. Ten years after the inception of the NASCAR championship, the circuit in Daytona was built in 1959 and would host that same year the inaugural NASCAR round of the season. Held in mid-February, the 500-mile (805 km) race became the flagship round on the calendar, nicknamed the Super Bowl of NASCAR.
1962-1972: Fireball Roberts and A.J. Foyt from Daytona to Le Mans
In 1962, Edward Glenn "Fireball" Roberts became the first Daytona 500 winner to participate in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. After triumphing in Florida at the fourth running of the race in February, four months later he took the start in the 24 Hours at the wheel of a Ferrari 250 GTO fielded by North American Racing Team (NART). Along with Bob Grossman (a veteran of the team formed by Luigi Chinetti), one of the first stars in NASCAR finished sixth for his sole appearance at Le Mans.
A.J. Foyt is the only driver to win both the 24 Hours and Daytona 500. In 1967, he joined forces with Dan Gurney at the wheel of a Ford Mk IV. The all-American duo won the race and exceeded for the first time in history the 5,000 km mark at the race. In 1972, the Texan won the Daytona 500 with a Mercury. Like Fireball Roberts, Foyt only participated in the the 24 Hours once, but took the start in the Daytona 500 a remarkable 28 times, clinching pole position in 1971.
1976: NASCAR at Le Mans
In celebration of the bicentennial of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and as a tribute to the French contribution to American independence, two cars from the NASCAR Winston Cup (now NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series) took the track in the 44th 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1976. The Dodge Charger of Hershel McGriff/Doug McGriff and the Ford Torino of Dick Brooks/Dick Hutcherson/Marcel Mignot filled the circuit with the roar of their huge 7-liter V8 engines. Both cars were forced to retire, but more importantly were highlighted the common Franco-American history during the War of Independence and the ongoing fascination with the 24 Hours of Le Mans on the part of competitors from across the Atlantic. Having returned to the circuit since then for the Le Mans Classic, the Charger and the Torino have lost none of their allure.
In 2011, Michael Waltrip became the last Daytona 500 winner to compete in the 24 Hours, at the wheel of a Ferrari F430 GT entered by AF Corse (retirement). The following year, the car he fielded in partnership with the Italian team finished sixth in the LMGTE Am class. Great NASCAR champions like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson (11 titles between them) have not been shy about their interest in the 24 Hours. It seems the ties between NASCAR and Le Mans may have future surprises in store...
PHOTOS (Copyright - ACO ARCHIVES): LE MANS (SARTHE, FRANCE), CIRCUIT DES 24 HEURES, 24 HOURS OF LE MANS 1976 & 1962. At top: among the drivers of the Ford Torino seen in 1976 figured Dick Hutcherson, third at the 1966 24 Hours with a Ford Mk II. Above: the Ferrari 250 GTO of Fireball Roberts, the first Daytona 500 winner to take the start in the 24 Hours.