NASCAR plans return to 24 Hours of Le Mans with Hendrick’s special Camaro entry in 2023

AUTO: JUN 20 NASCAR Cup Series - Ally 400
Jeff Robinson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

SEBRING, Florida — With its Next Gen model in tow, NASCAR is planning a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Hendrick Motorsports will enter a modified version of the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 as the prestigious race’s “Garage 56” entry, a single-slot class that has been reserved for innovative automobiles since its 2012 introduction.

The joint Hendrick-NASCAR program, which was announced Thursday at Sebring International Raceway, will be overseen by Hendrick vice president of competition Chad Knaus, who traveled to France last August for the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The driver lineup and further details about the car’s technical elements will be announced later, according to a NASCAR release.

Team owner Rick Hendrick said Thursday of the potential driver lineup that “we’ve talked about it a lot,” and he would like to have an active Cup driver behind the wheel if permitted by NASCAR’s 2023 schedule (which is expected to be announced in a few months). Hendrick also has a background in sports car racing, and 2020 Cup Series champion Chase Elliott made his Rolex 24 at Daytona debut in 2021.

This will mark NASCAR’s most significant presence in the 24 Hours of Le Mans since the June 12, 1976 race when two stock cars — a Dodge Charger owned and driven by Hershel McGriff and a Ford owned by Junie Donlavey and driven by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson — competed in the Grand International class. The event was brokered by NASCAR founder Bill France as a salute to America’s bicentennial celebration.

“From the early days of NASCAR, it was important to my father (Bill) that we played a visible role in international motorsports, and there is no bigger stage than the 24 Hours of Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “In partnering with Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, we have the winningest team, manufacturer and tire in NASCAR history. We look forward to showcasing the technology in the Next Gen car and putting forward a competitive entry in the historic race.”

Knaus also has worked since last year in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship DPi category on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac that is co-driven by Jimmie Johnson (whom Knaus guided to seven Cup Series titles at Hendrick). Rick Hendrick has attended multiple IMSA races since partnering with Jim France on the Action Express-fielded No. 48 (which also has used Hendrick pit crew members).

NEW VENTURE: Chad Knaus on the joy of racing sports cars

“Participating in one of the truly iconic events in auto racing and representing NASCAR and Chevrolet on the world stage is a privilege,” Hendrick said in a release. “Jim deserves tremendous credit for having the vision for the project, and we thank him for trusting our organization with the responsibility. Even though Garage 56 is a ‘class of one,’ we are competitors and have every intention of putting a bold product on the racetrack for the fans at Le Mans. It’s a humbling opportunity – one that will present an exciting challenge over the next 15 months – but our team is ready.”

Chevrolet has been a mainstay at Le Mans in recent years through its Corvette Racing program.

“NASCAR is going back to Le Mans!  Chevrolet is looking forward to being a key partner with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports and Goodyear in this historic Garage 56 effort,” Chevrolet Performance and Motorsports vice president Jim Campbell said in a release.  “While many know us as the winningest manufacturer in NASCAR, we also have had great success with our Corvette Racing program at Le Mans, with eight class wins in 21 starts since 2000. At Chevrolet, we love to compete and we can’t wait to get started on this program.”

The car will use tires from Goodyear, which is the exclusive supplier for NASCAR and also is involved with the LMP2 class at Le Mans.

“Goodyear has proudly produced tires for NASCAR for more than 60 years, and we look forward to taking our innovation to the next level at the 24 Hours of Le Mans,” Stu Grant, Goodyear’s general manager of Global Race Tires, said in a release. “Being involved in this historic race as part of the Garage 56 entry is yet another demonstration of our commitment to advancing racing tire technology.”

Garage 56 was designed for testing new technologies and showcasing creativity without impacting the integrity of the traditional starting grid of the race.

The first Garage 56 entrant was the DeltaWing (a sleek and lightweight prototype that originally was pitched for in IndyCar), and other selected cars have been powered by various alternate propulsion systems.

It’s expected to be merely a formality that the NASCAR/Hendrick entry receives approval and the Garage 56 invite from the l’Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) that organizes the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

“Garage 56 is a special opportunity at Le Mans since this race has been a leader in technological process for the auto industry over its nearly century long existence,” ACO president Pierre Fillon, who attended Thursday’s announcement, said in a release. “When the ACO receives an application for a Garage 56 program, we begin by talking with designers, team partners, and suppliers in order to set performance parameters such that the program can be successful for everyone involved.  We will continue to work with NASCAR and all their partners as they work toward their proposed 2023 Garage 56 project.”

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing

To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

MORE: McLaren considering Kyle Busch for Indy 500

“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.

Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”