While visiting Charlotte Motor Speedway on Wednesday during the Parade of Power tour, Team Penske’s Will Power got a chance to sample the newly configured “roval,” the road course built within Charlotte that incorporates a mix of an infield road course with parts of the 1.5-mile oval.
Power, who was at Charlotte with his Team Penske Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series counterpart Ryan Blaney, along with NHRA Pro Stock racer Greg Anderson, explained afterward that the circuit left a good impression on him.
“I haven’t gotten to do a whole lap, but I’ve seen the two chicanes and the turn that goes into the infield. It looks pretty nice,” Power detailed. “I know the old track (the oval), I’ve driven around the old track. I don’t know how much it’s changed, but (the roval) looks like it’ll be a lot of fun.”
Power got a chance to sample the circuit in a ride-along with Blaney, who drove Power around in a two-seat version of his No. 12 Penske Racing Ford.
Power also revealed that, per a conversation he had with Blaney, the circuit could pose a unique challenge and produce some very intense racing.
“Blaney says it was quite difficult to get his head around (the track), but he says it’s going to be solid racing (on it) – a lot of moving people out of the way and that type of thing. He seems to think the fans will like it.”
The Verizon IndyCar Series has previously raced at Charlotte Motor Speedway, between 1997 and 1999. And Power, who lives in North Carolina, would welcome the idea of the track returning to the schedule.
“That would be a total home race for me. I’d love to see that, that would be awesome. But, I have no clue if that would ever happen,” Power revealed.
A hypothetical return to Charlotte would follow a recent trend of IndyCar returning to venues it hasn’t visited in recent years. IndyCar heads to Portland International Raceway on Labor Day Weekend (September 2, on NBCSN), a circuit that hasn’t held an IndyCar race since the old Champ Car World Series raced there in 2007, their final season prior to unification.
And the series is also slated to return to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in 2019 after an absence that dates back to 2004 – Champ Car’s final race at the circuit came in that season, with Patrick Carpentier taking the win.
The return of such venues, stalwarts on the open wheel calendar through the 1990s and into the 2000s, is nothing short of positive in Power’s mind.
“You think about how big the crowds were when CART was going to Portland and Laguna Seca – there is a good fan base there, and those tracks have good history and they’re great tracks to drive on. So, I’m really excited about the additions to the schedule,” he added.
The next Verizon IndyCar Series event is the ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway (August 19, on NBCSN), while the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series tackles the Charlotte “roval” on September 30 for the Bank of America Roval 400.
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.”