Race Weekend Central

The Next Gen Car at Le Mans Is Intriguing & a Sign of What’s to Come

On Thursday afternoon (March 17) at Sebring International Raceway, NASCAR and IMSA jointly announced that Hendrick Motorsports is hoping to go to Le Mans next year with a Next Gen NASCAR Cup Series car to race as the Garage 56 entry.

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NASCAR, Hendrick Running 24 Hours of Le Mans as Garage 56 Entry

There are a lot of takeaways from this announcement, most of which are good. First off, we must explain what Garage 56 is. This is a special entry into the 24 Hours of Le Mans that is reserved for a car displaying “innovative technologies.” Previous Garage 56 entries have included the original version of the DeltaWing (performance capabilities with lower horsepower and weight) and the Nissan ZEOD RC (a hybrid race car with lithium-ion battery packs).

For as radically different from past Cup cars as the Next Gen car is, it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table by the standards of Le Mans. It will be unable to race in it’s current form. Pierre Fillon, president of the Automobile Club d’Ouest (ACO), made it fairly clear during the press conference.

“Garage 56 is a car dedicated to [innovation]. This is the only car [in the class]. We need something innovative,” Fillon explained.

“When Jim [France] told me there will be a new generation of cars in NASCAR, with using a hybrid system, he had this crazy idea to enter this car as a Garage 56 [entry] in 2023, I was immediately enthusiastic.”

Hybrid system usage in the Next Gen has been proposed for future use in the NASCAR Cup Series, but there is currently no firm date for implementation. If accepted, next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans could end up being a very public test session for the newest iteration of the Cup car.

Truth be told, there are few places that could be a tougher test for a brand-new race car than the Circuit de la Sarthe. It is 8.467 miles of race track, primarily on public roads, with some of the longest flat-out stretches in all of road racing and the heaviest braking loads. Last year, the best GT car completed over 2920 miles in the race.  If accepted by the ACO (and if they go with the hybrid setup, it will), NASCAR will have no better place to really put a hybrid NASCAR Cup Series car through the wringer.

While yes, there have been hybrid prototypes at Le Mans since 2012, there have been very few GT cars with hybrid powerplants. Only one has raced in the United States, that being a Porsche factory 911 with a flywheel hybrid system that made a couple of starts in the American Le Mans Series.

Also, the likely plan is that it won’t be a bespoke system in the Next Gen car. This hybrid system will more than likely be the same spec hybrid system in the LMDh cars that will also be in the field at Le Mans next year for the first time.

The announcement made light that (if approved), 2023 would be the second time that Cup cars will have raced at Le Mans. However, the position Le Mans (and realistically, sports car racing as a whole) is in today as compared to 1976 couldn’t be more different.

To put that into context, we need to have a short history lesson. Back in the mid-1970s, sports car racing in Europe and Le Mans in particular was reeling. The days of the mid-to-late 1960s encapsulated by the 2019 film Ford v Ferrari were effectively the glory days of the sport. The crowds came out in droves and all was well. Then, the speeds got too crazy. 240 mph on the Mulsanne Straight in 1970? Yikes.

In 1971, a new formula was announced that would be instituted in 1972 to slow the cars down and cut costs. Those rules mandated a three-liter maximum for engine displacement and primarily open-cockpit prototypes. After an all-out farewell to cars such as the Porsche 917, the French Matra brand dominated from 1972-1974 as other manufacturers either crumbled or chose not to go. 1975 brought a series of new rules regarding fuel consumption that forced drivers to slow down to hit fuel mileage targets.

In addition, the sport as a whole was losing momentum to Formula 1, despite the fact that the top sports car teams were running similar engines to what you could see in Formula 1 at the time. The World Championship of Makes, which was the world championship for sports car racing at the time, effectively went in the toilet.

By 1976, Le Mans was in need of substantial changes in order to help draw in more race fans and entice manufacturers. The fuel economy overtures were one attempt to entice them, but it didn’t really take. In response, the race was effectively opened up to anything the FIA sanctioned at the time. This meant closed-cockpit prototypes and open-cockpit prototypes could race with Group 5 cars (GT cars).

