A passion project between father and son is at the heart of the new Garage 56 Le Mans project commissioned by NASCAR and IMSA in partnership with the ACO.
It was 1976 and the United States of America’s big bicentennial celebration that struck NASCAR founder Bill France Sr as the perfect time and opportunity to wave the American flag on an international stage by sending two stock cars across the Atlantic ocean where they’d compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
France’s son Jim, an avowed lover of sports cars and endurance racing, was part of the family’s interests with IMSA – the International Motorsports Association – which they co-founded in 1969 with John and Peggy Bishop. And with the new intertwining of NASCAR and IMSA, the decision came a few years later as the country was brimming with patriotism to fund two Le Mans entries, one for Hershel and Doug McGriff in a Dodge Charger Cup car, and another with a Ford Torino for Dick Brooks, Dick Hutcherson and Marcel Mignot, and together, the ’76 tour made a big impression.
So with NASCAR’s recent switch to a new style of Cup car that draws a lot of inspiration from touring car and GT racing technology, Jim France, along with NASCAR president Steve Phelps and IMSA president John Doonan, batted around the idea of taking the stock car organization back to Pierre Fillon’s Circuit de la Sarthe to give the 24-hour race another try with NASCAR’s latest creation.
Enter Rick Hendrick and his Hendrick Motorsports team, and Chevrolet with Team Chevy and a Chevy Camaro Cup car, and Goodyear Tires, and other partners to prepare the machine for its Le Mans debut on the event’s 100th anniversary. And in the Garage 56 class, no less, where one car is selected each year to demonstrate some form of unique technology or compelling story that falls outside the confines of Le Mans’ rigid class structure.
Compared to the giant auto manufacturers who’ll be competing with high-tech prototypes and the litany of supercars fielded in the GT classes, Jim France’s nod to history and the future with NASCAR’s second visit to Le Mans using a thundering Camaro Cup car should be unlike anything else we’ll see at the race’s centenary.
“To talk about the next version of Garage 56, you have to rewind the clock and look in the treasure chest of NASCAR history and the vision of Bill France Sr,” IMSA’s Doonan told RACER. “He put NASCAR on a global stage when he took a couple of cars and teams to represent NASCAR at Le Mans in 1976. And the wish of Jim France is to repeat that, and what better time to do it then right upon the next-gen Cup car’s reveal. So this is definitely a vision of Jim France to replicate the challenge and do it in the modern day with the brand-new Cup car.
“I also think the timing of this opportunity is an additional reinforcing statement of the relationship that IMSA has as part of the NASCAR family, and that NASCAR and IMSA has with the ACO. And having an opportunity to showcase that relationship is really special to see this Garage 56 program come together in 2023.”
The choice of Hendrick to run the car—with assistance from multiple IMSA champions Action Express Racing—and a dedicated tire partner in Goodyear, which has terabytes of data from its participation in the LMP2 class, are bonuses from Doonan’s perspective.
“If you’re going to do something like this, to have the best of the best from NASCAR is important,” he said. “Rick Hendrick embraces this project as the winningest team, both in race wins and championships, in NASCAR history. And then of course, he and his operation represent the winningest manufacturer, both in terms of race wins, and manufacturer titles in Chevrolet. And then finally, since 1954, Goodyear has been the tire partner for NASCAR, so all of the killer representatives over the years will represent NASCAR in this project. I think that’s a celebration of NASCAR history in and of itself. And the Next Gen car has been very well received and will be a really good showcase at Le Mans for the audience when, much like it was in 1976, the big V8 Camaro thunders down the Mulsanne.”
With the announcement made, the project moves into a busy phase of converting the Camaro Cup chassis into a proper endurance racing vehicle. From the basic modifications needed to lap the circuit formed from country roads to performing pit stops in a timely manner to ensuring the engine, transmission and suspension all live for a minimum of 24 hours, the task ahead is significant for all involved.
“The key word there is ‘collaboration’ and you bring in the team, the manufacturer, the tire partner, you bring in a company like Dallara that’s spent so much time working with NASCAR to develop the Next Gen car, and that’s a strong team,” Doonan said. “The car will be racing at night on a circuit that doesn’t have the same type of lights that all of us are used to when we watch a NASCAR race, so it’s certainly going to need headlights and taillights and things like air jacks and a number of other items that are traditionally not seen in NASCAR.
“There’s a long list of items to work on a lot of testing to be done from a durability standpoint on the platform. But I think everybody’s eager and bought into the project to have us go over there and represent everybody that’s involved and represent the spirit of what Garage 56 is all about. When it comes to car specs, and when it comes to drivers, there’s more to come on that. Because of the awesome tie-in between Mr. Hendrick and the Action Express team when it comes to the Cadillac DPi project that they’ve embarked on last year, there’s a lot of synergies there that could be carried over to a project like this.
“So definitely over the next several months, you’ll hear more about specs of the car, you’ll hear more about the driver lineup, you’ll hear more about testing and the things that are going to prepare the whole operation to go over there and compete and put on a good show for the audience and what Pierre Fillon and the ACO have done around Garage 56. It’s a great story to tell.”