SEBRING, Florida – Analysis and answers to pressing questions about the expected return of NASCAR to the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick Motorsports bringing a specially modified Camaro ZL1 as the planned “Garage 56” entry in 2023:
Who will be behind the wheel and would it include active NASCAR Cup Series drivers?
The three-driver lineup will be announced at a later date, but there were some clues during Thursday’s announcement.
Team owner Rick Hendrick “would like to see a Cup driver in the system if we could.” The obvious choices would be Chase Elliott, who raced the 2021 Rolex 24 at Daytona with Action Express (which partners with Hendrick on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the IMSA DPi class), and defending series champion Kyle Larson, whose reputation for world-class versatility would be burnished by running the most prestigious sports car race on the planet.
But their availability would depend on whether the NASCAR Cup Series schedule can avoid a conflict with the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The 2022 season has only one off-weekend, but it does fall on the third week of June, just after the annual timeframe for Le Mans. (NASCAR president Steve Phelps deflected Thursday when asked if Le Mans would be accommodated in the 2023 Cup schedule, which is months from being announced.)
Rick Hendrick said “it would be nice to have a mix” with his driver lineup.
“We’ve talked about it a lot, (and) if the calendar works out,” he said. “We’ll just wait and see what’s available, but we’ve got drivers from IMSA that have Le Mans experience, especially with Chevrolet’s involvement. We’ll be covered with drivers. But we would like to see a Cup driver in the system if we could.”
Potential candidates certainly would include Jimmie Johnson, who left Hendrick and NASCAR last year to race a Dallara-Honda with Chip Ganassi Racing in the NTT IndyCar Series.
But the seven-time Cup Series champion has maintained his Chevrolet and Hendrick ties by racing the No. 48 Cadillac in WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Endurance Cup races since last year, and Johnson also helped nail down the team’s Ally sponsorship for IMSA. A primary backer in NASCAR as well on Hendrick’s No. 48 Chevy of Alex Bowman, Ally would seem a good fit for the Le Mans program.
“I haven’t talked to Jimmie yet,” Hendrick said. “I’m sure he would do it if he didn’t have a conflict.”
And there also could be another overlooked option in the Hendrick Motorsports fold that could give the team a homegrown trio of 12 Cup championships for Le Mans.
“We’re going to put (Jeff) Gordon on a diet, and then we’ll get Jimmie back,” Hendrick said with a laugh – though he might not have been joking about getting the Hendrick Motorsports vice chairman into racing shape.
Gordon effectively ended his racing career as a part of Wayne Taylor Racing’s winning Cadillac in the 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona. The four-time Cup Series champion will be 51 at the green flag of the 2023 Le Mans.
But if Gordon can get out of the executive suite and into the cockpit again, the NASCAR Hall of Famer would grace this high-profile effort with the sort of transcendent name recognition that can be matched only by Dale Earnhardt Jr. (another former Hendrick driver and a Rolex 24 veteran whose father had designs on racing at Le Mans).
How will the car be specially modified?
Some tweaks are obvious: The hood lamp decals of the Next Gen will need to be replaced with actual lights to handle dimly lit stretches of the 8.4-mile Circuit de la Sarthe in the middle of the night.
The Camaro also will need to accommodate efficient and reasonably swift driver changes (sports cars have functional doors that open vs. the window-only entry on a stock car). The braking systems of the Next Gen (which was modeled on a sports car platform) greatly were enhanced but likely would need major adjustments for better durability.
Action Express general manager Gary Nelson estimates that the Next Gen Camaro will need at least two full brake changes (two on the front and one on the rear) to complete the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
There also could be some meaningful change to the Camaro’s powerplant. Since its 2012 introduction, the “Garage 56” entry traditionally has been known for innovation and technological advancements, often featuring alternate propulsion systems powered by biofuels and hydrogen.
With NASCAR moving toward hybridization in its engines, it seems probable there could be some electrification components in the Le Mans Camaro.
ACO President Pierre Fillon said during Thursday’s news conference that NASCAR CEO Jim France pitched the “Garage 56” idea around the concept of the Next Gen using a hybrid system in the future. According to SportsCar365.com, Fillon later confirmed the Camaro likely would require a hybrid powertrain.
IMSA president John Doonan said the Next Gen “provides tremendous versatility” for discussions in the coming months to determine the specs of the 2023 “Garage 56” car.
