Though still more than six months from final approval, testing has started on the NASCAR Next Gen Camaro slated to race in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans.
IMSA president John Doonan told NBC Sports that multiple drivers have been testing Chevrolet’s DIL (Driver in the Loop) simulator in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area.
“That includes current NASCAR drivers, current sports car drivers with lots of Le Mans experience,” Doonan said. “It includes former NASCAR drivers that are retired. So I think there is a great anticipation on my part and everyone’s part on who’s going to drive it. There’s a lot of interest from all those categories I just mentioned, which is really exciting. Everyone is pumped.
“Rick Hendrick told me a few weeks ago, ‘I’ve got a lot of new friends. Everyone is calling me to try to drive this car.’ Which is awesome.”
LE MANS ANSWERS, ANALYSIS: More on NASCAR’s Hendrick entry for the 2023 race
In announcing the joint effort between NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports for the expected Garage 56 entry, Hendrick hinted in March that he would like to have past Cup Series champions Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson in the driving lineup, along with an active driver.
Johnson wants to race Le Mans and has talked to Hendrick about next year. Gordon also is interested but said recently he wanted to “play around on the simulator” before committing.
Doonan said though all of the official paperwork has been submitted, the Garage 56 invite from the l’Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) (which organizes the 24 Hours of Le Mans) won’t arrive until the entry list for the 2023 race is released in January. It’s expected to be merely a formality that the NASCAR/Hendrick entry receives approval.
“We feel good about it, especially given our partnership with the ACO,” Doonan said. “But we need to go through the normal process, and that’s obviously fair.”
Much of the development work on the car, though, will have to completed well before then. Doonan said there are multiple meetings weekly on the project.
Real-world testing will begin in a couple of months at “tracks in the IMSA family that simulate Le Mans” such as Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, Sebring International Raceway, Daytona International Speedway and “potentially some smaller circuits to run system checks. The goal is to simulate Le Mans with long straightaways and high-speed and low-speed corners.”
Doonan said Action Express is building a test car that will be the foundation for the final version built by Hendrick Motorsports. Action Express, whose No. 31 Cadillac won the 2021 DPi championship in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, is run by team manager Gary Nelson, a former NASCAR Cup Series director and championship crew chief.
Nelson told NBC Sports after the Garage 56 announcement in March that Action Express would be at Hendrick’s disposal for the Le Mans project, which Doonan described as a “Herculean effort” of collaboration.
“It is a monumental task to do what we’re doing with Garage 56 in a relatively short timeframe,” he said. “There’s been a massive effort put in by Dallara, Xtrac, Bosch, Hendrick, Goodyear, Chevrolet, all of us at IMSA, all my NASCAR teammates on the technical side like John Probst and Brandon Thomas.
“It’s obviously awesome to be a part of, but it is a Herculean effort. You’d say you’re just taking a Cup car over there. You’ve got to integrate all the elements of an endurance racing car into it. We want to have a respectable performance. The goal is to finish, but we also want to get around there at a respectable lap time. We’ve been meeting with the ACO and FIA and the overall safety standards, just so we have alignment. It’s going extremely well, but overall it’s a massive task.”
The Garage 56 Camaro will mark the first appearance by NASCAR stock cars at Le Mans since there were two stock cars in the 1976 race (including a Dodge Charger owned and raced by future Hall of Fame inductee Hershel McGriff).
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.
Though Garage 56 is a single-slot class that has been reserved for innovative automobiles since its 2012 introduction, the goal is at least to finish the race.
“It’s a perfect opportunity to put NASCAR and NASCAR’s product on a stage with a bunch of really passionate sports car fans,” Doonan said. “And simultaneously we could really allow a very loyal NASCAR audience to understand sports car racing. There are more road courses on the schedule now than ever. I think it’s a really good fit.”
Though the car is being built and raced by Chevrolet and Hendrick, Doonan confirmed that the other two Cup manufacturers have been granted full access to testing data and development. Toyota Racing Development and Ford Performance executives were disappointed to have no advance warning of the announcement.
“The car is going to be so highly modified,” Doonan said. “It’s not going to be a car that can enter a Cup race. It’s going to have headlights and taillights. It’s going to be set up for endurance racing. We have, however, invited Ford and Toyota to be part of any testing such that we maintain some transparency and that type of thing. It’s the right thing to do.
“The intent is to go there and put everybody in the best light possible. We’re grateful that Chevrolet was willing to put a Camaro into the program as the winningest manufacturer in NASCAR history and to do it with Hendrick as the winningest team. That was the intent to try to bring all the winningest together.”
The program is being overseen by Hendrick vice president of competition Chad Knaus, who has been calling strategy since last year in IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races for the No. 48 Cadillac that includes Johnson, Hendrick’s seven-time Cup champion.