Garage 56 entry one week away from first showing at Le Mans
One week from Friday, NASCAR‘s long-awaited, highly collaborative Garage 56 project will formally make its 24 Hours of Le Mans debut in France — the No. 24 Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 presented for inspection at the Place de la Republique in the center of town, the world center of sports car racing for the week.
The 62 cars entered for the renowned twice-around-the-clock Le Mans race, as well as their 186 drivers, must go through a series of “administrative and technical checks” — called “scrutineering” — in advance of the first practice session at the 8.467-mile Circuit de le Sarthe on Sunday, June 4. The inspection is both a technical once-over and in so many ways a grand showcase.
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The Garage 56 Chevrolet — a coordinated effort among NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, Goodyear and IMSA — was shipped to France on May 18 and is scheduled to take its formal turn at inspection next Friday morning at 11:15 a.m. ET; the only entry in the race‘s “Innovative Car” class. The next day, it will join seven other cars in a famed parade through Le Mans — from the Avenue Charles de Gaulle and ultimately through the Wilbur Wright tunnel — in front of tens of thousands of fans descending on the small, French inland town for the 24-hour race.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson is headlining a stellar group of drivers for the Garage 56 entry that also includes sports car great — and former Le Mans winner — Mike Rockenfeller, Formula One champion Jenson Button and multi-time IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Series champion Jordan Taylor in a reserve role.
While his teammates have all competed in Le Mans previously, this will be Johnson‘s debut in the June 10-11 race, which is celebrating 100 years on the racing calendar. The popular NASCAR champion will be competing for his own Legacy Motor Club team in the NASCAR Cup Series’ Coca-Cola 600 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday and then leaves immediately for Paris, where he will undergo a sort of “rookie orientation” the next day.
After all the testing, preparing and anticipating, Johnson is now simply eager to get to Europe for the actual race week, with its 100th-anniversary pomp and the high-level international competition.
“It‘s hard to believe it‘s almost here, we‘ve been preparing for so long,” Johnson said this week. “I‘m excited to get there and to take in absolutely every second of this incredible opportunity. I‘ve been a part of many really amazing things in my career. This is going to be on to be one of the top five.
“I am so happy I can take my family with me to Le Mans. We are all looking forward to this extremely prestigious race and taking everything in. Can‘t say enough about the preparation that has gone into this by everyone at NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports.
“I‘m focusing on the 600 [this Sunday], but it‘s hard not to have that excitement knowing we leave in a few days.”
The last test for the No. 24 Next Gen Chevrolet came at Sebring in April under the watchful eyes of NASCAR chairman Jim France, Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick, IMSA president John Doonan and longtime NASCAR executive Mike Helton — all of whom will be in Le Mans next week.
“We went from testing and development to tuning and now it‘s getting into execution mode,” said IMSA’s Doonan. “This all started with a vision from Jim [France] and putting all the best partners that NASCAR has together, the winningest team, winningest manufacturer, tire partner since 1954 and had all those pillars aligned and wanted to put NASCAR on a global stage and because of our relationship IMSA has with the ACO, it all fit together.
“For me, I‘m a big historian of the sport and to look back at what Jim‘s dad had a vision of trying to align — NASCAR was coming on strong in the south and he wasn‘t satisfied yet, he felt it deserved more international notoriety,” Doonan continued. “He did that [with a Le Mans entry] in 1976 and then to recreate it now, you have a passionate fan group over there that I think will appreciate NASCAR, the sound, the pit stops, all of that.
“And I think we have a group of passionate NASCAR fans here that may now look at IMSA and the international sports car property a little differently and be able to root on their NASCAR entry.”