How much testing will need to be done to prepare a stock car for a 24-hour race?
With only four Cup races and a few exhibitions during its debut season, the Next Gen has yet to reach 24 total hours of fierce competition, much less having been run consecutively for a full day.
“The endurance part of it, we’re going to have to work on it,” Hendrick said. “We can run the engines 24 hours and see what happens there. We know it’s going to be different, but we know that the transaxle will take it because that’s been run. There’s a lot of components that have time. I feel like we can do that in a very good way.”
Chevrolet Performance and Motorsports vice president Jim Campbell said much of the endurance testing can be accomplished with computer simulations.
Nelson said Action Express no longer does 24-hour real-world durability testing because the team has high-fidelity sim capability (known as “finite element analysis”) that has become extremely precise.
“We test for the performance of the car,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “The balance, the handling, all the tuning — that you still do in real life. But almost everything else can be simulated.”
Action Express also has worked closely for five years with Dallara, which supplies the team’s Cadillacs and also was pivotal in designing the Next Gen chassis.
“(The Camaro ZL1) is a Dallara-designed car with all the same components, so we know a lot more about running endurance races with a Dallara car,” Nelson said. “When it comes to engine durability, they now have the AVL dyno that will simulate a 24-hour race. Not just an engine running for 24 hours, but they’ve put the track map in, and they’re able to accelerate, brake, shift, RPM changes, all those things exactly like on the racetrack.
“So when they say simulation, it’s not just driver simulation. We know the durability of the Dallara components because we run them.”
But Nelson also noted the G force loading that the Next Gen is designed to withstand for 400-500 miles at high-banked tracks such as Daytona, Dover and Talladega already mimics the stresses during a 24-hour race.
“It’s like a bridge with a lot of the components,” Nelson said. “You build a bridge not just for one truck fully loaded, but if it’s passing another truck that’s fully loaded. You have margins that they build in, because you don’t test bridges by seeing where they’ll break. You overbuild them. Dallara is so good at that, we feel pretty confident.”
Will the Le Mans effort affect Hendrick Motorsports’ NASCAR program?
With more than 600 employees, Hendrick Motorsports should be able to absorb the Le Mans project, which is being led by vice president of competition Chad Knaus, without detracting from its four-car team in Cup.
Last year, Knaus guided Hendrick to its second consecutive championship in NASCAR’s premier series while moonlighting as the strategist in IMSA endurance races for the No. 48 Cadillac.
“It’s going to be expensive, I know that,” Hendrick said with a smile. “We are going to bring in some additional people. Chevrolet has got some folks. We’re assembling all that right now. We don’t want it to interfere with the Cup program. But we do have a lot of folks that know how to do it. We’re not building the chassis anymore (in NASCAR).
“The good news about being in this group with IMSA, we can cherry-pick a lot of the talented people to put on this project, and we’ve already started.”
That includes the strong alliance with Action Express, which has the defending IMSA DPi champion and will be racing Le Mans next year for the first time with a new LMDh Cadillac prototype.
The Next Gen Le Mans program essentially could be the inverse of the No. 48 Ally Cadillac, which is built and prepared by Action Express with Hendrick supplying Knaus and the pit crew.
On the Camaro planned for France, Hendrick will handle the bulk of building the car with Action Express in the supporting role.
“We have the relationship with Hendrick, and we’re able and willing to add our experiences to the project,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “It’s exciting. If they ask us to do anything, we’re here for them. We’re here to help any way we can.”
What is the car’s goal for Le Mans?
It’s simple, according to NASCAR CEO Jim France: “Finish the race and not be last.” That would be a vast improvement over the last time NASCAR raced at Le Mans.
In 1976, Hershel McGriff completed only two laps in his Dodge Charger and finished 55th of 56 cars because of piston failure. Junie Donlavey’s Ford Torino fared slightly better, completing 104 laps and finishing 40th after being sidelined by a gearbox problem.
Though “Garage 56” is a single-entry category with no competition in class and also no hope of finishing in the top 10, there still are some lofty expectations.
“We’re not taking this lightly,” Hendrick said. “This is a full-bore, full-blown effort to run 24 hours and to run competitive times. Our guys are working aero, weight, horsepower. We’re looking at different classes. They’ve told us kind of where we’d like to be.
