Fifteen months ago, NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports announced a joint program to modify a NASCAR Cup Series Next Gen car to race at Le Mans at Sebring International Raceway. It was teased as the first time that a Cup car would race at Le Mans since 1976.
The situations surrounding NASCAR Cup Series vehicles racing at Le Mans couldn’t have been more different. In 1976, sports car racing was at something of a nadir in Europe. Manufacturer interest had waned significantly after engine displacement was cut to three liters after 1971, ending the era of the Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s. In this particular year, the race was open to darn near anything that FIA sanctioned. In the case of the NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National cars from Donlavey Racing and Hershel McGriff that made the trip, even cars that weren’t from FIA-sanctioned series were good.
Today, sports car racing has been as strong as it’s ever been for more than 30 years. The top class (Hypercar) had 16 entries from seven manufacturers. The ACO (Automobile Club d’Ouest) announced with its 2024 schedule reveal that the LMP2 class would be dropped from the FIA World Endurance Championship as a full-time class in 2024 (it will still race at Le Mans, though). Alpine revealed a rendering of the prototype version of its new LMDh car, the Alpine A424_β, that will be on the WEC grid next year. With BMW, Lamborghini and the new Isotta Franchini team joining, that could mean up to 11 manufacturers on the grid just in Hypercar.
In the new LMGT3 class that will replace GTE-Am, there are a number of manufacturers already willing to step up with existing cars. Chevrolet announced its new Corvette Z06 GT3.R back at Daytona in January. Ford revealed its new Ford Mustang GT3 Friday and that longtime Porsche squad Proton Competition intends to field two Mustangs full-time in 2024.
At the time, the Next Gen car had only raced a few times competitively, only four of those events being point races. The flaws of the car hadn’t really come into focus yet. Also, things didn’t go that well with the Cup cars that made the trip in 1976. Neither car lasted all that long and both were way off the pace, lapping 30 seconds a lap slower than GT cars.
As a Garage 56 entry, the Next Gen car would have to have some kind of newer technology involved. A garden-variety Next Gen car like the ones raced Sunday at Sonoma Raceway couldn’t hack it at Le Mans. The cockpit was modified with an off-the-shelf new dash and rear camera system, similar to what the GTE-Am cars run, and the transaxle was modified to accept paddle shifters instead of the sequential transmission currently in use.
Aerodynamic changes were made with louvers and a large rear spoiler. Lights were added to the car. In addition, hybrid technology was incorporated into the engine, a mandate from the ACO. Finally, the car went on a diet that resulted in a reduction of 500 pounds. As constituted, this car is 10 seconds faster a lap on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s ROVAL than the regular Next Gen car.
Changes for reliability were also made. For instance, while the car ran with roughly equal power to what is normally run in Cup races outside of superspeedways, engine revs were capped at roughly 8000 rpm.
Overall, the reaction to the Next Gen Camaro was extremely positive. The fans in France seemed to really like the car and especially liked the sound of it. It is a reaction in line with the Panoz cars with Roush engines that raced at Le Mans in the past.
While they considered equipping air jacks on the car for a more typical sports car pit stop experience, the ACO insisted upon “the full NASCAR pit stop experience.” What they got was a little different than what NASCAR fans are used to, but could point toward the future of NASCAR pit stops, as seen here during the Pit Stop Competition on Tuesday (June 6).
Note the mast arm that the air wrenches are connected to. Currently, air wrenches are hooked up behind the pit wall and it’s possible to run over said hose. With this setup, it’s very unlikely. Don’t be surprised if a setup like this is instituted into the NASCAR Cup Series at some point in the next couple of years.
Package-wise, it was thought that the car was going to be slower than the existing GTE-Am cars at Le Mans. On that end, Hendrick Motorsports surprised a lot of people.
In the opening session on the Test Day June 3, Jenson Button set a time that was faster than all but three of the GTE-Am teams. By the afternoon session, the Next Gen Camaro was faster than all of them.
In the free practice sessions that were part of the actual 24 Hours of Le Mans weekend, the difference between the Next Gen car and the GTE-Am cars expanded. In the opening free practice session, Mike Rockenfeller was more than five seconds a lap faster than the best GTE-Am team.
Originally, the Next Gen car was supposed to start at the rear of the field, as reflected here. However, since Rockenfeller had qualified 4.4 seconds faster than the GTE-Am pole sitter Nicky Catsburg, the GTE-Am teams went to the stewards and argued that the Camaro should be allowed to start in front of the GTE-Am class. The stewards agreed and made the change, meaning that the Camaro would start 41st instead of 62nd.
The race was the true test of everything that had gone into the effort. Could the equipment go the distance, or would something crazy end the effort extremely early?
No, they didn’t crash out, despite the 24 Hours of Le Mans being plagued by wrecks that eliminated at least a dozen cars. There were three separate periods of the race where rain made part of the 8.467-mile circuit wet and forced teams to traverse it on slick tires.
The worst of these periods was three hours in when the Porsche Curves were soaked down. That created this scary scenario.
Through these conditions, the team of Button, Rockenfeller and Jimmie Johnson were able to hold a steady wheel and run like clockwork. The trio were able to avoid trouble and got all the way up to 27th overall at one point while other teams were crashing out around them.
The race was incredibly trouble-free until the 21st hour, when the transaxle broke as Button exited the Indianapolis turn.
Under Le Mans rules, if you have a problem on course, you are more or less on your own. Getting stuck in a gravel trap is an exception to the rule (the snatch vehicle will pull you out). Button was forced to limp the Camaro back to the garage, where the Hendrick Motorsports team had to replace the transaxle. Had he stalled on-course and been unable to resume on his own, the car would have been out.
The repairs took 90 minutes and dropped the team out of any competitive position. Once the car was fixed, they were able to run out the final two hours and change to finish 39th overall, 57 laps down and the second-to-last car still running. Regardless, just reaching the finish was an accomplishment in and of itself.
“That was unbelievable,” NASCAR president Jim France said afterwards. “That was thousands of hours of hard work by hundreds of people that went into making this thing happen. And then the way the team and the pit crews and everybody performed all week, it was just fantastic.”
“It’s amazing to finish the race, that was priority number one,” Rockenfeller told NASCAR.com. “I think it’s something I will look back to later on with my kids and always will be high on my memory in terms of high level races I did. It has been such a great team, not only my teammates, but everybody on the team. The full journey, I mean, what can I say? I made a lot of friends. And I think we did a good job.”
Even with the 90 minutes in the garage, they still completed 285 laps of the Circuit de la Sarthe, 2413.095 miles. That distance would constitute more than 10 full EchoPark Texas Grand Prix races at Circuit of the Americas.
What was the ultimate result of the NASCAR Garage 56 program? A likely disappointing actual finishing position, but they exposed a substantial number of race fans to a form of racecar that they had never seen before. They created a fair amount of excitement and had a legitimately competitive car as part of the Garage 56 program, something that has not always been able to be said in the past. The effort was more than worth it for everyone involved.
What is the future for this particular car? According to Button, it won’t race again in this form. It may spend the rest of it’s days in a museum. But more importantly, it may also influence the future of the NASCAR Cup Series.
About the author
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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