The one-year countdown clock has started on the collaboration between NASCAR, IMSA, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans to field a modified Camaro ZL1 Cup car as 2023’s Garage 56 entry.
Days away from the 99th year of the world’s greatest endurance race, it’s the retro-inspired return of NASCAR in an official capacity at Circuit de la Sarthe for the centennial running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans that has the Daytona Beach-based organization and its IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship arm working at a feverish pace.
Following the project’s announcement in March, Hendrick Motorsports, Action Express Racing, Chevy Racing, Goodyear, Dallara, and more key partners have mashed the throttle on developing the V8-powered Next Gen Cup car into something that can capably and reliably run among the GT cars and purebred prototypes next June.
“In motorsports we know one thing is for certain: The green flag will drop at an exact time and we have to be ready,” IMSA president and project leader John Doonan told RACER. “For all of us working on the ‘NASCAR to Le Mans’ Garage 56 project, this fact has finally hit home as the 365-day countdown clock has officially been turned on at the Hendrick Motorsports headquarters.”
Fueled by the blue-collar approach taken back in 1976 when NASCAR founder Bill France Sr and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest formed a special ‘Grand International’ category to host two Cup entries, France’s sports car-loving son Jim has brought the French and American sanctioning bodies together again for a return visit that will add some impressive layers of polish to the adventure.
Herschel McGriff and his son Doug brought this Dodge Charger to Circuit de la Sarthe for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1976. A broken piston put him out after just two laps. ISC Images Archives via Getty Images
More than 40 years ago, the trip spearheaded by France Sr was done to celebrate America’s bicentennial, but with a conflicting NASCAR race on the same weekend as Le Mans, all of the Cup major teams passed on the invitation to represent the U.S.A. in favor of competing on the Californian road course at Riverside. The NASCAR-to-Le Mans mission was then left to a pair of small teams, with Hershel and Doug McGriff representing the stock car organization in a 5.5-liter V8-powered Dodge Charger and a 7.0-liter Ford Torino prepared for Richard Brooks, Dick Hutcherson and Marcel Mignon by Junie Donlavey.
Together, the ‘two monsters’ were everything you’d expect — missiles in a straight line – and not a whole lot more on their debut. The Dodge lasted all of two laps before its engine broke and the Ford did make it into the morning hours of Sunday but ground to a halt when the transmission surrendered.
Pivoting from the modest resources applied for the bicentennial, the new program being overseen in the shop and eventually at the track by seven-time championship-winning Cup crew chief Chad Knaus is a different beast. The full might of General Motors and all of the aforementioned partners are being applied to the Camaro ZL1 that will make use of IMSA’s new-for-2023 spec energy recovery system.
It’s here where a standard Chevrolet Cup car, being transformed into a hybrid, with all of the necessary endurance racing accoutrements, has the ACO ready to accept the vehicle as its Garage 56 entry for innovative or unique projects.
Fans of the 24 Hours of Le Mans often cite the original Garage 56 entry in 2012 with Highcroft Racing’s Nissan-powered DeltaWing as the prototypical model for the class where a single car is nominated to run as an unclassified participant in the two-day race. But like the Camaro ZL1, there have been other wrinkles to the class that speak to an open philosophy on the ACO’s selections which don’t always fall into a requirement for cutting-edge sports car designs or new automotive technologies.
Junie Donleavy’s NASCAR-style Ford Torino lasted a little longer than the Charger at Le Mans in 1976, but still failed to make it to the finish. ISC Images Archives via Getty Images
France’s Frederic Sausset exemplified a different approach to Garage 56 in 2016 when the quadruple amputee and his SRT41 By Oak Racing entry was chosen; with special controls fitted to his LMP2 prototype, a small crane system was designed to lift Sausset in and out of the car during pit stops, and when his fully-able teammates drove, familiar ingress and egress methods and standard vehicle controls were used. In the same vein, all of the technology contained within the Camaro ZL1 won’t be new to Le Mans, but as a package, the car and team will be something the event and its hundreds of thousands of fans have never seen before.
“While this is a very daunting task and you’d always love more time to prepare everything, there is an incredibly talented and dedicated group of partners who are hunkered down, pulling all the pieces together,” Doonan said.
“From the winningest team in NASCAR history with Rick Hendrick to the winningest manufacturer in NASCAR history with Chevrolet, from NASCAR’s tire partner since 1954 with Goodyear to one of NASCAR’s engineering partners on the Next Gen chassis with Dallara, everyone has been hard at work preparing for our first opportunity for on-track testing. We’ve already started Driver-In-The-Loop simulator testing, and everyone is most excited to fire-up the car and get on track. It is simply a group of motorsports all-stars making all of this happen.”
RACER will chronicle all that’s coming in the next year for the project as it moves from virtual testing to real-world running at various road courses and then onto its debut at Le Mans. France, Doonan, and Knaus will be on a reconnaissance run at the event this week as they prepare for the program to intensify over the next 52 weeks.
“We have also been meeting regularly with the ACO and FIA leadership and technical staffs as we seek our official invitation for 2023,” Doonan said. “Everyone has been very helpful and supportive in the early stages of this challenge and we cannot wait to represent NASCAR on this global stage as Le Mans celebrates its centennial year.”