Jimmie Johnson Can’t Win Le Mans—and That’s Okay
Jimmie Johnson can’t win the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year, no matter how hard he tries. But that doesn’t matter to him—what matters is that he’s racing at all.
“I love to race,” Johnson told Road & Track. “When I was growing up, my heroes seemed to race anything, anywhere. I always had a great deal of respect for those drivers who just took a helmet bag and traveled the world.”
Now, Johnson’s one of those drivers. He retired from the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020 after winning a record seven championships, and at 47 years old, he’s making his Le Mans debut next month in the race’s experimental Garage 56 entry. He’ll run a highly modified version of the Cup Series’ Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro, which debuted in 2022, alongside 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and two-time Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller.
The Garage 56 slot at Le Mans is reserved for “innovative” technology, meaning the car doesn’t have to abide by technical regulations and isn’t officially in the competition. Garage 56 was introduced in 2012, and the first car to run in it was the 1,100-pound Deltawing—an odd, triangular little race car pitched as a potential new IndyCar chassis. The Deltawing didn’t make it to IndyCar, nor did it finish Le Mans in 2012. Six hours in, it got punted into the wall by another car.
But even if his Garage 56 car can’t place, Johnson said, “98 percent of the time, everybody involved in this program has behaved like we're going over there to race for the overall win.”
“We get to represent U.S.-based motorsport,” he continued. “We want to put our best foot forward. We have to remind ourselves at times: ‘Hey, we're the only car in this category.’”
This year’s Garage 56 car is a collaboration between NASCAR, IMSA, Chevrolet, Goodyear, and Johnson’s former Cup team, Hendrick Motorsports. Compared to the Next Gen car, it’s more than 500 pounds lighter (but still weighs almost 3000); uses paddles instead of a shift lever for its five-speed sequential transmission; has carbon brakes and aerodynamic add-ons like dive planes; upgrades from a 20-gallon gas tank to a 32-gallon one; and replaces stickers with headlights and taillights to run at night.
When Rockenfeller tested the Garage 56 car at the 3.27-mile Virginia International Raceway last year, it was 10 seconds faster than the Next Gen car.
“The performance window of the Garage 56 car is significantly higher,” Johnson told R&T. “There are many modern components on the Next Gen car, and it's certainly this step forward in technology. But [the Garage 56 car] does everything better. It stops better, turns better, accelerates better. It also has a paddle-shift configuration, which is nice. It adds more to the acceleration window.”
Button made his Cup debut at Circuit of The Americas in March, and he told Jalopnik the only similarity between the Next Gen and Garage 56 cars is the seating position. Johnson agrees.
The Garage 56 car will also be far different from the sports cars and prototypes every other team brings to Le Mans—and because they’re not actually competing, Johnson and his co-drivers will have to decide how to race the cars that are.
“I think our cars are going to create lap time in different areas,” Johnson said. “Although the Garage 56 vehicle has been on a great diet and has much more downforce than a traditional Cup car, it's still much heavier and has much less downforce than a traditional GT car. But our V-8 power is going to pull us down a straightaway like nothing else, so trying to race respectfully is the key.”
Johnson said the Garage 56 team will have a backup car if something goes wrong before the race starts, and they’ll do their best to fix any problems once it does.
“We want to run every mile we possibly can,” Johnson said. “The way NASCAR vehicles are built, when you bend one up, you get some hammers and try to straighten it out. During the race, we’ll do everything we can to get it on the road. But say something happens in practice, we'd completely change out the vehicle itself.”
Until his Cup retirement, competing at Le Mans wasn’t realistic for Johnson. Statistically, he’s one of the most successful NASCAR drivers ever, and his seven Cup titles tie him for most all-time with Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty. But to race at the Cup level, he had to spend about 40 weekends per year on the road.
“Through my generation of racing, it's been much more focused on championships,” Johnson said. “The amount of work, time, energy, and dedication I put into those seven championships and 83 wins, with the schedule we were on, I don't know if I had the bandwidth or desire to drive much more. I'm at a point in life and career now where the championship grind is not of great interest to me, but trying to hit these marquee events is.”
When Johnson retired from Cup, he started chasing those events. He competed in the 24 Hours of Daytona and the Indianapolis 500, and he even ran a season of IndyCar—attracting a lot of criticism whenever he wrecked or got lapped.
I always found the criticism odd, since Johnson had proven his talent elsewhere. So I asked: “What’s it like to try something new like that, especially with such a legacy behind you?”
“You know, I was asked that quite a bit when I announced I was going to try IndyCar in ‘21,” Johnson responded. “And I mean, sure. Those fears flashed through my mind. I'm human, and insecurities, doubt—that stuff shows up, certainly after being humbled a few times in the car.
“But I had to remind myself why I was doing it. It was because as a kid, my dream was to be an IndyCar driver. I had a chance in front of me to do so, and I'd be foolish to not accept that and challenge myself. I really did a nice job of doing it for myself and no one else.”
Johnson said IndyCar taught him new ways to approach a car, which gave him “a lot of confidence” in what he’s doing now.
“Every vehicle has its own performance window a driver has to find,” Johnson said. “I spent a lifetime in a NASCAR vehicle that behaved a certain way. You could really be aggressive and slide the car around, and with the grip window and downforce, it's almost like you're driving on the dirt.
“As I've moved into higher-downforce cars, that changes. You can’t slide those cars very much, and the way you approach a corner is different. Oftentimes, carrying more speed to create more downforce fixes your problem. When the car isn't comfortable, try to do the opposite of what you would think: Try going faster, and chances are, it's going to handle better.”
Johnson learned all those lessons in the spotlight. But at Le Mans, he wants to blend in.
“We just want to be another car out there,” Johnson said. “We don't want to be standing out because we're not performing at the right level, so that’s one of our first goals. Then based on what we’ve seen with all the testing at Sebring, we could be ‘in’ the GT race, if you will, which would be fun for us to have a rabbit to chase.”
But ultimately, a rabbit isn’t a victory. So I asked: “How do you feel going into a race you can’t win?”
“Or we could look at it the other way,” Johnson responded. “I’m guaranteed a win. We’re in our own category, and we’re winners.”
You Might Also Like