When Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, Goodyear and NASCAR introduced Garage 56 and the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 entry for the centenary 24 Hours of Le Mans, the announcement was taken seriously. After all, 2023 marks NASCAR’s 75th year of operation and it is one of the most popular forms of motor sport in the world, likely second only to Formula One.
Hendrick Motorsports doesn’t begin any program without proper preparation and the Garage 56 is no different. While working with its manufacturers of choice in NASCAR, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and hiring three drivers with diversity on their sides to attack The Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans that includes roads regularly traveled, the team, its partners and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO, Le Mans’ regulatory and promotions group) have put together a viable program that could see success.
While it’s hard to certify any racing program as one that will ultimately be successful, especially a racing entity so different from the balance of the Le Mans field, Garage 56 has already shown its mettle on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. How, you ask? Let’s start with pre-race activities. On Tuesday, the crack crew put together for this event won the Pit Stop Challenge competition.
The five Garage 56 over-the-wall athletes, despite being the singular squad to use a manual jack, changed four Goodyear Eagle tires in 10.364 seconds, edging Northwest AMR (Aston Martin Racing) by a scant 0.12 seconds. Garage 56 finished fifth overall, just 0.3 seconds behind the top finishing team and best of all GTE challengers.
Hendrick Motorsports’ pit crew coach Evan Kureczka noted, “It was actually our fastest stop of the day, so I would say I was surprised, but also very pleased. You can tell the fans were very impressed with the fact that we were using a jack to jack the car up. You could see the smiles on their faces. We put on a great show for the fans,” he said. The rabid Le Mans fans would have been even more amazed by the Hendrick pit-stop crew’s achievements had they realized this five-man squad were working together for the first time in a competition setting. despite competing for Hendrick Motorsports’ four teams in NASCAR’s Cup Series.
The fan focus for this entry was on the driving squad that featured seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, 2009 Formula One World Champion Jenson Button and two-time overall 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller. The trio, which managed to stay close to the top GTE class runners throughout much of the 24-hour race, were sidelined with four hours remaining when they suffered a drive line issue. Despite time in the garage area, the team returned to the track and was classified 39th overall of the 40 finishers. There were 62 total starters in this race and early monsoon conditions caused many issues and subsequent retirements.
While the Garage 56 entry is not affiliated with any of the classes that race at Le Mans – it’s entered as an “innovative car” – the team did perform customary scrutineering, practice and qualifying, in addition to the 24 hours of racing. There were three classes running: Hypercar prototypes, LMP2 prototypes and LMGTE Am GT3 sports cars. During the dual qualifying sessions, Rockenfeller brought the No. 24 (a familiar Hendrick NASCAR Cup Series car number) Camaro ZL1 through with a lap at 3:47.976, which was quicker by more than three seconds, than the LMGTE Am No. 1 qualifier. The car’s top speed in qualifying was 314.5 kph (195.4 mph), which was more than 12kph quicker than the top GT3 cars that run in the LMGTE Am class.
NASCAR’s Jim France, who is the company’s chairman and CEO, was exhilarated by the NASCAR Garage 56 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1’s pace throughout the week-long race meeting. “That was unbelievable,” France said after the car completed 285 laps on the 8.4-mile circuit. France has been the engine that kept this project moving forward, claiming the inspiration came from his father, Big Bill France, who brought two stock cars to The Sarthe for the 1976 edition of the Le Mans 24-hour 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,” he related.
“I hope my dad and my brother are somewhere up there looking down and smiling,” France declared, “but the goal we set out was to try and finish the race running at the end and not be last. We accomplished that.”
Hendrick Motorsports’ owner, Rick Hendrick was concerned that the program might not be as strong as it needed to be. “The last thing I’d want to do is for us to come over here and fall on our nose,” he said. “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.” Knaus, who worked with Johnson on his championship teams was ecstatic to reach the end of the race intact: “I feel like we had already captured the trophy right when they dropped the green flag. 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’s goal was to perform race stints in all situations Le Mans might offer. The weather dictated his stints and he got to run in daytime, at night and in the wet. He was designated the final driver to bring the No. 24 Garage 56 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 to the checkered flags. “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,” he said post-race. “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.”
Le Mans is like that. Everyone does get involved and the fans, the corner workers, everyone cheers as the survivors make their way to the twin checkered flags and then to parc ferme. The front straight, where the victory podium takes place, becomes inundated with humanity who cheer for the overall victors, the class winners and every team on the podium.
Mike Rockenfeller, whose familiarity with the track and with the race made him the obvious candidate to perform most of the testing and simulation work, started the race for the Garage 56 entry. “It’s amazing to finish the race. That was priority number one,” he said. “I think it’s something I will look back to later on with my kids, and it will always 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!”
The inclusion of Button might have been a head-scratcher for some who didn’t know that the Briton has been racing endurance competitions since leaving F1. While he only ran 97 laps during the 24-hour race, “To take their Cup car and turn it into an endurance car for Le Mans, it’s staggering,” he said. What amazing people! They’re the best in the business and I”m proud to be working with these guys. It’s difficult,” Button admitted, “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.”
Ferrari’s 499P Hypercar won the overall race from Toyota, which has had quite the run at Le Mans the past few years, earning five consecutive race wins before being toppled. For the Italian marque, 2023 marks the first time Ferrari has logged a Le Mans win since 1965, when its drivers weren’t even a blip on anyone’s radar screen. The victory puts them third on the all-time list behind Porsche, which has 19 overall wins and Audi with 13. The No. 51 Ferrari AF Corse Hypercar and the No. 8 Toyota Gazoo Racing GR010 Hypercar were the sole entries to complete 342 laps; the third-place Cadillac Racing No. 2 V-Series.R LMDh (GTP) prototype from Chip Ganassi Racing was a lap down.
The other two classes in this race, LMP2 and LMGTE Am, won’t be part of next year’s race, which gives the No. 34 Inter Europe Competition Oreca 07-Gibson LMP2 team and Corvette Racing’s C8.R, which earned its ninth and final victory as a factory squad, bragging rights forever. Many LMP2 teams are coming to IMSA next year; sports car racing will revert to its status as a customer class in 2024, when both Ford (Mustang GT3) and Chevrolet (Corvette C8.R) will produce customer cars.