NASCAR Garage 56 brings big names, cool race cars to Le Mans
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NASCAR Garage 56 brings big names, cool race cars to Le Mans

Sep 05, 2023

"Just a nice little drive through the French countryside, right?"

Jenson Button, the 2009 Formula One world champion and winner of 15 Grand Prix races grins. He has been asked about the next racing machine he will pilot, in the 100th anniversary edition of the planet's greatest endurance race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

He will be one of three co-drivers, not in a Ferrari, a Porsche or even a Cadillac or a Glickenhaus but in a by-god NASCAR-branded Next Gen Chevy Camaro ZL1 with a 750-horsepower, 5.8-liter V-8 built in Concord, North Carolina, alongside the rides of Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. Atop that powerplant resides the bold black shadow of an American flag splashed across the hood.

"Drivers and crews will tell you that during the darkest hours of night at Le Mans it can be a challenge to stay awake," the 43-year-old Brit continues, "but I can tell you that as long as this race car is blasting down the Mulsanne Straight, no one will be sleeping. It will be sure to wake them up. I've got quite a few laps in it now, and every time it's started, it wakes me up!"

Only a few weeks until I along with my teammates @JimmieJohnson & @m_rockenfeller get to muscles this monster through the Porsche curves at the circuit de La Sarthe for the 100th running of @24heuresdumans. Hold onto your beers tightly and steady the bbq because you'll feel us...

Call it the return of the Monster. It is the Garage 56 entry in this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans, a slick blue-and-gold Chevy bow-tied machine commissioned by NASCAR as a 200 mph de facto international ambassador of stock car racing. A crash course in everything that makes what the European set once called "taxicab racing" unique and cool, just hopefully without a literal crash on the course.

The Hendrick Motorsports-constructed Camaro is plenty loud and powerful, but it is also surprisingly nimble and sneakily packed with technology that makes it as much a cousin to the sports cars it will share the racetrack with June 10 and 11 as it is to the Cup Series machines that will spend that same weekend road racing some 5,500 miles to the west, in Sonoma, California.

Side By SideHere's what you need to know about the #NextGenG56 👇

"To me, that's the part that has and will catch my sports car friends off guard, is the technology," explains Mike Rockenfeller, who will share driving duties with Button and seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champ Jimmie Johnson. "Rocky" has competed at Le Mans since 2002, with a pair of class wins and an overall victory in 2010. He and Johnson are longtime friends and former teammates in the 24 Hours of Daytona. "Perhaps way back when there were assumptions about what NASCAR was and what American stock car racing was, but the moment someone walks onto the Hendrick Motorsports campus or, as I have now, been involved with them in the development of a car and a program from the ground up, there are no rough edges here. And when you take that high-level team and then you roll that Garage 56 car onto Le Mans, I know that the race fans are going to love it."

That car title comes from the 56th and "experimental" entry encouraged, allowed and invited to participate by the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO), labeled so because it operates outside of the race's traditional 55 officially competing teams. So, no, Garage 56 isn't eligible to win one of the coveted trophies topped with a gold "24," but otherwise it has no restrictions.

Go fast. Look awesome. Be cool.

"It is an interesting assignment, isn't it?" says Johnson, who has been, in typical JJ style, locked up in a simulator and running laps while overcaffeinated, attempting to create the conditions he will be immersed in one week from now. "Being a representative of NASCAR is something that I know I take very seriously. Because I have been fortunate to make so many friends in other series, I know that the competitors, the racers, they know what NASCAR is about. They are intrigued by it. But to take a car and showcase it on sports car racing's biggest stage, that's priceless."

Low on sleep but full of caffeine and excitement. Stoked I made it my rookie orientation/sim session. @24hoursoflemans

Then the soon-to-be-NASCAR Hall of Famer and still-new Cup Series team owner shifts gears, as if he were exiting the Tertre Rouge corner.

"But this also isn't a parade," Johnson says. "We'll be pushing this Camaro as hard as it can be pushed. It's a chance to open a lot of eyes. Show real speed. Show real racing. Maybe we can win some folks over to start watching what we do."

In the end, that's why NASCAR is doing this. It's why the sanctioning body, Hendrick and Chevy have pumped millions of dollars into this one-off machine. To catch eyes and pique interest.

