We’ve all been through a similar situation when we might have thought something was a good idea, but which in hindsight probably wasn’t. At times, the things we challenge ourselves to do are usually quite harmless. Some people, however, end up in crazy situations because of, shall we say, exaggerated bravery. This was the case of a real estate broker from Texas who found himself behind the wheel of a sports prototype racer on the grid of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Without a license, without experience.
The 1984 Le Mans 24 Hour race was one of the first runs under Group C regulations, with some of the fastest racing cars ever to run on circuits throughout the world. The 1984 edition was run on the iconic track without the two chicanes on the Hunaudières straight, stretching for 6km between the Tertre Rouge corner to the Mulsanne corner. In 1990, as speeds climbed to over 400 km/h (with a record of 405 km/h in 1988, for the W.M. Peugeot P88), the governing body decided to build two chicanes, cutting the 6km straight into three sections.
The likes of Porsche, Jaguar and Lancia fielded multiple factory-backed prototypes, with many privateer teams competing under C1, C2 or IMSA GTP regulations. Some of the most illustrious racing drivers lined up on the grid, including “Mr Le Mans” Henri Pescarolo (33 starts, 4 wins, including this 1984 edition), “Brilliant” Bob Wollek (30 starts) and our very own Dutchman Jan Lammers (24 starts, 1988 overall winner). Certainly, it kind of helps to have at least some experience to conquer the gruelling endurance race.
But there’s (at least) one man in Le Mans’ long history to race at the highest level without as much as an official racing license or even experience behind the wheel of savage machines like a Group C car. American-born Jack Griffin is the man who sat behind the wheel of a prototype sports car in the IMSA GTP class. How could this happen, you ask?
Well, first of all, regulations weren’t as strict as they are now, even though amateurs can still race Le Mans if they want to. Nowadays there is a separate class that dictates a team of amateur drivers only, the LMGTE AM (for amateur) class. It still requires you to get proper licensing though (from the FIA), and you need quite a bit of cash to finance your racing adventure.
The story of Jack Griffin’s peculiar racing career started a year earlier, at the 1983 Daytona 24 hours. Jack was there with a racing driver buddy of his, and was under the impression that racing cars around a track was fairly easy. Towards the end of the racing weekend, the two ended up talking about racing cars and, eventually, this lead to the idea of Jack running in the Sebring 12 hours, the next scheduled race. He figured a bit of practice was welcome, and Jack had four days of training with the Bondurant Driving School in California. Practice was done in road cars though, so when Jack went to Sebring he still had no racing license and no experience driving a race car. He still followed through and ran a race-prepped Porsche 914-4.
Driving the car into the wall on lap 15 and retiring from the race, he realised he was in way over his head. Despite this setback, he persevered and a year later, he flew to France for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Not at all with the intention of actually entering the race but of attending the race as a spectator only. The aforementioned buddy was set to race at Le Mans that year, and as the two were strolling through the pits, word spread that a French team was in need of a driver. Jack’s buddy urged him to go to talk to the team, which he did, and somehow the team decided to put him behind the wheel of the Rondeau M382 Cosworth sports prototype. Remember that back then, things like the internet were still in their infancy so a background check was not something you could do on the spot.
The Rondeau M382 Cosworth Jack Griffin competed in is a sports-prototype powered by a 3.3-litre Ford V8 engine, a variant of the most successful engine used in Formula 1. It produced 540bhp, and the whole car weighed about 830 kilos. Rondeau was a constructor headed by racing driver Jean Rondeau, the only man in racing history to win the Le Mans 24 Hour race in a car bearing his own name, in 1980. The M382 was quite a capable racing car coming from a privateer constructor and took on Porsche’s mighty 956 Group C cars. These type of cars were often run by a lesser-funded team after the constructor didn’t have a real use for them anymore, case in point the French Bussi Rondeau team in this incredible story.
Piloting the car with co-drivers, Bruni Ilien and team owner Christian Bussi (both French), the team ran the car for nine hours until a mechanical failure sidelined them. The team was impressed by Jack’s efforts and invited him to run the car’s successor, the Rondeau M482, in the 1985 Le Mans race. His second attempt at the endurance race ended after four hours due to a failed suspension. After racing for about three years in total, including two starts in the Le Mans 24 Hours, the Sebring 12 Hours and the Daytona 24 Hours, he decided he had enough and quit racing.
It is a very cool and interesting story, with one crazy thing leading to another explained in detail in this article by Petrolicious. Also, check out the YouTube video by Petrolicious (and above too) talking to Jack Griffin about his Porsche 914-6 while also covering his racing career.