Then, there were the two Winston Cup cars. Earlier that year, Winston Cup cars were allowed to race in the 24 Hours of Daytona for the first time. At the time, the 24 Hours of Daytona was technically part of the World Championship of Makes. A few of them turned out. David Pearson competed in this Ford Torino for Holman-Moody that was painted up like his Wood Brothers Mercury of the time. This car actually finished the 24-hour race 16th overall. Bobby and Donnie Allison were in the race, as were Hershel McGriff, James Hylton, Richard Childress and Ed Negre. Benny Parsons was in the race as well, but he didn’t drive a Cup car. He drove a factory BMW 3.5 CSL alongside David Hobbs (picture is from 1975).

IMSA founder John Bishop and NASCAR’s Bill France Sr. both wanted in at Le Mans to showcase their particular race cars at the time. Given the situation in Europe, the Le Mans organizers were not exactly going to turn them away.

Ultimately, four IMSA GTX-class cars made the trip, including one of the then-new DeKon-built Chevrolet Monzas. Two Winston Cup cars went as well. One was a Dodge Charger run by McGriff with Olympia Beer sponsorship. The other was a Donlavey Racing Ford Torino. Only one of the four IMSA-class cars finished, while neither of the Winston Cup cars made it to halfway.

The takeaway about the Cup cars at the time at Le Mans was that they were decent in a straight line, but otherwise slow. The Charger was 56.6 seconds off the overall pole in qualifying and likely had some of the slowest cornering speeds of anything in the race. The Donlavey Torino was actually the last car to qualify for the race in 55th.

Today is a much different time in sports car racing. The recent moves to create both the Hypercar and LMDh classes, then create a way for these different classes to properly race together, has resulted in a substantial amount of manufacturer interest. When the French tricolor flag is dropped to start the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans, there will likely be seven major manufacturers on the grid in the top class. They will be Porsche, Toyota, Peugeot, Ferrari, Cadillac, BMW and Acura. The Scuderia Cameron Glickenhaus team will be there as well. Audi is currently a question mark.

The new rulesets that are coming into play have revitalized manufacturer involvement at the top levels of sports car racing. Basically, Le Mans doesn’t have the same problems that it had the last time Cup cars competed in the race.

Championship-wise, sports car racing is stronger than it was in Europe in the 1970s. Yes, Formula 1 is surging in popularity once again, especially here in the United States thanks to the success of Formula 1: Drive to Survive. However, the WEC has created a true world championship for sports car racing that outright hasn’t existed since the early 1990s. It has definitely had growing pains as costs rose too high, but the convergence of the Hypercar and LMDh cars points to a brighter, more cost-effective future.

North America has IMSA, a NASCAR-owned sanctioning body that runs the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. There is likely to be an increase in cars running in the top class, which will be known as GTP starting in 2023, with all the manufacturer support. With LMDhs, at least, this should also lead to customer teams running the cars as well. They already had to quietly expand the field this year at Daytona to allow for 61 starters. There is a chance that they might have to do so again next year, especially if a bunch of Hypercar and/or LMDh teams from the WEC enter the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

An example of that scenario would be what G-Drive Racing was planning on doing this year before the current Ukraine crisis began with their LMP2 prototypes. Send the equipment to the United States by boat, do the ROAR Before the 24 and the Rolex 24 at Daytona, then keep the equipment here to run the 1000 Miles of Sebring. After Sebring, they would pack up and send the equipment back to Europe by boat. G-Drive Racing refusing to agree to the FIA’s terms for participation in FIA-sanctioned events by Russian teams and/or drivers ended that pretty quick.

Given the might behind this effort (NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, General Motors via Chevrolet, Goodyear, which is already a major partner with the WEC), it is pretty much a slam dunk for the ACO. If selected, the Hendrick Motorsports effort would likely put the largest-ever spotlight on Le Mans’ Garage 56 effort, even if it is not necessarily the most innovative vehicle (even with a hybrid system) ever proposed for it.