In this new era of aggressive scheduling ideas and a tech push into a potential electric-powered future, NASCAR is increasingly kicking around the idea of an event, exhibition or otherwise, overseas. And it is perpetually courting auto manufacturers to take a look at stock car racing, especially the European set. But German and Italian carmakers who are already electric-obsessed need assurances that the folks in Daytona aren't still the same racers who had until relatively recently resisted digital dashboards and even fuel injectors.

"We haven't been that for a long time, but it doesn't hurt to show that off," Rick Hendrick, himself a former sports car racer, said earlier this spring.

It's why Hendrick's choice to oversee it all has been Chad Knaus, Johnson's former longtime crew chief and inarguably the greatest NASCAR team boss of his generation. He won 81 races and seven Cup Series titles atop the pit box for Johnson and added one more win with William Byron in 2020 before seeking out bigger challenges. Say, taking NASCAR's much-ballyhooed Next Gen one-size-fits-all tank of a frame and body and upfitting it for an enduro run alongside Aston Martins and Oreca 07s.

For a mechanic who built a reputation on rewriting rulebooks and working 24 hours a day, being handed a new set of regulations to prepare for a 24-hour race? It was like carbon-fiber Christmas.

"Don't use the phrase 'blank slate' because that's not what it was," Knaus, never one for metaphors, said at the car's unveiling on the eve of the Daytona 500 in February. "But what it did give us was a pair of challenges.

"There was room for some creativity, introducing some technology that you wouldn't normally see on a stock car, like paddle shifters on the steering wheel and the aerodynamic additions that maybe you don't notice at first but certainly do the more you examine the car, or if you really do a side-by-side with a true Cup car. And then the endurance element, running an engine that hard for that long and the development of a whole new braking system. Even driver changes, that's all new to us. And that's exciting, but it also keeps you worrying, 'What did we forget?' That will keep you up at night."

But that's just training for a 24-hour race, right?

"Yes. It'll just be a little louder at Le Mans than me lying in bed at home going through checklists."

A lot louder, actually. And if everyone is being honest, that's the part of all this they are most excited for: that throaty dragon of a roar echoing off the tunnel of concrete and aluminum of the paddock grandstand and pit lane bracketing the straight that holds the start/finish line.

Old-school Le Mans attendees still tell the stories of 1976. That's the last time a NASCAR machine rumbled its way around the Circuit de la Sarthe. There were a pair of them, aka the Two Monsters.

Motorsports around the world were struggling thanks to the ongoing Middle East oil crisis. So, rival sanctioning bodies wisely chose to work on cooperative ideas to shore up thinning entry lists. The ACO and the France family -- the Florida-based owner/operators of NASCAR, not the nation -- brainstormed ideas to aid the 24-hour races in Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans. Part of that plan was for NASCAR to bring a pair of entries to the 1976 edition of Le Mans.

"When I fired up that Dodge Charger and hauled that deal down the Mulsanne Straight, those people went crazy," recalled Hershel McGriff at his NASCAR Hall of Fame induction in January. The West Coast road racer co-drove the No. 4 Olympia Beer-sponsored machine with his son, Doug. "It was wild time for sports cars, and there were a lot of odd-looking machines out there then. We really stood out, and we had to qualify for that race. It was stressful, but it was so fun."

The other entry was the No. 90 Ford Torino, owned by Virginia gentleman Junie Donlavey and driven by South Carolinian Dick Brooks, Iowa's Dick Hutcherson and Frenchman Marcel Mignot.

Looking ahead to @nascarg56 at #LeMans24, how crazy awesome is it that Herschel McGriff & Junie Donlavey fielded a Charger & Torino in 1976? Dick Brooks drove for Donlavey. I wish I could've seen how locals reacted to Junie and Dick's Virginia & South Carolina accents! #NASCAR75

"Our engines weren't built for their fuel, so I didn't last long," McGriff remembers. "Junie's car had trouble early, but they got back out and ran all night. I was disappointed, but when it was over, people kept thanking us for being there. They loved those cars. And I think they'll love this one now."

That's certainly the hope and goal of NASCAR. As for the Garage 56 team itself, the goal is to find speed, to have fun and, ultimately, to make it to the end.

"Race for 24 hours. If we do that, that's a successful trip," Button says. "But also, surprise some people. I know I was surprised the first time I drove this car. I climbed out and said to Jimmie and Rocky, 'This makes no sense, so much power and so little grip,' but I also told them it was as much fun as I've had. I just love cool racing machines.

"As a motorsport fan, that's all we really want to see: cool racing machines. And this is a cool racing machine."