By Jeff Olson, NASCAR / IMSA Wire Service
SEBRING, Fla. – It’s been nearly 46 years since a NASCAR entry competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Jim France remembers talking to driver Dick Brooks shortly afterward.
“He said, ‘No. 1, the fans love the car,’” said France, NASCAR’s chairman and CEO. “‘No. 2, it was a fantastic experience. No. 3, it’s a hell of a challenge.’”
NASCAR is about to relive that Le Mans challenge. In conjunction with Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, IMSA and Goodyear, NASCAR intends to field a special Garage 56 entry for the 100th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2023, officials announced Thursday at Sebring International Raceway.
The car will be a modified version of the Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that debuted this season in the NASCAR Cup Series. The driver lineup and other details will be announced at a later date, but the groundwork is in place.
“To be able to go represent NASCAR in Le Mans is so unique,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “It’s the epitome of racing. … Our guys are fired up. We want to go represent our sport. We’re in our own class, but we want to compete and put the ultimate piece out there.”
In the mid-1970s, Bill France Sr. took NASCAR to Le Mans. A Dodge Charger owned and driven by Hershel McGriff and a Ford Torino owned by Junie Donlavey and driven by Brooks and Dick Hutcherson raced in the Grand International class in 1976.
This time, NASCAR is seeking an invitation to Le Mans’ Garage 56 program, which allows a single car to compete in a class of its own to showcase innovation and technology. The announcement follows a positive debut for the Cup Series’ Next Gen car this season.
“This is a huge opportunity for us,” said NASCAR President Steve Phelps. “There’s a new sense of energy and enthusiasm to this sport that it hasn’t had in a long, long time.”
While Chevrolet has experience at Le Mans with its successful Corvette Racing program’s eight class victories, the opportunity to present NASCAR’s Next Gen car at Le Mans’ 8.467-mile Circuit de la Sarthe is different.
“To take the partners from all those different series and put them together in Garage 56 is so special,” said Jim Campbell, Vice President, Chevrolet Performance and Motorsports. “… We’ll bring to this effort our experience and knowledge of what we see it takes from our experience with Corvette to not only get there and compete and run and finish the race but to have a chance to perform at the level we expect.”
The plan works in two ways: putting NASCAR in front of a global sports car audience, while putting Le Mans on the map for NASCAR fans.
“This is another step for me in this process of collaboration and in doing the best to put NASCAR in front of a tremendous audience at Le Mans,” IMSA President John Doonan said. “And vice versa. NASCAR fans are very passionate and loyal. For them to be able to experience endurance sports car racing – the ultimate test of human and machine – is pretty incredible.”
Garage 56, an extra slot on the grid, was added to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2012 by race organizer Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) to reward and promote innovation without taking the place of a conventional entry in the race. Technical rules do not apply, and the entries are scored as exhibitions.
Past entries have included the Nissan DeltaWing, the GreenGT LMP-H2 hydrogen fuel cell car, and the Nissan ZEOD RC, a DeltaWing powered by a hybrid electric drivetrain.
While the specifications and other details of the Hendrick Camaro have yet to be disclosed, Hendrick said the team is ready for the challenge.
“We’re not going over there to ride around,” Hendrick said. “We’re going to put the best effort out there and run competitively and finish the race. That’s a tall order, but I feel strongly that we can do it.”