Haywood's absolutely right, but in a shallow way; too many European and sporty-car types fail to see the difference between junk and creative junk—the very cars that made stock-car racing great and made bootlegging a major art form in the U.S. southland.
This Camaro is a pure, direct descendant of a long racing line; it's squatty and wide-shouldered and its nose is down and its tail is up. All worthy U.S. stock cars look crooked; it's part of their rakish charm. Everybody knows you're not supposed to look at one directly; you stand off to one side and squint at it in bright sunlight, your head tilted a bit, and everything becomes clear. Cale's Camaro weighs 2,351 pounds and has a 350-cubic-inch engine that's been bored out to 393 cubic inches, and it'll pound out 600 horsepower. The body sits on an "outlaw" frame; that is, a 108-inch chassis designed for small, backwoods U.S. racetracks—and that's the trick that has gotten it into Le Mans in its GTO category, right in there with the BMWs and other good stuff, all of which come up to about the door handles of Cale's car. It's a real stock car, and the only things on it that ever saw a Camaro production line are the taillights.
"It could have been a Pontiac Firebird or an almost-whatever-you-want," says Billy Hagan, who owns the car and is financing this whole adventure. "But we chose Camaro because we can get plastic body panels for replacements in case we smash something up."
At 49, Hagan is mustached and seamed and grizzled, a Louisianian who made a fortune in the oil business. His company does stratigraphic readings for drillers—Billy Hagan can tell them if they're going to strike oil before they get there. And now he lavishes money on auto racing. He owns and campaigns a car on the Grand National circuit (seventh in the standings at the moment), and he hits the road-and endurance-racing circuit with his Camaro. As for Le Mans, "This is about a $200,000 trip for me," he says. "Figure about $60,000 for the car, another $30,000 in spare engines, and maybe $60,000 in expenses for the crew and hotels and meals and all. Now, for just a little bit more money, I could have bought me a Porsche or something fancy. But I want this to be an All-American operation with all by-God U.S. equipment."
Junk, indeed. Hagan shrugs and looks down at his battered cowboy boots. "This year we're gonna learn how they do this thing at Le Mans," he says. "It's tricky. They tend to make it awful tough on strangers. But next year I'm comin' back here with two cars and I'll blow their damn doors off." He nods toward his star driver, who is walking around the Camaro, really seeing it up close for the first time. "We were very lucky to sign Cale; that makes all the difference," Hagan says. "We got to show these folks over here that we mean bidness. Cale gives this operation credibility."
The Yarboroughs have been billeted in a 16th-century chateau, one of the most beautiful in all of France. The castle, as the kids call it, is Chateau de Vizé overlooking a village called Vire, and the owners, Colonel and Mme. Jean Launay, also own 600 acres around it. The chateau, which has been painstakingly restored, has its own private chapel and dungeon, and the furnishings are authentic and expensive and rare.
Madame Launay is a handsome and imperious woman, and she is not at all keen on having guests. But the town fathers of Le Mans prevail on her to take in a celebrity now and then so that the visitors can enjoy the full flavor of rural France.
Well, if one must. But...Mr. and Mrs. Cale Yarborough and three kids from Timmonsville, South Carolina?
Coolly, Madame Launay shows them around the chateau, drawn to her full height, with her hands folded at her waist. Little B.J. looks up at her with absolute awe. And back in the giant main hall, Betty Jo looks around and says, "I swear, there sure is a lot of French Provincial furniture in here, isn't there?" She turns to a friend and adds, "But then, I guess that figures, doesn't it?"
Madame Launay sighs and looks at the ceiling.