Next Gen Camaro sim testing for Le Mans under way with NASCAR, sports car drivers

NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports 24 Hours of Le Mans Announcement
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

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, ANALYSISMore 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.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”