The one-year countdown has begun on the collaboration between NASCAR, IMSA and the 24 Hours of Le Mans to field a modified Camaro ZL1 Cup car as the entry to Garage 56 in 2023.
With the 99th year of the world’s greatest endurance race just days away, it’s NASCAR’s retro-inspired return to the Circuit de la Sarthe in an official capacity for the centenary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Daytona Beach-based organization and its branch IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship is working at a breakneck pace.
Following the project’s announcement in March, Hendrick Motorsports, Action Express Racing, Chevy Racing, Goodyear, Dallara and other key partners have focused on developing the V8-powered Next Gen Cup car into something that can work efficiently and reliably among GTs. thoroughbred cars and prototypes next June.
“In motorsport we know one thing is certain: the green flag will come down at a specific time and we have to be ready,” IMSA president and project manager John Doonan told RACER. “For all of us working on the ‘NASCAR to Le Mans’ Garage 56 project, that fact has finally come home as the 365-day countdown has officially been activated at Hendrick Motorsports headquarters.”
Fueled by the blue-collar approach adopted in 1976 when NASCAR founder Bill France Sr and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest formed a special “Grand International” category to accommodate two Cup entrants, French son Jim, a sports car enthusiast, has brought the French and American sanctioning bodies together again for a return visit that will add impressive layers of polish to the adventure.
More than 40 years ago, the trip led by France Sr was made to celebrate America’s bicentenary, but with a contentious NASCAR race on the same weekend as Le Mans, all the major Cup teams transmitted the invitation to represent the United States in favor of competing at California’s Riverside road course. The NASCAR-to-Le Mans mission was then given to two small teams, Hershel and Doug McGriff representing the stock car organization in a 5.5-liter V8-powered Dodge Charger and a prepared 7.0-liter Ford Torino for Richard Brooks, Dick Hutcherson and Marcel Mignon by Junie Donlavey.
Together, the “two monsters” were everything you’d expect – straight-line missiles – and not much more in their early days. The Dodge lasted two laps before its engine failed and the Ford made it into the morning hours on Sunday, but stopped when the transmission surrendered.
Building on the modest resources applied for the Bicentenary, the new program overseen in the workshop and eventually on the track by seven-time Championship-winning Cup team manager Chad Knaus is a different beast. All the power of General Motors and all of the aforementioned partners is applied to the Camaro ZL1 which will use IMSA’s new-for-2023 energy recovery system.
It is here that a standard Chevrolet Cup car, transformed into a hybrid, with all the necessary endurance racing equipment, has the ACO ready to accept the vehicle as its entry into Garage 56 for innovative or unique projects.
Fans of the 24 Hours of Le Mans often cite Garage 56’s original entry in 2012 with Highcroft Racing’s Nissan-powered DeltaWing as the prototype model of the class where only one car is nominated to run as an unclassified entrant in the race two days. But like the Camaro ZL1, there have been other wrinkles in the class that demonstrate an open philosophy about ACO selections that don’t always correspond to a demand for cutting-edge sports car design or new automotive technologies.
Frenchman Frédéric Sausset exemplified a different approach to Garage 56 in 2016 when the quadruple amputee and its SRT41 By Oak Racing registration was chosen; with special controls fitted to his LMP2 prototype, a small crane system was designed to lift Sausset in and out of the car during pit stops, and when his fully capable teammates were driving, familiar entry and exit methods and standard vehicle controls were used. Along the same lines, not all of the technology contained in the Camaro ZL1 will be new to Le Mans, but together the car and team will be something the event and its hundreds of thousands of fans have never had before. never seen before.
“While this is a very daunting task and you would always like more time to get everything ready, there is an incredibly talented and dedicated group of partners hanging on to every piece,” Doonan said.
“From the winningest team in NASCAR history with Rick Hendrick to the winningest manufacturer in NASCAR history with Chevrolet, from NASCAR’s tire partner since 1954 with Goodyear to one of the engineering partners from NASCAR on the Next Gen Chassis with Dallara, everyone has been hard at work preparing for our first track testing opportunity. We have already started testing the Driver-In-The-Loop simulator, and everyone is thrilled to start the car and get on the right track.It’s simply a group of motorsport stars that makes it all possible.
RACER will chronicle all that’s to come next year for the project as it goes from virtual testing to real-world racing on various road courses and then to its debut at Le Mans. France, Doonan and Knaus will be in recognition at the event this week as they prepare for the program to ramp up over the next 52 weeks.
“We have also met regularly with ACO and FIA executives and technical staff as we seek our official invitation for 2023,” Doonan said. “Everyone has been very helpful and supportive in the early stages of this challenge and we look forward to representing NASCAR on this world stage as Le Mans celebrates its centenary.”