Here’s How NASCAR Modified a Next Gen Race Car to Dominate Le Mans
NASCAR and endurance racing, specifically the 24 Hours of Le Mans, are worlds apart. But these two wildly different racing disciplines clashed with NASCAR’s Next Gen car competing in the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans in June 2023 as a Garage 56 entry. It was no small feat developing a NASCAR stock car to compete at the world’s most prestigious endurance race. Here’s how it happened.
The initial step for NASCAR’s Next Gen Camaro ZL1 to compete at Circuit de la Sarthe was established in 2012 with the creation of “Garage 56.” The initiative, approved by the 24 Hours of Le Mans’ sanctioning bodies, allowed for cars to compete in the endurance race that don’t meet traditional technical specifications and showcase innovation.
Ten years later, NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet announced a Next Gen ZL1 would take the unexpected trip across the Atlantic to compete in the 100th running of Le Mans as a “Garage 56” entry.
However, much work had to be done to modify the Camaro Next Gen car to compete for 24 hours consecutively on the 8.5-mile course south of Le Mans, France. Testing began in earnest in 2022.
Goodyear developed a wider tire with a revised compound. The Hendrick machine also sported genuine lights, a revised front splitter, dive planes, a larger rear diffuser, and a more streamlined underwing. Underneath its bodywork, it sported a larger fuel cell and carbon brake discs.
Yet, some traditional NASCAR elements remained. The Garage 56 entry still forced drivers to enter through the window instead of a door. Providing power was a 5.8-liter Chevrolet iron small block V8. A manual jack was used during pit stops instead of the traditional built-in pneumatic jacks of sports cars and prototype race cars. In fact, the Garage 56 Hendrick team won the Pit Stop Challenge ahead of the race despite this handicap.
Notably, the Garage 56 entry, which bears No. 24, was still “traditionally NASCAR.” It is enormous compared to the seemingly tiny prototypes of Le Mans fame, and its V8 is incredibly loud.
Jenson Button, the 2009 Formula 1 champion, was quoted by the New York Times as saying it was “so obnoxious” and “so not Le Mans.” But Benson’s prediction fans would love the Next Gen entry rang true. Its size and noise dwarfed the competition during the race.
Button was among the all-star lineup selected to drive the Garage 56 entry alongside seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and two-time Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller. The driver lineup was announced in January 2023 with sports car star Jordan Taylor tapped as an alternate driver and consultant.
Testing continued in the months ahead of June’s race, including the Garage 56 car running 23 hours at Sebring International Raceway in Florida. In all, the modified Next Gen car completes 6,834 miles of testing before arriving in France.
From the outset, the goal of the Garage 56 project was not to win the race but to finish it. Despite the extensive testing, hugely experienced driver lineup and Hendrick expertise, that was far from a guarantee. Especially considering the rainy conditions to start the race and a field of over 60 other cars.
Yet, the Next Gen car continued to plug away, rising to as high as 28th overall around the midpoint of the race. During this time, the Next Gen car continued to be one of the biggest talking points of the race and quickly became a fan favorite. Even if its howling V8 doesn’t allow many at the track to sleep in the overnight hours.
A major derailment occurs for the team with just over three hours remaining in the race. Button parks the No. 24 car with a driveline issue. However, the team quickly addresses the problem, and after a few shakedown laps, the team’s dream of finishing the race remains alive.
A few hours later, the dream becomes reality. Johnson pilots the No. 24 across the start/finish for the final time after traversing 285 laps of the circuit, a total of 2,413 miles. The Garage 56 car places 39th overall among a field of 62 cars.
The finish marks the end of the improbable story of a NASCAR stock car, even in modified form, competing and completing the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Two years in the making, the Garage 56 entry put NASCAR in the spotlight at one of motorsports’ most iconic stages.
“I feel like we had already captured the trophy right when they dropped the green flag,” Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports Vice President of Competition who oversaw the Garage 56 program for the organization told NASCAR.com. “The thing I’m most proud of is that this wasn’t really anybody but a few people’s full-time job. Everybody accepted this task as a passion project and something that they wanted to participate in. And when you get people like that put together, you can do anything.”