After Toyota expressed major displeasure about how the project was unveiled, NASCAR will give the manufacturer (and Ford) full access to the development of the Next Gen car for the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The expected “Garage 56” entry for the world’s most prestigious endurance race was announced March 17 at Sebring International Raceway by executives from NASCAR, IMSA, Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports, which would field the purpose-built Camaro in the race.
Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson said he and his colleagues at Ford Performance were disappointed to have “zero notice” of the news.
“Within minutes” of the announcement, Wilson “expressed our concerns and displeasure” to NASCAR president Steve Phelps, chief operating officer Steve O’Donnell and chairman Jim France.
“One of the first things that Jim France made clear of, and probably the biggest thing in my eyes, was while we’re disappointed that on the front end, we weren’t looped in just from a partnership standpoint, from here on out, what’s most important is that they’re transparent, and that we have visibility to every test,” Wilson said during a videoconference media availability Tuesday.
“Every time that (car) is on the road, that’s shared with us. And we will have that visibility and that transparency because that’s what we’ve been promised. And we will be a party to participate in every test. We will be invited to every test.”
That would be an extraordinary amount of access, considering that Wilson expects the Le Mans Next Gen will need “arguably hundreds if not thousands of hours of testing.”
A NASCAR spokesperson confirmed to NBC Sports that the sanctioning body has worked with OEM partners and teams outside Chevy and Hendrick since the announcement to ensure the Garage 56 project is competitively balanced and also reflects a collaborative effort to raise the profile of NASCAR and its manufacturers.
Designed for testing new technology and showcasing creativity without impacting the integrity of the starting grid, Garage 56 is a single-slot class that has been reserved for innovative automobiles since its 2012 introduction.
The Next Gen entry, which would mark the most notable NASCAR presence at Le Mans since the June 12, 1976 race, still needs approval for 2023 from the l’Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) that organizes the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But it’s expected to be a mere formality that the NASCAR/Hendrick entry will receive the Garage 56 invite from the ACO after Jim France brokered the deal.
France said at the announcement that he hand-picked Hendrick Motorsports 18 months ago to represent NASCAR in Le Mans because it’s the winningest stock-car team in history with a record 14 championships 282 victories and more than 75,000 laps led.
Since last year, Hendrick has partnered with France’s Action Express to field a No. 48 Ally Cadillac in IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship endurance races such as the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Twelve Hours of Sebring. Hendrick vice president of competition Chad Knaus has called strategy for the car in a reunion with Jimmie Johnson, who has been part of the driver lineup.
Wilson and Toyota Cup team owners Denny Hamlin (who has been outspoken about the issue in interviews and on Twitter) and Joe Gibbs raised misgivings with NASCAR about the potential for Chevrolet and Hendrick to gain information from the Le Mans project that will help their already vaunted road course programs in NASCAR’s premier series.
Hamlin said immediately after the announcement that “finding out in a press conference is not OK. NASCAR has too many executives for that to have slipped through the cracks .. This is kind of them doing their thing and what they want to do, and I understand their reasoning to want to do it. I just thought (from) a team owner standpoint, I’m concerned about how is it not an advantage? You cannot convince me right now that it won’t be.”
Well this is quite let’s just say, interesting… https://t.co/Hb88PIQAbW
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) March 17, 2022
With special provisions for weight and the braking needed to survive a 24-hour race, the car is expected to be very unlike its Cup counterparts. It also is likely to feature a hybrid powertrain.
But despite the differences, Wilson said “it’s hard not to say (Hendrick) is going to figure out something” that will improve their Cup car.
“I would have much preferred that Jim France take Gary Nelson and his (Action Express) sports car team (which won the 2021 DPi title in IMSA) to Le Mans and run a Chevy, but of course, you need the sex appeal of a Hendrick Motorsports,” Wilson said. “I get it. Unfortunately, they are an active competitor in the sport, and they are going to be taking some form of a derivative of the car that we race every Sunday to Le Mans.”
Wilson said Toyota and Ford had provided NASCAR with “a laundry list” of “shared thoughts as to if they’re going to do this, how it could be done in a manner that’s reasonably fair.”
Though the driver lineup has yet to be confirmed, it also seems likely that Hendrick will employ one of its active Cup drivers (particularly if Le Mans coincides with a NASCAR off weekend as expected), which theoretically could provide another edge. Rick Hendrick also has mentioned Johnson and Jeff Gordon as prime candidates to share the car, whose construction is being overseen by Chad Knaus.
Wilson again concedes the starpower will benefit NASCAR.
“Stepping away from it at 30,000 feet, I’m absolutely a fan of what they’re doing,” he said. “This has an upside of putting our sport on the map and putting it in front of an international audience, but I would have preferred it be done in a little bit different way.”
Even though Toyota won’t be racing at Le Mans, Wilson might be present – as a guest of NASCAR, which has invited the other manufacturers to attend the race.
“Jim France and his team are working on how best to leverage this and not wrap this around one team or one manufacturer,” Wilson said. “But make sure it’s wrapped around NASCAR. And he would like to have representation from all of his manufacturers there to underscore that message.”