Throwback Thursday: The 24 Hours of Le Mans — The Race That Dale Earnhardt Dreamed Of

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As the 2015 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans prepares to kick off this weekend in France, Race Chaser Online offers this look back on a driver who never got the chance to compete in the legendary endurance classic — but once dreamed he could have seized the opportunity.

LE MANS, France — official release — General Motors photo —

For the 2001 season, two years after the debut of the GTS program, Doug Fehan and the Corvette Racing team wished to solidify their constant progress and begin achieving important wins.

As such, the North American constructor’s goals were focused on Daytona, Le Mans and the American Le Mans Series championship.

To create as much sensation as possible regarding Corvette’s entry in the 24 Hours of Daytona, Fehan put into motion a project that had been bouncing around in his head for several months — a project that could not have materialized the previous season. Fehan’s goal was to invite one of the legends of NASCAR, as well as his son — who was debuting in the Winston Cup Series — to get behind the wheel of the No. 3 Chevrolet Corvette C5-R, alongside sports car mainstays Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins.

That pair carried the last name of Earnhardt.

For Dale Earnhardt Sr., who competed in 676 races during a 27-year NASCAR career, the change was radical. Nonetheless, the 49-year-old driver took the challenge seriously and did not skimp on preparation.

For two months during the winter break, the driver for Richard Childress Racing in NASCAR increased his number of test drives onboard the Corvette sports car, namely at the Sebring circuit. Despite a violent incident in which he was involved, Earnhardt did not give up and even began a fitness regimen so as to take on the 24 Hours of Daytona under the best possible conditions.

Serious and focused, the seven-time NASCAR premier series champion listened to his partners and set out to benefit from a series of tests in order to increase his experience on board the Detroit Muscle Car. For the driver nicknamed ‘The Intimidator’, the unknown factor of the 39th edition of the 24 Hours of Daytona was the weather.

Unfamiliar weather conditions made chaotic work for the star of a discipline in which the race doesn’t go on if the weather gets bad. However, at first light on Sunday morning, the unpredictable Florida sky gave Earnhardt a gift. In the rain, The Intimidator surprised observers by clocking impressive lap times given his lack of experience in those conditions — providing further proof, not that it was needed, of his commitment to his first experience in endurance.

In the end, the No. 3 driver line-up of Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Collins and Pilgrim finished in fourth place overall at the 2001 edition of the Rolex 24 at Daytona while the sister car of the official team won the race.

That Rolex start was a first adventure that called for more, since the North Carolina native wanted to expand the breadth of his team, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI), to endurance racing —  with the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans as the main goal.

Le Mans was a race the elder Earnhardt dreamed of doing, with his son, at the wheel of an emblematic car — the Chevrolet Corvette.

Unfortunately, Earnhardt lost his life a matter of weeks after that 2001 edition of the 24 Hours of Daytona, at the same facility where he nearly won in a sports car, on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Earnhardt’s loss was a tragic page in the history of North American motorsports, but more importantly, it was a tragic page in the history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Circuit de la Sarthe.

It was the one page that never had a chance to be written.

CREDIT: Nikki Ehrhardt / Automobile Club de l’Ouest

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