A NASCAR Surprise at Le Mans: An American Underdog Takes on Europe's Elite
The Garage 56 Camaro enters the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans, promising an unforgettable showdown
There is something intoxicatingly beautiful about wickedly fast cars racing through the French countryside at night. That's probably why the 24 Heures du Mans, or, in English, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, has continued for the last 100 years. It is perhaps the world's premier motor race, and the 2023 edition takes place this weekend.
Some of the world's fastest drivers transit the 8.5-mile Circuit de la Sarthe — a mix of closed public roads and a bit of dedicated racetrack in less than three-and-a-half minutes at an average speed of close to 150 miles per hour.
I had the good fortune to attend the 2016 running of the race, when Ford returned after a multi-decade absence and won its class the first time out. Every year brings different stories, but the brief is simple: Win.
There are four different classes of car this year, with more than five dozen entries. From the no-holds-barred prototype hypercars to the GT cars that look almost like something you might be able to buy from your local Aston Martin or Porsche dealer, there are constant battles up and down the grid. But the biggest battle teams will face is time.
The goal of an endurance race isn't necessarily to be the fastest. Instead, the winner is the car that can travel the greatest distance in 24 hours, accounting for pit stops to refuel, change tires and drivers, and even to make repairs. It is a brutal, merciless game designed to push man and machine to their breaking point. In 2016, the year I attended, Toyota missed out on its first-ever win at Le Mans when its race-leading car broke down on the main straight on the last lap of the race. Having a big lead after 23 minutes and 57 seconds is not enough, it turns out.
But this year, the most exciting story comes from an unexpected place. Most folks think of NASCAR as a sport for rednecks where heavy cars with big V8 motors rip around a superspeedway turning left. To show that there's much more to stock car racing than left turns and good ol' boys, NASCAR teamed up with Hendrick Motorsports, one of the top teams in racing, to field Garage 56: a Next Gen stock car that's been Le Mans-ified and is the talk of the paddock (and all of racing) this year.
The NASCAR Garage 56 crew won the annual Le Mans Pit Stop competition:
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The No. 24 car, ostensibly a Chevrolet Camaro, has been heavily modified from a standard NASCAR. Rather than stickers, it has functioning headlights and taillights, carbon brake discs, and a fuel cell 12 gallons larger than normal. It's covered in a mind-boggling array of new aerodynamic components to increase downforce, and it's a whopping 500 pounds lighter than the typical Cup car you'd find in a NASCAR race.
Le Mans teams typically field three drivers, and the Garage 56 entrant — a special slot on the grid introduced in 2012 for particularly innovative and futuristic cars that might not fit into any other category — has F1 Champion Jenson Button, 7-time NASCAR Cup Series champ Jimmie Johnson, and Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller behind the wheel.
But what's most exciting is that while the Garage 56 entry will be racing in a class of 1, it will be racing the rest of the field, particularly the sports cars. Even more exciting? It beat the fastest GT car, a Ferrari 488 GTE EVO, by nearly four seconds in qualifying. In other words, America might be about to roll into France and kick some European ass. It's hard to put into words how unusual this car is, so perhaps this visual will help — compared to everybody else on the grid, this thing is huge:
There are other American entries in the race, too, including a Chevrolet Corvette C8.R and a rather bonkers hybrid Cadillac in the Hypercar class. But forget all that. With a naturally aspirated, cast-iron small block V8 under the hood, the Garage 56 car is mind-bogglingly loud and sure to keep fans tenting trackside up all night long. America. I mean, just listen to this thing:
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Anyway, the 24 Hours of Le Mans starts at 10 AM Eastern on Saturday, June 10, and runs... well... 24 hours until 10 AM ET on Sunday. You can catch the entire race on the Motor Trend channel, which is on YouTube TV and maybe other networks as well.
While it's basically impossible to watch the whole race (in 2016, I eventually fell asleep trackside on the terrace at Ford's hospitality building) but it might be worth a check-in at some point this weekend to see how the boys are holding up.
Best of luck, Jenson, Jimmie, and Mike. Make us proud.