Who are the main players behind the 2023 Camaro ZL1 NASCAR Cup-based Garage 56 entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans? It’s an assembly of surprisingly disparate groups with vast experience that overlap in some areas and diverge in others.
Atop the list is NASCAR CEO Jim France, whose idea to make a return trip to Circuit de la Sarthe – 47 years after the stock car organization participated with two Cup cars in 1976 – set the project in motion. France tapped IMSA Weather SportsCar Championship president John Doonan, who came to IMSA after leading Mazda’s motor racing department for many years, to make use of his big project skills and lead the entire effort.
Immense knowledge of the Next Gen Cup car has been secured with John Probst, NASCAR’s VP of innovation and racing development, and Brandon Thomas, NASCAR’s managing director of vehicle systems, being attached to the Garage 56 project.
“A lot of what I’m doing is leading the collaboration between the NASCAR Technical Center and IMSA and our relationship with [Le Mans organizers] the ACO,” Doonan told RACER. “The technical center side has proven to be not only solid, but growing, such that we have that facility up in Concord, North Carolina, and it’s really impressive to see the team there and all the resources they utilize. So when Garage 56 came about, it was a natural extension of being able to work much closer with John and Brandon, the guys that really lead the development of the Next Gen Cup car.
“Brandon, on a day to day basis, has essentially been the product manager with the new Cup cars, working with all the different suppliers, and John is the head of all things technical at NASCAR. He has been involved from the first discussions about this Garage 56 project, and Brandon’s leading in terms of the relationship that they developed with Dallara on the Next Gen car and all the single-source suppliers that they have that are part of the Next Gen package.”
On the ground at Hendrick Motorsports, which will run the car in testing and at Le Mans, legendary Cup crew chief Chad Knaus has been installed to manage all aspects of developing the Camaro ZL1 for endurance racing and leading the team in competition.
Chevrolet is centrally involved with not only the Camaro ZL1, but also the development of the 5.8-liter V8 powerplant that will need to last at least 24 hours at Le Mans and learn to work with a 40hp electronic motor that will harvests energy under braking and add its electric horsepower in strategic areas of the 8.5-mile circuit.
Together, Mark Stielow, GM’s director of motorsport competition engineering, Jim Danahy, GM’s VP of global hardware components and subsystems, and Russ O’Blenes, GM’s performance and racing propulsion team director, represent the best the Bowtie has to offer.
“The whole engine program is led by Chevrolet,” Doonan said. “That is absolutely locked and loaded. Russ runs the engine program at Team Chevy. Mark is the lead on racing projects for GM, so he’s already heavily involved with NASCAR and IMSA, and Jim is a great fit on their side with the development of the car and the integration of their Le Mans powerplant into the Camaro.”
With the need to develop rubber that will survive the rigors of endurance racing with a Cup car, Stu Grant, Goodyear’s GM of global race tires and Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, are working with the team to create road racing and rain tires specifically for the ZL1 at Le Mans.
“The objective of the Garage 56 project is to demonstrate the hybrid Camaro Cup car’s potential, finish the race, and operate at a solid performance window among the GT cars, and in order to do that, thanks to their five-plus decades of tire development on the NASCAR side, and their tire development and participation at Le Mans, Goodyear are developing a bespoke tire for this car,” Doonan said.
“So they’ve been looking at tire dimensions, tire compounds, tire construction, and how we can maybe go a little bit wider, go with a compound that would be different from what would be used in NASCAR competition. So that’s what Stu and Greg have been working on, delivering on the simulation data, such that we can knock off as much lap time as possible. We’re going there to finish, but also have a respectable lap time.”
On the chassis side, Dallara’s chief designer Luca Pignacca and Alex Timmermans, a multi-faceted chassis and design talent whose skills are found in IndyCar and NASCAR on the constructor’s behalf, round out the major group of Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 support staff.
“Dallara played such a key role in the engineering of the Next Gen Cup car, so having them included to help develop this car into an endurance racing package was a must,” Doonan said. “So between Luca and Alex, they’ve been working with us on finding ways to bring endurance DNA to the car in the ways of driver comfort, packaging, and even assisting with the integration of the hybrid system.
“They also have played a critical role in my discussions with the ACO and the FIA, relative to the safety of the car and how it relates to the FIA and ACO requirements. It’s a big team of companies and organizations involved with this project and we couldn’t do it without each one of our partners.”