Any hope that Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Bruton Smith had of moving the season-ending NASCAR Sprint Cup race to Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2015 ended Sunday.
Smith has sought to prod NASCAR to move the season finale to Las Vegas, given that Homestead-Miami Speedway’s agreement with Ford was due to expire at the end of this season.
Officials from Ford and HMS announced Sunday morning prior to the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway that the south Florida 1.5-mile track will continue to host the season-ending races for all three series through 2019, with an option to extend the agreement through 2024.
Ford has hosted the championship-deciding races in the Camping World Truck Series, Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series at Homestead-Miami since 2002.
“While many things have changed in those 13 years, one thing has remained constant and that’s the fantastic partnership that we have with Ford Motor Company,” HMS president Matt Becherer said.
“Whether you’re talking about the celebrity involvement, whether you’re talking about their best-in-class display that anchors our midway, or the iconic flags that are pulled behind the Ford trucks at the conclusion of the national anthem, there’s no doubt in our fan’s mind that we do everything possible to make Ford Championship Weekend a top-notch championship event.
“It’s for that reason I am thrilled to announce that Homestead-Miami Speedway and Ford Motor Company have extended their relationship on Ford Championship Weekend through 2019, with an option to continue through 2024.”
The last two times a Ford driver won the Sprint Cup championship was Matt Kenseth in 2003 and Kurt Busch in 2004, both out of the Roush Racing stable at the time.
With the new extension in place, Ford hopes to change that in this year’s season finale, particularly with the expanded and revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup format.
“I was there last year at Homestead-Miami Speedway and I’ll be there again this year to hopefully celebrate a Ford blue oval in the championship circle,” said Joe Hinrichs, Executive Vice Present/President of the Americas, Ford Motor Company.
“We think Ford Championship Weekend sets up now and into the future as an even bigger event with the new Chase format and the excitement around qualifying … and then of course the race itself and crowning a champion.”
When NASCAR and sister company International Speedway Corp. both agreed to keeping the season’s final race at Homestead, that sealed the deal for Ford and HMS to put a deal together – much to the chagrin of Las Vegas or any other potential suitors for the annual season-ending race.
“We’ve spent the better part of a year renegotiating this extension and we would not have expended the time and energy that we did had we thought there was any chance that the championship could be leaving Miami in the near future,” Becherer said. “… The reality is we would not have gone down the path we did if we thought there was a chance that it would leave. And frankly it shouldn’t leave.”
France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.
A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.
Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.
The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.
“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”
The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.
The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.
“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”
This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.
Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.
“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”
The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.
“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.
“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”
The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.
“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”
For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.
“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”
General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.
“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”
The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.
“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”