Race Weekend Central

Mike Rockenfeller on NASCAR, Garage 56 & the New Porsche

Mike Rockenfeller is a veteran of sports car racing. 

He is an overall winner of both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Rolex 24 at Daytona, accomplishing both feats in 2010. He’s also a past champion of the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) back in 2013.

After racing in DTM full-time from 2007-21, Rockenfeller has shifted focus. 2022 saw him racing part time. Now, he’s back full time in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with JDC-Miller MotorSports.

He’s also dabbled in NASCAR, making two starts in 2022 for Spire Motorsports and being part of the Garage 56 effort at Le Mans in June. This weekend, Rockenfeller will drive for Legacy Motor Club at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course as well as next week at Watkins Glen International. 

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Frontstretch‘s Phil Allaway recently talked to Rockenfeller about his new customer Porsche effort in IMSA, the Garage 56 program and his NASCAR experience.

Phil Allaway, Frontstretch: A bit of a new experience for you this year. You’ve got the new Porsche 963, which is a very interesting new LMDh car. You’ve had one race weekend so far. What do you think of it so far?

Mike Rockenfeller: Like you said, it’s [just] one race weekend. It’s still very new to me and to the team.

We didn’t go testing in between [WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and Watkins Glen] like some other teams did. For sure, I think it’s going to be a difficult weekend. I think we weren’t very good at Laguna [Seca].

It’s a lot of fun to drive the Porsche, for sure. I can’t wait to get back in the car and turn some laps here in Watkins Glen.

Allaway: For most of your career, you’ve been an Audi guy. It’s a little bit different going across the hall, so to speak?

Rockenfeller: I started my professional career with Porsche. I had five years there [and] was part of the Junior team. I ran through their development program as a driver and stayed for two years as a factory driver before I switched to Audi.

Prior to becoming an Audi factory racer, Rockenfeller primarily raced Porsche 911s in GT ranks in Europe and the United States. He won the GT2 class at Le Mans in a joint effort between Alex Job Racing and BAM! Motorsport in 2005 with teammates Marc Lieb and Leo Hindery, who were regulars in the American Le Mans Series at the time. You might remember Hindery as one of the principals behind the stillborn Grand Prix of America that was going to be held in New Jersey.

In a way, Porsche and Audi are both Volkswagen brands. They [both] belong under the same roof. For me, it’s great to be back in the family with Porsche and to have my name on a Porsche racecar is awesome and it always has been. This is just the beginning.

Allaway: How did the deal come together for you to drive [for JDC-Miller MotorSports]?

Rockenfeller: As you know, I did the NASCAR Garage 56 [effort] at Le Mans this year. I knew that this was going to happen. It was just a matter of when the car would arrive to the team.

It’s my first time with JDC-Miller MotorSports. It’s a great opportunity. Great team, really cool people. With a customer effort, it’s even cooler to be in the top category [of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship] and try to get the most out of the [car] and compete against all of the other guys out there.

For sure, this year [will not] be easy because we just got the car and we didn’t go testing at all. We basically have to learn every race weekend, but I’m very happy to be part of it.

We were on the same pace at the end [at Laguna Seca], which was very promising. I don’t think we could have asked for more. We were very proud about the race and everything. But you have to be realistic. It’s not like we should expect that much more right now, but you never know.

Allaway: For this year, you have Tijmen van der Helm as your teammate. He’s only 19 years old and splitting time between JDC-Miller MotorSports and Panis Racing in the European Le Mans Series. What do you think of him so far?

Rockenfeller: He’s 19 years old, and this is a huge challenge. If it’s a huge challenge for me with all my experience, you can imagine how difficult it is for him.

I think he did a fantastic job at [Laguna Seca]. First time in the car, didn’t know the track, didn’t know the car and made no mistakes. [He] showed good pace.

For me, he’s really promising as part of the team. He has less experience, but I have a bit more, and it works out.

Allaway: Before you did the Garage 56 program this year, you ran two NASCAR Cup Series races last year for Spire Motorsports, both here and at the ROVAL at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Were those races put together knowing that you were going to be part of the Garage 56 program, or was that before you were considered for it?

Rockenfeller: I was already involved in the Garage 56 program from day one. In a way, it’s always like that in racing. People talk to each other.

The opportunity came up, and I’m very thankful to have had the chance to do Cup races last year. It was a lifetime experience for me. I had always dreamed to be in a Cup race.

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I had two of those, especially Watkins Glen, [which] was pretty cool in the wet. We were fighting there for a good position, then in the dry, it was a bit more difficult.

Overall, it was a great experience. To race with Hendrick [Motorsports] in Le Mans was very special for me.

Allaway: You up for any more NASCAR races in the future?

Rockenfeller: If somebody asks me, I wouldn’t say no.

Sure enough, he did not say no when the offer came his way earlier this week.

Allaway: The Camaro appeared to be pretty fast at Le Mans. In the opening practice session, you were 5.5 seconds faster than any of the other GTE cars out there. Was that the expected pace for the Next Gen?

Rockenfeller: It’s hard to say what the expected pace [for the car] would be since all we had was the simulator to simulate Le Mans and the real track testing in [the United States]. I would say … we were pretty happy with our performance in quali on one lap, but also in the race.

Everybody, GM, Hendrick, Goodyear made huge efforts to bring a proper tire to Le Mans. We had a wider tire than the Cup car, and it showed great performance. To me, the driver to do the quali lap, it was amazing. It could have been even better, but we had traffic at the end of the lap. But still, I think the lap time was pretty fast and everybody was pretty impressed. We were in the range of what we expected, maybe a bit faster.

Allaway: Running in a car that was in between classes, your car had more straight-line speed than all of the GT cars and some of the slower LMP2s. It seemed like it could get a little interesting in traffic.

Rockenfeller: Not really. We knew what we were doing. We were similar to the GTE-Am cars in top speed, but we were reaching it faster because we have more power

(Note: The Garage 56 Next Gen ran with approximately the same horsepower as a regular Next Gen car, while GTE-Am cars have around 500 horsepower).

However, we were heavier, so we struggled in the corners a little more. I think that we can be really proud to be faster than a GT car. For sure, we were slower than LMP2 cars at Le Mans. If you have some Am drivers in the [LMP2 cars], there were some cars that we could pass, but normally, if there was a proper driver in the car, there was no way.

Allaway: It seems like the program was just fun all around. The French fans just seem to really like a loud, throaty racecar, not just the Next Gen car, but the Panozs that raced there in the past as well.

Rockenfeller: I raced the Corvette there in the past, and people really loved the sound of the Corvette. With NASCAR, it was so different to all the other [cars]. The look of it, the sound of it is nothing new. People love sounds with racecars, and I am the same. I like it as well. I think a proper racecar needs to sound good. We definitely had that on our side.

Allaway: As part of the Garage 56 effort, you were the Le Mans expert on the team, having made 10 previous starts. How much were Jenson Button and Jimmie Johnson leaning on you for advice?

Rockenfeller: We did the whole development of the Garage 56 program as a team for a year before that. There’s not much that I needed to tell them.

Of course, I am the one with the most experience at Le Mans, but it didn’t matter really. We all went for the same goal. We didn’t have any ranking or whatever, it was a team, and you help each other. They could help me in some situations, and I could help them.

Since this interview, Rockenfeller and van der Helm have made three starts in their Porsche 963. Their best finish has been a fourth at Watkins Glen. The effort has been one of steady improvement. Rockenfeller has stated that he learns something every time he gets into the car and the team is continuing to come to terms with the 963.

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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