NASCAR, Hendrick toasting Le Mans finish with a flourish of unexpected speed
LE MANS, France -- They started lining up the champagne glasses inside the Hendrick Motorsports NASCAR garage with 30 minutes remaining in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro wasn’t going to win the most prestigious endurance race in the world - the specialized “Garage 56” entry wasn’t eligible for any class victories - but simply completing a full 24 hours was good enough to declare NASCAR’s massive effort to return to Le Mans for the first time since 1976 a smashing success.
“How’s it feel to take the checkered flag at Le Mans?” team owner Rick Hendrick radioed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson as he completed the 285th lap for the Camaro around the Circuit de la Sarthe.
“Awesome,” Johnson replied.
Anticipation had built all week for the car dubbed “Le Monster,” in part because it was so different than the rest in the 62-car field, its V8 engine had a distinct rumble that drowned out the competition, and because few had any expectations for the NASCAR entry.
Jim France, owner of both NASCAR and IMSA, had brokered this deal to get NASCAR’s second-year Next Gen stock car into the race as part of Le Mans’ “Innovative Car” class that showcases technology. He then recruited Rick Hendrick, Chevrolet and Goodyear - the winningest team, manufacturer and tire in NASCAR’s 75-year history - to collaborate on the project.
It was a passion project for France, who first attended Le Mans in 1962 with his father, the late NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. His father twice brought NASCAR to Le Mans but failed to come close to finishing the race.
To complete the family dream, France wanted to ensure he had the partners to put forth a top-notch effort that wouldn’t embarrass the racing series that got its start racing on the sand in Daytona Beach, Florida, and found that North Carolina moonshine runners were its earliest stars.
“I wasn’t going to let that happen,” Rick Hendrick told The Associated Press. “The last thing we were going to do was come here and fall on our nose.”
France was thrilled.
“That was thousands of hours of hard work by hundreds of people that went into making this thing happen. And then the way the team and the pit crews and everybody performed all week, it was just fantastic,” France said. “I hope my dad and my brother are somewhere up there looking down and smiling but the goal when we set out was to try and finish the race running at the end and not be last. And we accomplished that.”
Hendrick tasked Chad Knaus, winner of seven Cup championships with Johnson, to run the project and told him to spare no expense. The lineup of Johnson, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and two-time Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller arrived in France after more than a year of testing Garage 56 hoping only to finish the race.
But Knaus had pushed the Next Gen to its limits and the final product was heavily modified from what is currently being used in the Cup Series. Although the systems and components on the Le Mans model are similar to the Next Gen car, the Le Mans version had functioning headlights and taillights.
The major differences in the Le Mans entry were that it was about 500 pounds (226 kg) lighter than the Cup car, had a larger fuel cell by roughly 12 gallons (45 liters) because of the length of the 8.467-mile (13.626 km) track, carbon brake discs and a Goodyear tire designed specifically for the race.
It was also much faster than anyone expected.
And after Hendrick Motorsports’ pit crew won its class in the pit crew competition - finishing fifth overall - Rockenfeller qualified the car more than three seconds faster than the entire 21-car GTE AM class. It called for an adjustment of goals, especially when race organizers decided the Garage 56 entry would not start last and moved to 39th, ahead of all the GTE cars because of the speed discrepancy.
Suddenly, the Hendrick team began fantasizing about beating some GTE cars.
And when it found itself with an actual chance to win the entire class, well, expectations changed. Hendrick said he watched the race until 3 a.m., and when he checked his phone when he woke up Sunday morning, thought “holy cow, we can win the GT class!”
“That class, leading those guys, there were some puckered up Porsches and Corvettes,” Hendrick said. “So we checked all the boxes.”
Two late mechanical problems - first the car had to make an unplanned stop to change the brakes with about five hours remaining - took the Camaro out of contention to beat the GTE class. A later stop to change the gearbox dropped the NASCAR effort to a 39th-place overall finish, but 10th in the GTE class.
Johnson couldn’t help but be disappointed.
“We’re not the same category, but we are the same type of car, and our own estimations we thought we’d be mid-to-back pack of the GT cars and you use that for motivation,” Johnson said.
“We were laughing at ourselves when they were changing the transmission because the goal was only to finish, and then after the first laps on track, we thought ‘Maybe there’s more for us’ and over the course of the week, we started the race with the desire to win the GT race.
“We are bummed.”
But the bond that had grown during the project and the pride from what NASCAR accomplished was what caught Johnson’s emotions.
“I wish we could come back and do it again,” he said. “This moment, like with everybody, I hate that it is over. Like, I hate that. We had such a good time. I hope to come back without a doubt and do this race again. But this moment in time, this group of people, it won’t happen again. It’s just impossible.”