A Cadillac V-Series.R and a Porsche 963 from teams competing in IMSA’s GTP class and a Camaro headed for Garage 56 crossed the Atlantic in May ahead of this month's 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The Camaro ZL1 that will race from the Garage 56 reserved for special entries at Le Mans was France’s idea before the Next Gen cars ever hit the track.
The Garage 56 visit may also help promote the NASCAR EuroSeries, which has a 12-race schedule of sprint races on road courses in six countries this year.
The relationship between the France family of Daytona Beach, Fla., and the 24 Hours of Le Mans has occasionally hit some bumps in the road. But this year, some of the same cars that competed in the Rolex 24 at Daytona plus a NASCAR Cup Series Camaro ZL1 will be racing at Le Mans, which confirms the current love affair is on a smooth track.
A decade ago, the relationship was on the rocks. When Don Panoz announced an American sports car series using the Le Mans rulebook in 1998, that led to the launch of the rival Grand American Road Racing Series by the Frances, owners of the Daytona International Speedway and NASCAR. “The Atlantic Ocean,” said a staffer working in their offices in Daytona Beach, “wasn’t big enough.”
But during May, a Cadillac V-Series.R and a Porsche 963 from teams competing in IMSA’s GTP class and a Camaro headed for Garage 56 crossed the Atlantic, headed for Le Mans. That’s due to the vision of Jim France, chairman and CEO of NASCAR.
The younger brother of the late Bill France Jr., Jim France remained a fan of Le Mans despite the political upheaval, which found him directing the Grand-Am Series that squared off with Panoz’s American Le Mans Series. It was the younger France who ended the ALMS-Grand Am wars in 2012.
The process of unifying American sports car racing, which created the current WeatherTech Championship, initially began in 2008 before the Great Recession temporarily scuttled negotiations between France and Panoz. According to informed sources, NASCAR Holdings, which owned Grand-Am, paid close to $30 million to Panoz four years later in the deal that included Road Atlanta and the lease to the Sebring International Raceway as well as the IMSA sanctioning body.
NASCAR chairman France more recently acted as the chief architect on the American side of the new and ballyhooed convergence with Le Mans that will have IMSA GTP hybrid cars competing in the Hypercar category against the Le Mans Hypercars at this year’s race.
And that Camaro ZL1 that will race from the Garage 56 reserved for special entries at Le Mans? It was France’s idea before the Next Gen cars ever hit the track. Once Dallara had completed its chassis concept for the new generation of NASCAR racer, France broached the subject to Pierre Fillon, president of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest that sanctions Le Mans.
“I was in the process of working with Dallara on the new car,” said France. “I was at dinner with Pierre—before the Rolex in 2019. I talked to him about we had this new car coming. I asked him if it was possible to bring one over for the Garage 56 and run a NASCAR car at Le Mans. We started working on it from there.”
France’s first visit to the Circuit de la Sarthe came in 1962 when he accompanied his father, NASCAR founder “Big Bill” France, to Le Mans as a teenager. It was his older brother who accompanied “Big Bill” to Le Mans in 1976 when Junie Donlavey and Hershel McGriff entered their NASCAR stockers.
“Dick Brooks drove the Ford over there in ’76 and when he came back, he told me how popular the cars were with the fans,” said France. “I feel like a lot of fans may have seen our cars on TV but haven’t seen one up close or in person. I think it’s going to be good way to get one of our cars in front of people.”
IMSA president John Doonan was appointed by France to manage the Garage 56 project. “The current NASCAR Cup car is a far more versatile and modular car,” said Doonan. “It’s a lot like the GT cars that run in IMSA or at Le Mans, relative to design and engineering. Jim felt like it was an optimal time to recreate what his dad did and put NASCAR further onto a global stage that can showcase the new car in a manner that might catch the eyes of some of the other manufacturers. I hope the other OEMs come and see there is a huge opportunity with NASCAR and its new car with more road courses.”
The Garage 56 visit may also help promote the NASCAR EuroSeries, which has a 12-race schedule of sprint races on road courses in six countries this year. The series includes Camaros and Mustangs like those in the U.S. entry level traveling series now known as the ARCA Menards East and West. Perhaps a competitive European driver will emerge and join Cup racing, but for now that series remains small cabbages, as in petits chou, compared to Le Mans and its worldwide TV audience.
Albeit in a class by itself, a modified Next Gen car is expected to be better suited to the challenge of finishing the race on the 8.48-mile course at Le Mans. A radical departure from NASCAR’s long-in-the-tooth stock cars made with tube frames that first appeared in the 1960s, the Next Gen car features an independent rear suspension, a rear diffuser and rack-and-pinion steering. It has a transaxle with sequential shifting. Historically, gearboxes with the traditional H-pattern have been the weakest link in a Cup car on road courses. The wider tires and center-mounted hubs makes for a car better suited to Le Mans’ track and pit road as well.
“Once we got the car developed, we talked some more,” said France of his conversations with Fillon. “I broached the subject with Rick Hendrick to see if he would be interested in doing a car and I talked to (GM president) Mark Reuss about helping and supporting us. And I talked to Goodyear.” The announcement of the Garage 56 entry with a Hendrick Motorsports Camaro ZL1 on Goodyear tires came at Sebring’s 12-hour in March of last year. Goodyear, longtime NASCAR supplier, was a logical choice, because it supplies the LMP2 cars that race annually at Le Mans.
Drivers Jimmie Johnson, Mike Rockenfeller and Jensen Button were announced along with reserve driver/coach Jordan Taylor. Chad Knaus, who won seven Cup championships with Hendrick and Johnson, manages car preparation and Greg Ives is working as the crew chief.
In a class by itself, the focus is on arriving at Le Mans with a Camaro ready to go the distance, unlike the ill-fated NASCAR entries in 1976 that departed with engine and gearbox trouble. But the car—or a backup chassis—will still have to survive the rigorous scrutineering prior to the Le Mans Test Day on June 4, which will be held six days before the field gets the green for the 24-hour on June 10.
Hendrick was a logical choice to enter the Camaro. Not only is his team the winningest in NASCAR history. Hendrick himself drove two Cup races on the road course at the now defunct Riverside circuit in California and an Xfinity Series race at Road Atlanta during the 1986-87 seasons. Hendrick Motorsports campaigned a Lola-built Corvette V-6 turbo in the original GTP series and won two races in 1986.
“There’s a place in my heart when I ran the GTP car and we stopped,” said Hendrick prior to this year’s Daytona 500. “I thought, ‘I love road racing, but I want to focus on NASCAR.’ This gives me a shot to go to Le Mans, which I never dreamed I would do. It will be a lot of fun to be there and see the fans."
At that time, it looked like the road racing world was Henrick’s for the taking. But he was overtaken by his NASCAR obligations, which soon included four Cup car entries. The road racing world has now come full circle with the revived love affair between America’s most powerful racing family and the French circuit 200 kilometers southwest of Paris. “For Rick to take a car over and run it at Le Mans, I just think it’s a really cool deal,” said France.