For more than two years, a collection of executives and engineers from NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, Goodyear and IMSA worked to execute NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France‘s vision to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The all-star collaboration — which includes the winningest team, manufacturer and tire in the sport‘s 75-year history — met and exceeded expectations, both on and off the track, during the iconic race‘s centenary edition. With the help of three world-renowned drivers (seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, 2009 Formula One world champion Jenson Button and two-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller), the NASCAR Garage 56 program delivered the sights and sounds of NASCAR to race fans from around the world.
The NASCAR Next Gen Garage 56 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 was a hit from day one in Le Mans, among fans, media and even other competitors. And it was fast on track, consistently putting down lap times that bettered cars in the GT class. The car ran near the top of the GT field for more than 20 hours until a drive line issue sidelined the team for more than an hour. Overall, the car was running at the finish, completed 285 laps on the 8.4-mile circuit and finished 39th in the 62-car field.
“That was unbelievable,” said France, whose inspiration for the project came from his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. who brought two stock cars to Le Mans for the 1976 edition of the race. “That was thousands of hours of hard work by hundreds of people that went into making this thing happen. And then the way the team and the pit crews and everybody performed all week, it was just fantastic.”
“I hope my dad and my brother are somewhere up there looking down and smiling, but the goal when we set out was to try and finish the race running at the end and not be last. And we accomplished that.”
“It makes me proud for our sport,” said Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR Hall of Famer. “The last thing I‘d want to do is for us to come over here and fall on our nose. That‘s what I was worried about. From the very beginning with Chad (Knaus) and Greg (Ives), I said we‘ve got to do this right. We don‘t spare any expense. Our NASCAR teams can do any kind of race they want to do. I mean, they got the talent, they’ve got the engineers, and they got a lot of smart people and they can do whatever.”
“I feel like we had already captured the trophy right when they dropped the green flag,” said Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports Vice President of Competition who oversaw the Garage 56 program for the organization. “The thing I‘m most proud of is that this wasn‘t really anybody but a few people‘s full-time job. Everybody accepted this task as a passion project and something that they wanted to participate in. And when you get people like that put together, you can do anything.”
Johnson, who accomplished his goal of running stints in a variety of conditions — day, night and wet — also finished the race for the Garage 56 team, running the final 90 minutes.
“My heart is full,” Johnson said. “For all the reasons we know — coming here with NASCAR, Hendrick, Chevrolet, Goodyear. Many of the people here working were on different teams that I won races and championships with. There were so many familiar faces, to have this experience was just off the charts. My bucket is full. I‘m really happy.
“The fan reception — whether it was at the parade, or on the cool down lap just now. Even the corner marshals were going nuts. Everything was just incredible.”
Rockenfeller, who did a majority of the testing and simulation work for the car, started the race for the team.
“It‘s amazing to finish the race, that was priority number one,” Rockenfeller said. “I think it’s something I will look back to later on with my kids and always will be high on my memory in terms of high level races I did. It has been such a great team, not only my teammates, but everybody on the team. The full journey, I mean, what can I say? I made a lot of friends. And I think we did a good job.”
Button, whose participation was perhaps the biggest surprise when announced, ran 97 laps.
“What amazing people,” Button said. “To take their Cup car and turn it into an endurance car for Le Mans, it‘s staggering. They‘re the best in the business, I‘m proud to be working with these guys.
“It’s difficult because there’s so much emotion, we’re all tired. And this is it. You know what I mean? This is it. This is the last time this car is racing. So it’s kind of sad, but then you just got to think about living in the moment.”
— NASCAR News Wire —