Bell: “A strange day at IMS on many counts”

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NBCSN Verizon IndyCar Series analyst Townsend Bell will be writing a series of blogs for this month. Here’s his third entry, filed after the one of the strangest qualifying days in recent memory for the driver of the No. 24 Robert Graham Special Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing. Past blogs of the month are linked here (first blog, second blog).

Bell in Robert Graham hat with No. 24. Photo: INDYCAR

It was 10 years ago when I came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time. And 10 years ago, I was a rookie driver in the biggest race in the world, Indianapolis 500.

That was a thrill. My dream was to race in the Indy 500 and I had made it.

Now, entering my ninth Indy 500 start next Sunday, I have to say that Sunday’s events at the world’s most famous racing facility were one of the strangest of all of my days here.

After Saturday’s qualifying runs were rained out, the Verizon IndyCar Series officials had to revamp Sunday’s schedule to allow a couple of practice rounds in the morning followed by all cars set to go out at 10 a.m. Then the fastest nine drivers would vie for the coveted pole position.

Rain was in the forecast again so the skies looked overcast with high humidity. We were just hoping to get qualifying in on Sunday.

However, everything changed for that schedule when Ed Carpenter took a hard hit in turn two in the first practice. Ed had run a 231 m.p.h. lap with the new Chevrolet body kits when his Fuzzy’s machine swamped ends and pounded the outside wall in turn two. The car flipped over and skidded down the backstretch.

Luckily, the two-time Indy 500 pole sitter jumped out, but you could tell Ed was upset. Probably both the fact that he destroyed his primary race car and the new speedway body kits seemed to have a “knife edge” with the car’s handling at high speed.

Well, as the IMS operations department worked on the turn two wall and fencing, everything in the garage pretty much came to a halt. Meetings were formed with IndyCar officials, team owners and drivers. After an hour or so, it became apparent that changes were coming before we qualified Sunday.

A few hours later, the officials made the change to reduce the turbo boost of the engines to the race spec and the teams must qualify the cars in the same body trim as they will race. So things were changing right in the middle of the day. Something we hadn’t seen at Indy in quite some time.

Photo: DRR-Kingdom Racing

Well, I felt good about this decision since our Robert Graham Special had been a very good car in race trim. But we did need to test this package again after two days of working with the qualifying body kits. So the 34-driver field was split into two practice sessions in the afternoon followed by one qualifying attempt per car at 3:15 p.m.

Again, the weather conditions were changing with the sun peeking in and out of the clouds and a stronger wind developing out of the south. Unfortunately, we had drawn a later qualifying position so we were hoping the temperatures might go down and cool the track a bit later in the day.

We saw a bigger drop of in speeds after the last couple of days of 230-plus runs. Scott Dixon went out early and put up a great speed at the time of 226.760 for a four-lap average. We all knew that was a tough speed to beat. And as it turned out, Scott won the pole with that speed.

We made a couple of small changes to our Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing-prepared Chevy-powered machine. I thought we had a good car and we could post a solid speed. We had been good in race trim all week in practice and we had produced good speed (around 226) in runs by ourselves and no tows from other cars. However, the wind was stronger out of the south when we went out for the four laps.

I was really shocked what happened as we got up to speed. After the first lap and I saw the lap speed, it was demoralizing. I came across the finish line and I thought there was a digit out on the steering wheel because the car didn’t feel that bad. I am really disappointed when a 223 speed popped up on the steering wheel.

I was wide open and the Robert Graham Special wouldn’t go. I’m not sure I have had a qualifying attempt when the car just wouldn’t go. I feel I have been here at Indy too many times to be that surprised with a performance like that. We were two miles per hour faster earlier without a tow. The gearing felt right but the car just didn’t accelerate as we expected. I was kind of stunned that our average speed was just 223.447.

Team photo after surprisingly tough run. Photo: DRR-Kingdom Racing

Our team’s engineering staff was stumped too. We went back and looked over the data to see what we happened. I didn’t think we would start that far back in the field (26th) after the solid week we had in practice. I wouldn’t feel so badly if the car was off or it was a handful on the track. But I was flat out on the throttle and just drove the car as always. Just a difficult situation. Maybe that also happened to some other drivers late in the day. Maybe the weather conditions changed so much too.

We’ll run a number of laps on Monday to get prepared for the race next Sunday. The temperatures tend to increase as you get closer to the race. The crew worked so hard the past few weeks and the car was well-prepared. It is time to forget about Sunday now and work on next Sunday’s 500.

Last year, I came from 25th on the grid to run second with 15 laps to go in the race. So I know it is possible to do the same again. That is our goal when the green flag drops at 12:15 p.m. EDT on May 24.

With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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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.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

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.”