More than 40 years ago, a Dodge Charger took part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. A replica of that car, using an original Le Mans race engine, is now running in classic endurance races in Europe, including the Le Mans Classic. After a recent second-in-class finish at a classic car race at Hockenheim, we speak to Christophe Schwartz, driver of the Motul/Olympia Beer Dodge Charger.
Christophe, what events does the Charger race in?
We’ve been running it in the Peter Auto Classic Endurance racing series. The best finish we’ve got there is 10th, because we’re racing against Porsche RSRs and BMW M1s, which are much better suited to the racetracks of Europe. Plus, with a Nascar race car it’s quite difficult to really do something better than a top 10.
How did a Dodge Charger come to race at Le Mans?
That car came to Le Mans in 1976. There was an oil crisis in 1973, and the following year the shadow of the oil crisis was still present. The car makers said there was no point advertising their products through racing anymore. Fuel economy became important. All the factory teams pretty much withdrew from Le Mans. The ACO back then had the idea of inviting cars from other championships around the world. And that’s how the Dodge Charger was invited to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. They also invited a Corvette, Chevy Monza and an IMSA Porsche. But the main reason they were there is the ACO was struggling to fill their grid of 55 cars.
And that’s the reason the car now competes at the Le Mans Classic?
Yes, that’s why we’re racing it today at the Le Mans Classic. It’s really the ultimate event for the car. It happens every other year and we’ve been racing there since 2006. We only missed it once, in 2018, due to financial reasons on my side. Obviously, we couldn’t race in 2020 because of Covid, but we’re looking forward to competing there again in 2022.
Was this the actual Charger that raced in 1976 at Le Mans?
It’s not the actual car. It’s the same model, was built by the same manufacturer, Richard Petty, and is one of the original Petty Enterprise customer cars. So, it’s the exact same specification as the car that raced in 1976. I also managed to find one of the three original Le Mans engines and put it in this car, too. But it’s a period race car with a history of its own. This car is the last ever Hemi that won a national championship in the United States. It is the 1977 Winning USAC Grand National Champion.
What changes did you make to the car?
We repainted it in the Olympia Beer colours to race at the Le Mans Classic, but the original livery was orange and white and had another sponsor. I actually had angry emails asking why I repainted such an American icon and the last ever Dodge to win a national championship.
What’s it like to drive?
Let’s say it is the definition of a muscle car. It has huge muscle under its hood, and you need huge muscles to steer it [laughs]. It’s really a handful to drive. The faster it goes the easier it is to handle. Fast curves with a lot of cornering speed and straights are great to drive but not the tight tracks. The more demanding on the brakes, the less easy it is. With the Porsche and BMWs, it’s like a game of cat and mouse. Through the corners and under braking they get past, but then I go in front on the straights. For me, historic racing is not so much about winning everything. A lot of guys these days are in to win, but for us and the team, it’s a way to celebrate vintage racing history.
What was Motul’s involvement?
Motul started with us in 2006 with our first Le Mans Classic. They supplied some lubricants and I was very happy with this because, for one, we didn’t have to buy them [laughs] but also because it’s a really good lubricant brand. We’re very happy with the partnership. The Motul oils are very reliable even under severe conditions. And the conditions are truly severe, especially with such a heavy car.