In all seriousness, this program would likely put the largest spotlight on Le Mans for Americans since the Ford GT40 program in the 1960s. It will be viewed as an all-American effort, even though they’re technically not going to be racing anyone on paper. In practice, you can bet anything that whoever ultimately drives the Chevrolet Camaro next year will give it their all.

In addition, outside of the 1976 Le Mans trip, Cup cars have all but never raced in Europe before.  NASCAR’s past overseas exhibitions have been in Japan and Australia (which had a domestic series for a time).  They currently have the Whelen Euro Series over there, but those cars are a far cry from what you would see from a Next Gen car at Le Mans.  French race fans have also reacted very positively to American-style V8-powered cars in the past (Ex: Any Panoz, the factory Corvettes pre-C8.R, Mercedes’ CLK-GTR, CLK-LM and CLR GT1 cars, the Sauber Mercedes C9, C11, etc.).  NASCAR Cup Series races are currently aired on France on Automoto la chaine with French language broadcasters as well.  The channel has held NASCAR rights since at least the 2000s, when it was still ABMoteurs.

Who will drive the car at Le Mans is anyone’s guess.  Rick Hendrick joked during the press conference that “We’re going to put [Jeff] Gordon on a diet.”  He also stated that he hadn’t talked to Jimmie Johnson about it, but Johnson would likely be in if there wasn’t a conflict in his schedule.  Both drivers have quite a bit of endurance experience in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Le Mans generally requires three drivers per car.  There have been a couple of instances in recent years in which teams have run the race with only two.  That usually occurs due to injury or sickness and cannot be done in a Pro-Am class.  Since this would be an innovative car, there would be no limitations as to who could drive.  Hendrick has some thoughts about that topic.

“I think it would be nice to have a mix [of current Cup drivers and non-Cup drivers],” Hendrick stated.  “We’ve talked about it a lot.  If the calendar works out.  We’ll just wait and see what’s available.  But we would like to see a Cup driver in the system if we could.”

In addition to the creation of the Le Mans program, the only firm announcement made is the inclusion of Chad Knaus as the team manager.  He’s worked in a similar position on Action Express Racing’s No. 48 Cadillac since the beginning of last year in addition to his Hendrick Motorsports role.  Effectively, that work with the Cadillac has been practice for him.

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Chad McCumbee, James Pesek Win Alan Jay Automotive Network 120

Overall, the news Thursday out of Sebring is extremely intriguing.  I’ve always wanted to see what a NASCAR Cup car could do at Le Mans.  I wasn’t alive in 1976 and if I was, Le Mans would have had next to no bearing on anything here in the United States at the time.

Simulations such as iRacing make it possible for drivers to try out unconventional combinations.  If you’re on that service and have made the proper purchases, you could drive a current Next Gen car on the Circuit de la Sarthe right now if you felt like it (I can’t, since I’m not on iRacing).  That version of the car will likely not be what you will see at Le Mans.  Next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans is basically going to look like the answer to a giant what if? question.  NASCAR fans should pay attention to this endeavor since it very well could affect the future of the NASCAR Cup Series.

As per the press conference, this won’t be an effort just to go there and go for a ride.  The effort will be designed to run at a competitive pace and hopefully last all 24 hours.  Ultimately, I believe the ACO will have a say in what they want a competitive pace to look like for the Next Gen car, but it shouldn’t be trundling around the track, unable to break an average of 115 mph for the lap.  For comparison, the slowest car in the field last year qualified at an average of nearly 131 mph.

Past Garage 56 entries that are not built to existing class rules have generally been targeted at somewhere between LMP2 and GTE-Pro lap times, but those cars were prototypes as opposed to a stock car or GT car.  I’m not really sure what the ACO is going to want in regards to a performance window for this car, but whatever they come up with should be interesting.

I’m really looking forward to this endeavor.  It very well could put NASCAR on the worldwide stage like never before.

About the author

2021 Phil Allaway Headshot Phil Allaway

Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.

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