Many people thought NASCAR’s participation in the 24 Hours of Le Mans was a bit of a joke and nothing more than a costly “science project” marketing ploy to enter a powerful car in the world’s most competitive endurance race.
The big question when Garage 56 ventured to make a NASCAR debut at Le Mans was that whether the Next Gen stock car was capable of sharing the same storied track as cars like Ferrari, Porsche, and Aston Martin.
Rick Hendrick noticed the skepticism, perhaps even the mockery, and realized that the attitude set in racing had little relevance for American hillbillies competing in “NASCAR’s” at their centenary celebration. This is not exaggerating; when the Next Gen appeared late in the race, the official coverage used Darrell Waltrip’s annoying “Boogity! Boogity! Boogity!” shout.
How mistaken the skeptics were as expectations for the Garage 56 project were exceedingly fulfilled. While finishing the race was the car’s main objective, the way it accomplished this earned it respect from other racers.
The project was engineered in France and as a result the second-year Next Gen was invited to Le Mans in its very own “Innovative Car” category. The class did not engage in any competition; it was merely an exhibition.
The fantasy that he would one day drive a stock car on the Circuit de la Sarthe had been there in France’s mind ever since his late father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. took him to Le Mans in 1962.
Only Rick Hendrick, the owner of the most successful team in NASCAR’s 75-year history could pull off this kind of project. Hendrick is extremely loyal to the France family and has also established a strong bond with them considering he runs an organization that is well managed.
If he agreed to work on a project, his team would be entrusted with producing an outstanding end result so NASCAR wouldn’t come across as a joke in France.
Don’t overlook Goodyear and Chevrolet, the most successful tire and vehicle manufacturers in NASCAR’s 75th anniversary. As Americans made a significant comeback to Le Mans this year, Chevrolet on Sunday won the GT class for the ninth time with its famous Corvette and also had three Cadillacs entered in the top hyperclass.
In comparison to the other cars, the No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro was a beast. Fans were stunned by the loud V8 engine, and the five ex-football players who won their class’ pit crew competition. Also being the only team which used a manual jack rather than an air jack—became the talk of pit lane.
Now known as “Le Monster,” this beastly ball was a force that needed to be taken seriously as expectations underwent another big change as the car qualified more over three seconds faster than the entire 21-car GT category.
Early concerns included being humiliated and finishing the 24-hour event considering the longest race on the NASCAR schedule is 600 miles, but by the time the race had started, NASCAR intended to win the GT class as a whole.
Garage 56 might have had a shot if not for two mechanical issues in the final five hours. There was a brief moment of obvious disappointment among the 200+ spectators, who represented every facet of the NASCAR enterprise.
Seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson piloted the car in the final moments of the race when it was handed over as an honor for him to finish the race. It was also a reward for the ambassador, who had only a few weeks earlier been the most recent driver to be named among the top 75 drivers in NASCAR history.
Johnson started this journey after he announced his retirement from professional racing at the conclusion of the 2020 campaign and set out to complete a list of races on his bucket list, one of which was starting a sports car team with Hendrick and France.
Here they were at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, more than two years later, shrugging off the disappointment of the mechanical setbacks to commemorate their original aim.
The champagne glasses were arranged in a line with thirty minutes to go. Those present in the garage included France, Hendrick, and Jeff Gordon, the four-time NASCAR winner and vice chairman of HMS.
The whole group gathered at the pit road fence to witness Johnson finish the race on his final lap. France lifted his hat in the air as he accepted the flag, Hendrick clapped, and Gordon stood up and applauded.
Everyone in NASCAR was beaming with joy and unity, which is something that isn’t frequently seen in these days of financial talks between teams and the France family over a new business model and a television package.
Fans ran to their heroes as soon as the gates were opened after the race. The NASCAR celebration for a car that placed 39th out of 62 cars attracted over 1,000 spectators outside Garage 56.
Johnson popped up for a salute as the supporters screamed “Jimmie! Jimmie! Jimmie!” They then chanted “JB! JB!” as 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button raised his hand. He bellowed, “Did you like the car?” They responded with a thunderous affirmation.
Mike Rockenfeller, a two-time Le Mans champion, was the next in line; he was responsible for the majority of the project’s early development.
“My heart is full,” Johnson said. “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. 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… My bucket is full… I’m really happy.”