De Ferran on Derrick Walker and finding the “balance”

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This is the second in a series of posts stemming from a Tuesday interview with Gil de Ferran. The first one, which focuses on his 2003 Indianapolis 500 win, can be found here. Be sure to check back tomorrow for a new installment.

IndyCar has been praised in recent days following its appointment of longtime team manager and owner Derrick Walker to the role of head of competition. In his introductory press conference this week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he talked of finding a better balance between speed, innovation, and cost that can help the sport reclaim its past glory.

Gil de Ferran – who drove for Walker’s Champ Car squad in the late 1990s – has an idea of what that balance is all about, given he has had stints as a team owner in both the American Le Mans Series and the IZOD IndyCar Series.

“The balance needs to be achieved, otherwise, you’re driving everyone out of business,” said the 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner. “However, for me, the biggest thing that I would focus on is appeal. One assumes that speed and innovation is appealing and I personally believe they are…You can cut costs until you’re blue in the face and if there’s no appeal – you can cut your costs to zero and you still will not be successful.”

Considering that De Ferran is the world record holder for the fastest lap on a closed course – a lap at 241.426 miles per hour achieved in October of 2000 at Auto Club Speedway – it’s no surprise that he believes that the series needs to keep in mind that particular “brand” of speed as it moves forward into the future.

“My gut feeling is that IndyCars have a brand of being very radical machines,” he said. “That’s the original IndyCar brand, where the cars used to achieve incredible speeds when compared to anything people were used to. They had this kind of an “extreme” motorsports sort of appeal. I think anything that IndyCar does going forward has to be in keeping with this brand, which separates IndyCar from anything else.

“IndyCar is not a junior series, IndyCar is a premier series in motorsport and the cars and racing has to portray that, as do the drivers and the teams. Otherwise, there’s no appeal to it.”

His old boss, Walker, surely understands this. In his 19 years as a team owner in American open-wheel racing, he fielded programs for the likes of De Ferran, Christian Fittipaldi, Alex Tagliani, Will Power, Paul Tracy, Simon Pagenaud and Sarah Fisher. In addition, he has experience going back to Formula One, working for both the Brabham and Penske camps, and in sports cars.

Now, in his first-ever senior management role with a series, Walker will be counted on to draw upon his wealth of knowledge in order to help IndyCar continue to make strides.

De Ferran has faith in Walker, who was critical in developing his career and taught him how important persistence and focus can be.

“I guess one of the things I’ve really admired about him – he’s like a Rottweiler,” said De Ferran. “He’s a very persistent person, so when you had that to his focus, I think they’re both qualities I’ve very much admired about him and I guess they’ve stuck with me.”

Jenson Button joins NASCAR Garage 56 at Le Mans with Jimmie Johnson, Rockenfeller

Jenson Button NASCAR Le Mans
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Garage 56 entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be driven by champions of three major-league series — Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The lineup of the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Next Gen Camaro was announced Saturday before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

NASCAR’s Garage 56 project was announced in March 2022 as a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear. It marks the return of a NASCAR team to Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick fielding a Camaro ZL1 as the “Garage 56” entry in the 100th edition of the sports car classic.

It’s long been expected the car would include Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who is returning to NASCAR’s premier series as a driver-owner in 2023. Rockenfeller, the 2013 DTM champion and 2010 Le Mans overall winner, has attended every NASCAR Garage 56 test since last year while racking up simulator testing hours.

The surprise was Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who has become a popular commentator. Rick Hendrick initially said wanted four-time Cup champion and current Hendrick Motorsports COO Jeff Gordon to drive the car, and Gordon had raced a sports car at Indianapolis last year to test his race shape.

GARAGE 56 ANSWERS, ANALYSISMore on the NASCAR-Hendrick entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “The lineup of Jimmie, ‘Rocky’ and Jenson is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans, and across the world.”

Button had one of the most prolific careers in F1 history finishing with 15 wins and 50 podiums on top of his 2009 World Championship and is widely considered one of the top British drivers of all time.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said in a release. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and ‘Rocky’ for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world. I’m really looking forward to sharing this journey with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and current and future NASCAR fans from around the world.”

Johnson will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut a year after starting his first Indy 500. He has 83 victories in the Cup Series, where he will return for the Daytona 500 next month with his Legacy Motor Club team.

He also has been involved with testing the Garage 56 Camaro.

“I’m super thrilled – it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come – and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup – is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller teamed with Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2021-22. The German driver has been the lead test driver for Garage 56 and has driven during every on-track test.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

The car will continue testing with all three drivers next week at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Rolex 24 and four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who drives for Corvette Racing, will be the team’s backup driver and coach. Taylor also won the GTE Pro class in 2015 at Le Mans, where he has four podium finishes.

The project also is being supported by IMSA GTP team Action Express, whose general manager is former NASCAR executive and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Gary Nelson. Action Express built the first test car for the Garage 56 but since has handed off the project to Hendrick, where it’s being over seen by vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven championships).

“Action Express got it going and built the mule car, and then Hendrick joined the program, took it from where we had it, and they’re doing a major percentage of the work,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “We just did a test a couple months ago on a wet track. We’ve done a couple of other tests as they were ramping their program up. Now their car is good, tested and running. We’re still involved and here to help. The Hendrick guys have taken the reins, and Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus are a thrill to work with and doing a much better job. It’s more NASCAR than prototype racing.”