“But we’re not going over there to ride around. We’re going to put the best effort out there and run very competitively and finish the race. That’s a tall order. I feel strongly that we can do it.”
Could this lead to a greater Hendrick Motorsports presence in IMSA?
The genesis of the Le Mans project was a conversation between Jim France and Rick Hendrick in November 2020.
Since then, Hendrick has seemed enamored with sports cars by attending multiple races as a new joint co-team owner, embedding his key employees at Action Express and allowing Knaus, his most brilliant tactician, to become a fixture in the IMSA paddock.
When veteran sports car journalist John Dagys asked Hendrick if he was considering an expansion of his team’s role in sports car racing, France (also the CEO of IMSA) playfully began nudging the billionaire automotive sales magnate who was sitting beside him on the dais during Thursday’s news conference at Sebring International Raceway.
“I think I’m getting pushed over here a little bit,” Hendrick said to a round of laughter. “We really enjoy it. Our company enjoys it. I can see us expanding, doing more of that. This is a big step for us, but I’ve really enjoyed the Cadillac program. It’s good to see those guys win the championship. See what we can do here this weekend.
“As I said, I’ve been in the sports car racing business, but it’s been a long time ago. Our focus is still in Cup. That’s where we compete, and we want to continue to win championships and races. I’m a big Corvette dealer, I love the sports cars, so we’ll see how it develops. I have a passion for it.”
Why were Hendrick and Chevrolet selected by Jim France to be NASCAR’s Next Gen entry?
Results matter — and that’s what guided France when he began soliciting a team partner for the project 18 months ago.
He started with Hendrick, whose team is NASCAR’s all-time record holder in championships (14), victories (282) and laps led (more than 75,000).
“He’s our champion team, winningest team in our Cup Series,” France said. “I felt like it would be very, very important if he would represent our sport in this big event.”
Said Hendrick: “It’s an honor for Jim to ask me about doing this. To be able to go to Le Mans, I never dreamed I’d go to Daytona. To be able to go represent NASCAR there, it’s such a unique, kind of the epitome of racing.”
Though Ford and Toyota also have active sports car programs, neither is invested as heavily in IMSA as General Motors with multiple teams in the premier DPi and GT categories.
Hendrick also won’t be the only NASCAR powerhouse team owner at Le Mans next year. Roger Penske’s rebooted sports car team is expected to race its new LMDh Porsche (and also will be at the 2022 race with the German automaker in LMP2).
Were other manufacturers and NASCAR teams miffed that they were passed over Garage 56 while Hendrick got the first and only shot?
There was no public outcry, but Toyota-affiliated Denny Hamlin, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing and is a co-owner with 23XI Racing, raised some concerns on Twitter a week after the announcement.
Hamlin said if the car had “one Next Gen part”, the Le Mans testing would be an advantage for Chevrolet and Hendrick.
If it has 1 next gen part on it it’s an advantage. I don’t know that they even know how they will level the playing field.
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) March 24, 2022
When asked at the Sebring news conference how NASCAR would rule whether Hendrick gained an advantage from Next Gen testing, president Steve Phelps said “obviously we don’t want one team to have an advantage over another team, so it’s something we’d have to look at for sure.”
Why is the timing right for NASCAR returning next season?
The centennial edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will signify the dawning of a new era in sports car racing harkening back to the golden age that inspired the blockbuster “Ford vs. Ferrari” movie.
With the rules convergence in the top prototype categories of IMSA and the World Endurance Championship, the world’s two premier sports car series will be racing head to head for overall victories at Daytona and Le Mans for the first time in decades.
It’s a perfect showcase for NASCAR, which has made inroads with a European racing series and has dreams of continuing an international expansion.
Jim France said the atmosphere is similar to when NASCAR founder Bill France brought two stock cars to France to leverage the exposure of Amercia’s upcoming bicentennial celebration.
“It’s an opportunity for NASCAR, for a lot of European fans that are Le Mans fans, to experience what our NASCAR racing is like firsthand,” Jim France said. “We’ve got IMSA and sports cars, but we also have a very important process for NASCAR and growing its awareness and relevance internationally. This happens to be something that my father envisioned 50 years ago. It is still important today.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity for the sport that my dad started to further its reach with new fans.”