In 1976, the 24 Hours of Le Mans welcomed a pair of NASCAR stock cars to the grid. Forty-seven years later, the legendary endurance sports car race will do it again.
On Thursday, NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports, with support from American sports car authority IMSA and tyre supplier Goodyear, announced their intention to compete in the 2023 Le Mans race. Hendrick will field a Cup Series Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 as a Garage 56 entry, meaning it is ineligible to race for the win as its goal is to promote technological innovations in motorsport.
“From the early days of NASCAR, it was important to my father that we played a visible role in international motorsports, and there is no bigger stage than the 24 Hours of Le Mans,” commented NASCAR chairman Jim France. “In partnering with Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, we have the winningest team, manufacturer and tire in NASCAR history. We look forward to showcasing the technology in the Next Gen car and putting forward a competitive entry in the historic race.”
While a stock car racing alongside hyper-advanced sports cars might seem unusual, the Next Gen car is perhaps the closest that NASCAR has gotten to resembling such vehicles. The seventh-generation Cup car shares traits with GT3 cars and the Supercars of Australia, such as a single lug nut, sequential transmission, independent rear suspension, and being more road course-friendly to reflect NASCAR’s recent shift towards these types of circuits. The Le Mans Camaro will still differ from its NASCAR version such as the implementation of headlights.
Hendrick Motorsports seems to be a no-brainer to oversee the endeavour. In addition to its general success as the holder of the most championships and race wins in Cup history, the team has one of the premier road racing programmes with wins in all but two of the last ten road races dating back to 2018. HMS also collaborates with IMSA team Action Express Racing (who assisted in testing the Next Gen) to operate the #48 Cadillac in that series’ Michelin Endurance Cup rounds. Chad Knaus, who won seven Cup championships with Hendrick and current IndyCar and IMSA driver Jimmie Johnson, will lead the effort.
“Participating in one of the truly iconic events in auto racing and representing NASCAR and Chevrolet on the world stage is a privilege,” commented Hendrick owner Rick Hendrick. “Jim deserves tremendous credit for having the vision for the project, and we thank him for trusting our organisation with the responsibility. Even though Garage 56 is a ‘class of one,’ we are competitors and have every intention of putting a bold product on the racetrack for the fans at Le Mans.
“It’s a humbling opportunity, one that will present an exciting challenge over the next fifteen months, but our team is ready.”
NASCAR first appeared at Le Mans in 1976 in an effort run by France’s father Bill France Sr. Four-time Cup race winner Hershel McGriff and his son Doug piloted a Dodge Charger while 1973 Talladega victor Dick Brooks teamed up with fourteen-time Cup winner Dick Hutcherson and Frenchman Marcel Mignot in a Ford Torino. However, neither car finished the race due to mechanical problems, with the Charger lasting just two hours before an oil leak doomed it and the Torino making it to Hour 11 until the transmission failed.
“Garage 56 is a special opportunity at Le Mans since this race has been a leader in technological process for the auto industry over its nearly century long existence,” stated l’Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) president Pierre Fillon, whose company organises the 24 Hours of Le Mans. “When the ACO receives an application for a Garage 56 program, we begin by talking with designers, team partners, and suppliers in order to set performance parameters such that the programme can be successful for everyone involved. We will continue to work with NASCAR and all their partners as they work toward their proposed 2023 Garage 56 project.”
Drivers for the entry were not immediately revealed. Hendrick’s current drivers, particularly Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott who have road course wins, would only be able to compete if NASCAR schedules a week off for Le Mans, though the 2023 calendar has yet to be revealed.