Monday, June 24, 2024

NASCAR Garage 56 completes 24 Hours of Le Mans

The idea seemed ludicrous when it was first announced. A NASCAR Cup Series car racing the 24 Hours of Le Mans? Absurd, right?

As it turned out, what might be ridiculous on paper could be a magical experience in practice.

NASCAR’s first foray into the legendary endurance race since 1976 was a rousing success. With seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, Formula One champ Jenson Button, and former Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller behind the wheel and support from premier Cup organisation Hendrick Motorsports, the team successfully completed 285 laps and hung around with the LMGTE class to finish thirty-ninth overall.

“That was unbelievable,” NASCAR chairman Jim France said. “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.”

The #24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 stuck out like a sore thumb with its gigantic size and roaring Chevrolet V8 engine nearly identical to what is used in traditional Cup races. Besides being an eye catcher, it quickly made waves by setting times as competitive as those in LMGTE to qualify thirty-seventh. The Hendrick crew, led by Johnson’s longtime crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives and already familiar with sports car racing via Ally Cadillac Racing in IMSA, also beat the GT teams in the Pit Stop Challenge and placed fifth overall.

Rockenfeller started the race in the #14, running fourteen laps before Johnson took over. By the time Button was in the car, heavy rain had fallen on the track and caused multiple cars including the LMGTE leader JMW Motorsport to spin out. Johnson described the weather conditions as “frightening”, especially after a shower suddenly appeared at the start of his next stint.

The car ran as high as thirtieth overall as the race entered the final quarter. However, trouble struck on the 254th lap when a driveline issue forced Button to go to the garage. After an hour of repairs, Rockenfeller turned some laps to get the vehicle back up to speed before Johnson finished out the race.

The effort was only the third Garage 56 programme to complete Le Mans since its 2015 introduction after SRT41‘s adaptive LMP2s in 2016 and 2021.

“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 Next Gen car, introduced for Cup competition in 2022, is more compatible with road courses than its predecessor and shares many traits with sports and touring cars. This has generated interest from overseas racing stars to begin dabbling in NASCAR including Button, who made his stock car début at COTA in March along with IMSA star Jordan Taylor who served as the Garage 56 driver coach.

“To take their Cup car and turn it into an endurance car for Le Mans, it’s staggering,” Button commented. His only other Le Mans start came in 2018 where he failed to finish. “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. 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.”

Rockenfeller, the 2010 overall Le Mans champion, ran two Cup races in 2022 and has been integral to testing both the Next Gen car and the Garage 56 entry.

“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,” the German offered. “It has been such a great team, not only my team-mates, 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.”