By Jerry Jordan, Editor
LE MANS, France – For Jim France, NASCAR’s CEO and son of Bill France Sr., who first brought NASCAR to Le Mans in 1976, one of the most important aspects was ensuring the stock car’s return wasn’t an embarrassment to the sport and would give fans something good to talk about.
“When I talked to Rick (Hendrick) about coming over, I said, “We are going to try and get a big spotlight shining on NASCAR, we sure don’t want to fall on our ass when we get over there,” France said. “So far, it’s not over yet, but we are holding our own, I think, so that is good.”
A buzz, not only around Le Mans but around the world, that is focusing a lot of attention on NASCAR? Check!
Bone-jarring engine noise as the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 modified Cup Series car rubbles by the crowd? Check!
A “Beast” of a machine towering over every other car in the race? Check!
Stepping up to the plate with a pit crew performance unlike any other in the field … and crushing it? Check and double-check!
And finally, having a two-time 24 Hours of Le Mans champion go out and put the car at the top of the board in class? Check, again!
France said when the engine fires on the Garage 56 car, everyone takes notice. It was similar to the experience NASCAR saw in 1976, when Hershel McGriff and Junie Donlavey each brought a stock car to Le Mans. Neither finished the race but everyone knew they were there.
“When my dad brought Hershel and the cars over in ’76, I talked to Dick Brooks, who was one of the drivers, when he got back. He talked about how much the fans loved the racecars and the sound and the look and everything,” France said. “It’s nice to see that nothing’s changed and they still respond to what we’ve got.”
Up to this point, the NASCAR Garage 56 team has checked every box except taking the green flag and – 24 hours later – taking the checkered flag. That’s the goal. Finish the race.
“Probably the highlight for me was our pit crew going down the pit lane with the jack over their head going to Victory Lane to celebrate,” France said. “That was, kind of, cool but it’s representative of the whole spirit of the efforts that everybody is doing. I think we all take some pride in our racing and what we do; how intense and difficult our racing is to be able to come over and showcase that in probably one of the most difficult races that there is in the world and to be able to perform, it is really gratifying. It is representing our whole sport and I think they feel that – that they are representing everybody that they race against all year long in America in the NASCAR Cup Series. I think when they came over here they all feel like, almost like an Olympics type thing. We are representing our sport and our country so it is really gratifying.”
The NASCAR Garage 56 is faster than any of the GT LME cars and the pit crew was fifth overall and first in class – using a manual jack when everyone else on the grid was using an air jack. Thousands of fans surrounded the pit area during the competition. And afterward, the crowd roared with approval. The pit stop performance elevated the “over the wall” crew to almost heroic status as fans lined the grid to get photos of them when went to accept their award.
France said everyone involved in the Garage 56 program from NASCAR to Hendrick Motorsports to Goodyear Racing and General Motors all brought together the very best people they had in each field to ensure it came to fruition. He also praised Dallara USA and IMSA President John Doonan for their efforts, as well. Dallara was instrumental in helping to design the chassis for the NextGen car, which is the basis for the Garage 56 entry.
Now, all of the advance work is done. The rest of the job falls into the hands of drivers Jimmie Johnson, Jenson Button, Mike Rockenfeller, the driving coach Jordan Taylor and the crew. Johnson has seven NASCAR Cup Series Championships, Button is a former F1 phenom and Rockenfeller is a two-time Le Mans winner. Backing them up is one of the best pit crews in racing and, no doubt, one of the great crew chiefs of all time – Chad Knaus, as the project manager and Greg Ives serving on the proverbial pit box as crew chief.
After checking all of the boxes, including outpacing the entire LM GTE field by several seconds, a late change has been made by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), the organizers of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. At the request of the LM GTE field, which was 3.9 seconds in qualifying behind the Garage 56 No 24 car, the NASCAR entry will start the race ahead of the GT field and not be scored with them during Safety Car periods. The changes, which put the Garage 56 car on an island by itself, were supposedly made for both safety and scoring purposes, according to the ACO.