NASCAR to return to Le Mans
NASCAR is to make an emotional return to the Le Mans 24 Hours – 47 years after two of its cars last crossed the Atlantic to participate in the endurance classic.
At Sebring’s World Endurance Championship opener it was revealed that a joint venture between NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports will bring a modified Next Gen stock car to the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the race’s centennial celebration in 2023.
The project – which also includes collaborative efforts from IMSA, Chevrolet and Goodyear – will take a specially prepared Camaro ZL1 from the NASCAR Cup Series into the international motorsports scene’s biggest endurance race. The entry will fill the Garage 56 slot – an extra starting berth that showcases innovative vehicles outside of the race’s traditional classes.
Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports’ vice president of competition, will oversee the project. After years of development, the Next Gen model debuted this season in Cup Series competition.
“From the early days of NASCAR, it was important to my father that we played a visible role in international motorsports, and there is no bigger stage than the 24 Hours of Le Mans,” said Jim France, NASCAR Chairman and CEO. “In partnering with Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, we have the winningest team, manufacturer and tyre in NASCAR history. We look forward to showcasing the technology in the Next Gen car and putting forward a competitive entry in the historic race.”
It’s not the first NASCAR foray into the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In 1976, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr and event organisers agreed to create a new Grand International class – a play on the “Grand National” name of the Cup Series at the time. That move opened the door for two stock-car entries: a Dodge Charger owned and driven by NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Hershel McGriff with his son, Doug, as a co-driver; and a Junie Donlavey-prepared Ford Torino for drivers Richard Brooks, Dick Hutcherson and Marcel Mignon. The French media dubbed the stockers “the two big monsters,” noting how they stood out among the smaller prototypes and sports cars.
Le Mans’ Garage 56 entry was created in 2012 to provide a featured spot for inventive cars with cutting-edge technology – all outside of the race’s normal classifications and its 55-car field limit. Garage 56 entries are not eligible to compete for the overall win, but are scored and classified in the official results. They must also meet safety and performance standards to race alongside the event’s other entries.
Chad Knaus won seven Cup Series championships as a crew chief for Jimmie Johnson’s efforts in the Cup Series before making the transition to Hendrick Motorsports’ front office for competition. In an interview last year with NBC Sports, Knaus indicated he hoped to one day race at Le Mans, furthering the work he’s done with the Action Express Racing team and Johnson’s partial driving schedule in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
Team owner Rick Hendrick also has a history of involvement in sportscar racing, fielding the factory Chevrolet Corvette GTP in IMSA’s top class from 1985-88.
“Participating in one of the truly iconic events in auto racing and representing NASCAR and Chevrolet on the world stage is a privilege,” said Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports. “Jim deserves tremendous credit for having the vision for the project, and we thank him for trusting our organization with the responsibility. Even though Garage 56 is a ‘class of one,’ we are competitors and have every intention of putting a bold product on the racetrack for the fans at Le Mans. It’s a humbling opportunity – one that will present an exciting challenge over the next 15 months – but our team is ready.”