Garage 56 at Le Mans is designated for cars and drivers who push the envelope and are not part of the categories dictated by the FIA’s WEC, the Le Mans organizers and IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Oftentimes the Garage 56 entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be a car that doesn’t fit in anywhere else, like Don Panoz’s entry for the Delta Wing coupe or his intended Green4U 2018 program.
This year, for the 100th anniversary of the summer twice-around-the-clock classic, Garage 56 will be occupied by Hendrick Motorsports, which is helping NASCAR celebrate its 75th anniversary by entering a Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, much like those running today in NASCAR’s Cup Series for the second year.
The car, which has already been put through its paces by seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and by Le Mans overall winner Mike Rockenfeller, will also include Formula One champion Jenson Button who, as of today, has only driven the ZL1 on a simulator, but will have his first test day at Daytona International Speedway two days after the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona.
The car will be overseen by Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, bringing back a relationship that flourished throughout Johnson’s stellar career, together with the president and GM of Hendrick Motorsports, Jeff Andrews. Even though Johnson doesn’t work officially with Mr Hendrick any longer, placing Johnson into this ZL1 for Le Mans appeared to be a natural. “We couldn’t be more proud of this driver lineup that’s going to go forward and represent this great effort,” said Andrews,. “We know they’re going to represent NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear and it’s a great opportunity – not only for
us but for them – and we’re looking forward to our trip to Le Mans in June.”
Although Jeff Gordon’s name was proposed for the Garage 56 entry, Andrews said the former Hendrick racer was “really good with the decision” to bring Johnson, Rockenfeller and Button to The Sarthe Circuit.
This isn’t NASCAR’s first time at Le Mans; in 1976 Bill France prefaced this Garage 56 program by bringing two NASCAR teams to the race. “Jim France, IMSA chairman, decided he wanted to recreate that same story,” noted John Doonan, IMSA president and Garage 56 project leader. It is, Doonan said, “a special opportunity to put NASCAR on a global stage. He said, ‘Let’s bring a team of All-Stars together, the winningest race team in NASCAR history with 14 Cup championships, there winningest auto manufacturer in NASCAR history, Chevrolet, NASCAR’s tire partner since 1954, Goodyear, and working with our partners at the ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest, Le Mans sanctioning body), Pierre Fillon and his board have been open to the idea.’”
After years of turning left in NASCAR, Johnson spent the past two years racing in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, where he had the assistance of five-time Rolex 24 at Daytona winner Scott Pruett, who has also raced in NASCAR’s Cup Series. “Scott offered to help with this and I think I’ll take him up on that offer,” Johnson said. He’s also come close at the Rolex 24, sports car racing’s midwinter classic taking place this weekend. “It’s been a big dream of mine to go to Le Mans and compete, to be in Le Mans and experience what it’s all about, andy to have the experience I have had here, I know how special this event is, and I’m sad I’m not out there today,” competing in this 61st Rolex 24 race.
Rockenfeller, who has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans overall and secured a Rolex 24 at Daytona victory, has represented a number of manufacturers in his racing career. He has done the bulk of testing for this upcoming Le Mans challenge, at tracks like VIR, Sebring, Road Atlanta. It’s a very different machine from those he’s used to secure sports car victories, but he says he’s really looking forward to the honor of driving with both Button and Johnson. He said the threesome are getting along exceptionally well. “It’s an incredible group of partners on this project. To be involved from day one is just a great honor, a lot of fun, and I can’t wait now to share the car with these two especially young teammates.” Johnson is 47, Button 43 and Rockenfeller is the youngster at 39.
Since his departure from full-time Formula One competition after the 2016 season, Jenson Button has made known his interest in other forms of motorsport. The 2009 Formula One champion with the Brawn GP team that eventually morphed into Mercedes AMG, Button won the 2018 Super GT Series championship with Naoki Yamamoto and boasts plenty of sports car competition on his CV, starting with the 1999 24 Hours of Spa in Belgium. He’s driven in the Race of Champions six times and participated in eSports races from the start of the pandemic in 2020.
Now he’s going to Le Mans to occupy one of the three seats in this Garage 56 entry. With Jordan Taylor, who races for Corvette Racing in IMSA’s GTD PRO class coaching him, Button foresees a smooth transition to driving this NASCAR machine. His sense of humor intact during the introduction of the driving trio, Button said, “This is a total surprise. I was on the way to Disneyland and took the wrong road! After finishing my F1 career,” he said, “I have been looking for new challenges. This is definitely another challenge, to work alongside these two. As you can see, there’s some good banter here with Jimmie dreaming that he’s the youngest. I think it just shows that the teamwork we will need to go to Le Mans and to perform as we would like. I think we can achieve something very special.”
The new NASCAR Next Gen race car, about to enter its second season, is a far different animal than the most recent Cup car that Jimmie Johnson has raced, so his first recent test of the Chevrolet ZL1 indicated a learning curve. “It’s a much different vehicle than what I remember,” Johnson said. “From the driveline perspective and shifting, just the general feel, the attitude of the car, I’m mot used to the cars running so nose up, and now with the underwing on the car and trying to charge the underwing itself for downforce, it’s just a different animal.
“I’m very thankful I got those laps. It did feel foreign, but it felt a hell of a lot closer to home than driving an Indy car,” Johnson stated. “Within six laps I was right there on pace with the guys, so that was nice to be back at home. With this car, we’re making every effort we can to really carry the NASCAR DNA over to Le Mans. That’s really the design and the intent for this program. Even that big V-8 engine, everybody in France is going to love hearing that thing scream down the straightaways,” Johnson said.
All three drivers have expressed their interest in competing in an LMDh and/or Hypercar in the future, once their Garage 56 adventure is complete. For all three the adventure is one they’re all looking forward to. It was Doonan who had the crowning word: “The organization that Rick [Hendrick] and his whole entire organization have put together, it’s unbelievable to have Chad Knaus and Greg Ives involved in this. You couple that with what Chad and Jimmie accomplished over 15 seasons, seven championships, 83 wins, twice here on this stage in 2006 and 2013, unbelievable. Then you go on to Mike Rockenfeller, Le Mans winner, unbelievable endurance sports car experience. Then you add in a world champion from Formula 1, it’s exactly what the vision was to put NASCAR on a global stage and bring drivers from so many different disciples like you’ve seen in NASCAR Cup.
“Mike ran twice last year at Watkins Glen, the Charlotte Oval; Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen and on and on and on, and the list keeps growing. In the end,’ Doonan emphasized, “our hope is to put NASCAR on a global stage. We’ve already learned a lot about this car and what might be able to be applied to the Next Gen Cup car. Just this week, based on the work Rocky (Rockenfeller) has done in the sim, Jimmie has done in the sim, Jenson has done in the sim, there were components we’ve tested on the Garage 56 car that were tested in Phoenix, that might be applied for short track racing or road course racing.
“Then here on Tuesday,” Doonan concluded, “we’re going to fire up headlights, working headlights, working taillights. No more stickers! We’re really excited about that, to help maybe bring some things from this project that could be applied and again, it’s all about putting NASCAR on a global stage.”
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