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.”
Check it pic.twitter.com/X8otpqrG5k
— Chad Knaus (@chadknaus) August 19, 2021
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.”