TRG, Porsche reunite, Buckler looking to recapture glory once more at Rolex 24

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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The question often asked of Kevin Buckler and TRG in the early-to-mid-2000s as the team built up its brand, arsenal and fleet of Porsche 911 GT3s for the Rolex 24 at Daytona was rather simple.

How many Porsches are you racing this year?

For a team that once ran as many as six Porsches in 2005, with two Riley-Pontiac Daytona Prototypes added for good measure to make a race record total of eight entries from one team, TRG enters this year’s Rolex 24 in a different position: as a team with just one car only, and one of the five Porsche 911 GT3 Rs on the grid.

Photo courtesy TRG
Photo courtesy TRG

It’s fair to say even though the 2017 model of TRG is an underdog compared to the usually stacked two or three all-pro TRG cars of yesteryear, and overall within the 27-car GTD field, the TRG Porsche now represents the manufacturer’s most prepared bet in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona class this go-around.

Here’s the reasoning. Few doubt CORE autosport’s endurance expertise – they’ve won at Daytona and Sebring before – but to expect everything to go swimmingly for the team’s first race with its new 911 is unrealistic. Park Place Motorsports has been frequently unlucky at the Rolex 24, having not even cracked the top-10 the last few years. Alegra Motorsports’ lineup has a wealth of youngsters high on upside, while the Manthey Racing customer entry is primarily stacked with gentlemen drivers.

In TRG’s five-driver lineup, there’s Porsche factory veteran Wolf Henzler, sports car veteran Jan Heylen, and past Nissan driver Pablo Sanchez set to lead and two capable Bronze-rated drivers in Mike Hedlund and Santiago Creel.

Despite a lineup that includes proper pro-am drivers (some teams have stacked the deck), Buckler and TRG have enough experience from 20-plus years, four past Rolex wins (all with Porsche, including its famous overall win in 2003) and strategy to contend and surprise if the car makes it through the night unscathed. The team is back with Porsche after several years with the Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3, with the team fully branded under the TRG-AMR moniker.

Buckler. Photo courtesy TRG
Buckler. Photo courtesy TRG

“It just feels right,” Buckler told NBC Sports. “We were talking about this a month and a half ago, whenever it started, having a good conversation with my friends at Porsche and having been with them so long, we felt not only is it a feel-good story, but with all the factory efforts you have over here in GT.

“Even though we’re probably the most successful in the engines (with Porsche), we’re a total underdog and I love that. We’re going to have to fight against these big factories, and who better to do that with than the team, the car and company I know best.

“Not only that, it was really fortunate that there were a couple of great Porsche guys that were available, so we’ve taken our best of the best and combined it with some of the best guys out there and hopefully we have a shot at being competitive. That’s the whole idea.

“But getting the band back together was exactly it. Like I’ve said many times, don’t bet against a Porsche in a 24-hour endurance race.”

The new 911 GT3 R impressed in its debut last year and came up just short of a class win in the hands of Black Swan Racing.

Porsche’s GTD effort is entirely customer-driven, unlike some of the other manufacturers in class, notably newcomers Acura and Lexus. Factory drivers are peppered in throughout all of the nine manufacturers entered in GTD.

The evolution of the race has also changed to where GT is now firmly featured given that level of investment. The new Prototype cars (DPi and 2017 LMP2 chassis) will be focused but with half the field, GTD is going to be where a lot of action – not just among itself, but potentially the leading classes – will take place.

“If the game was juggling more plates, we’d win every year. We’ve been really good at that,” Buckler explained.

TRG's last Rolex 24 win came in 2011. Photo courtesy TRG
TRG’s last Rolex 24 win came in 2011. Photo courtesy TRG

“But I’ve been beating the GT drum for 25-plus years, and for many years, GT was supporting the race, but they always promoted the prototypes.

“Now we see all this factory involvement, it’s professional sports car racing, it’s GT racing, you recognize the brands, you recognize the cars. I love it, I love being part of it and having helped shape it to an extent, even in a small way.

“It’s real awesome because I’m involved in a lot of partnership and sponsorship deals with companies that would be looking at golf or tennis or stick and ball sports, and now they’re hear with us, participating. That’s very refreshing.”

RingCentral, Crowdstrike, LaSalle Solutions, Cavall 7 and Buckler’s Adobe Road Winery are among the partners on the newly renumbered No. 991 Porsche 911 GT3 R. The usual No. 66 or 67, TRG hallmarks of its Porsche past, are unavailable with the two Ford GTs having those numbers. Buckler’s Le Mans-winning No. 81 was also unavailable with DragonSpeed running it.

“We went with the 991. It’s a brand new car for that chassis number. That was no real significance for that number, but it was the best number we had. The full completion of the band would have been the 66 number,” he said.

Buckler hopes to have his full-season Silver-rated driver alongside Henzler sorted by February, with a couple options percolating. Craig Lyons and Kris Wilson will share an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge GS ranks and Buckler expects to have multiple entries in Pirelli World Challenge SprintX.

Trying to star as a one-car, fully privateer entry in IMSA’s changing GTD arena is a challenge Buckler and TRG are relishing.

“If there’s a good end game, then we will participate. If there’s not, then I don’t see why we would waste our money,” Buckler said.

“I’m really looking forward to this year with the competition, although I think some of the (factory) guys got confused which class they’re in.

“At the same token, I hope we can also come up with a strong lineup and have a rockin’ year because it’s just really satisfying to see the class so vibrant with so many manufacturers pushing so hard.

“To me, it’s like the sport has arrived mainstream.”

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.”