Jordan Taylor intrigued by NASCAR Next Gen at Le Mans: ‘Good to get new eyes on sport’

Jordan Taylor NASCAR Le Mans
Brian Cleary/Getty Images

As soon as news hit of NASCAR and its Next Gen likely heading to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Jordan Taylor naturally checked on his Cup Series connections.

“I texted (Hendrick Motorsports VP of Competition) Chad Knaus saying, ‘If you ever need some help or input, I’ll come test it if you want’ or something like that,” the Corvette Racing champion said Wednesday in a Zoom news conference with reporters. “I think it’s exciting. It will be cool to bring a lot of NASCAR eyes to Le Mans who haven’t seen it before. It might be confusing for them to see a one-off Cup car racing against Hypercars and things like that, but it will be good to get some new eyes on the sport.”

As a three-time Rolex 24 at Daytona overall winner and a two-time GTLM champion in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Series, Taylor, 31, bridges both the sports car and stock car worlds as much as anyone.

NEXT GEN AT LE MANS: Questions, answers analysis about the NASCAR project

Last year, he wore a special Dale Earnhardt tribute helmet at Le Mans (and later made a well-received guest appearance on the Dale Jr. Download), and he had Jeff Gordon as a teammate in the Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac that won the 2017 Rolex 24.

Gordon has been mentioned by team owner Rick Hendrick as a candidate to drive at Le Mans in the Next Gen Camaro that will be overseen by Knaus.

Hendrick also has been in touch with Jimmie Johnson, and Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson also would seem options as Rolex 24 veterans and with Hendrick wanting an active Cup driver. There is no timeframe on setting the lineup, nor have specifications been announced for the car, which will need to be specially modified for the rigors of a 24-hour race and likely will feature a hybridized engine.

Jordan Taylor (IMSA)

Having been part of the 2015 GTE Pro class winner at Le Mans, Jordan Taylor has been among drivers bandied about by fans (and also has been suggested by Dale Earnhardt Jr.) on social media as a potential candidate for next year’s NASCAR-proposed Garage 56 entry (a special one-vehicle class aimed at innovation and technology).

But Taylor said Wednesday that he hasn’t been contacted about racing the Hendrick-prepared car.

“I’m sure they’ll want some big NASCAR names, which makes sense to take them over there,” said Taylor, who will make his eighth 24 Hours of Le Mans start in a Corvette this June. “Racing around Daytona for the Rolex 24 against guys like Kyle Larson, those guys know what they’re doing on road courses these days. I don’t think they’ll need a lot of help. Maybe some tips on what to know about Le Mans to help prep the car and understanding what curbs you want to abuse and things like that. From a car durability standpoint, that would be interesting for them to understand.

“As far as drivers, I’m sure they have a humongous list to go through. My commitments right now are to Corvette and Corvette Racing. I wouldn’t want to take anything away from that.”

Taylor’s Le Mans availability also could depend on whether Corvette Racing is in the 2023 event with the GTE Pro class uncertain. During the March 17 announcement to unveil NASCAR’s Le Mans project, Chevrolet Motorsports VP Jim Campbell indicated Corvette “potentially” could be racing in France next year.

Taylor, whose Gordon-inspired Rodney Sandstorm alter ego has become a hit with NASCAR fans, has been angling at making his stock-car debut for a while.

He had an offer from an ARCA team and was in discussions with a Cup team about racing in the Aug. 14-16, 2020 race weekend on the Daytona International Speedway road course. Taylor also helped Hendrick drivers with preparing setups for that Daytona race on the Chevrolet simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina.

Though his offer stands to help Hendrick with advice and tips for Le Mans, he also knows the team “will have a lot of smart guys on it. From a European perspective, you look at NASCAR and see stock car racing and it looks pretty basic from the outside. These big metal machines racing around an oval.

“Being on the inside and seeing the engineering behind what they do and how much research and development they have, you know they are going to have a lot of smart guys working on it and developing it. It’s going to be an interesting project.”

Taylor’s 2022 season is off to an intriguing start. After struggling to a 30th in the Rolex 24 season opener, he and C8.R Corvette co-drivers Antonio Garcia and Nicky Catsburg rebounded with a class victory in the Twelve Hours of Sebring that “was pretty much perfect. No one in the car made any mistakes, all the pit stops were perfect, and the strategy kept us out front. It was one of those days everything went our way.”

After consecutive titles in the now-defunct GTLM division, the No. 3 Corvette moved this season to the new GTD Pro category that includes a common tire among teams.

“Daytona was definitely a struggle,” Taylor said. “We did a two-day test between Daytona and the Sebring race. We made some big gains from a setup point of view, understanding the tire and what makes it work. This car was designed around using the confidential tire, so we did huge setup swings at that test and found a ton of lap time just in that, plus compliance and durability of the tire and understanding how to make the tire work over a stint and not just a lap. Just little details like that brought us closer to the window.”

Taylor and Garcia next will race April 9 in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, which will kick off the IMSA Sprint Cup schedule. The race will begin at 5 p.m. ET on USA and Peacock.

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500