Thursday, Mar 23

Transcript: Garage 56 Driver Announcement

Transcript: Garage 56 Driver Announcement Speedway Digest Photo

THE MODERATOR: Good morning. Everybody. We're ready to get started with this unique announcement and celebration. Thanks so much for making time to come along this morning, and happy race day. Pleased to say this is the biggest crowd ever at the Rolex 24 here at Daytona, which is a reason to celebrate. Round of applause.


A beautiful celebratory day in sports car racing in this country, and we're going to continue the significant announcement for later this year in the summer for the 100th anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Garage 56 project.

For those of you, and I know there were many of you with us in the room at Sebring last year when we broke the news, and that was a pretty joyous occasion, as well, this unique collaboration between IMSA, NASCAR, General Motors and Chevrolet, Goodyear, the ACO, Hendrick Motorsports. There's so many entities involved collaboratively but it's come together so wonderfully, and the excitement level kicks it up a notch here.

Want to welcome John Doonan, the president and project leader of Garage 56, president of IMSA; Jimmie Johnson, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion; Mike Rockenfeller, who we were just having a chat backstage that it was almost 20 years ago that Rocky came here as a youngster - might have even still be a teenager then, I think - and almost won on debut here in a GT car; 2009 Formula 1 world champion, Jenson button -great to see Jensen here at the World Center of Racing; and Jeff Andrews, president and GM of Hendrick Motorsports.

Round of applause for everybody, please.


I know that many you know this very well. Some of you may not as much, but Garage 56 is a unique program that the ACO implemented many years ago with technology, with a point of difference in mind, whether that's alternative fuels, alternative technology. Many of you will remember the delta wing, projects like that that partake -- there's a special place at Le Mans for Garage 56.

What point of difference are you bringing to this wonderful event? That's what today is all about, and you're going to see the people to pilot it.

John, we've been to Le Mans many years. We've seen Garage 56 projects, but this is something altogether different, and turning concept into reality, you're almost there.

JOHN DOONAN: We are, Leigh, and thanks to all the journalists and media from around the world that have come here to help us tell stories certainly about the 61st running of the Rolex 24, but stories like this, really special stories for our sport.

When Bill France Sr. wanted to put NASCAR on a global stage in 1976, he did a little bit of his own Garage 56 project. He took two NASCAR teams over to compete in what we all know is the most iconic 24-hour race in the world, including, of course, our own Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Jim France, our chairman, decided he wanted to recreate that same story. A special opportunity to put NASCAR on a global stage. He certainly had an opportunity to do that with the new Next Gen Cup car, and then he said, let's bring a team of All-Stars together, the winningest race team in NASCAR history with 14 Cup championships, the winningest auto manufacturer in NASCAR history, Chevrolet, NASCAR's tire partner since 1954, Goodyear, and working with our partners at the ACO, and I had to do a costume change from IMSA to Garage 56, but Pierre Fillon and his board have been open to this idea.

We definitely took him to a steak dinner. We're still waiting for our official invitation, which will hopefully come in about 30 days. But it's truly an All-Star team. Then the last bit was who's going to pilot this car, and we're thrilled to be able to announce that today.

THE MODERATOR: Jimmie, of course people naturally associated you with it because of your wonderful history with Hendrick Motorsports, but your diversity, the last couple years in INDYCAR, all the years you raced here and almost won the Rolex 24 overall. I happened to be with Mr. H when he rang you at Sebring. We were sitting on the taxiway, and he said to me, Do you think Jimmie would be interested? And I said, Yeah, I think so. So are you pleased that you're a part of this?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, especially being the youngest driver up here on stage, I'm so pleased to be here (laughter) and be a part of this program. When Rick called, I couldn't resist the opportunity. It's been a big dream of mine to go to Le Mans and compete and be in Le Mans and experience what it's all about, and to have the experience I have had here, I know how special this event is, and I'm sad that I'm not out there today.

But to know that I'm going to Le Mans with this great group of drivers, this great team, the collaboration between GM, NASCAR, everybody involved, it's really a special, special opportunity.

THE MODERATOR: Rocky, you've won the 24 hours of Le Mans overall, you've won the Rolex 24 here at Daytona, you've represented all kinds of manufacturers. You've done a lot of the grunt work, if you wish, a lot of the testing and development work. What's this like and what's it like for you to be part of this unique program?

MIKE ROCKENFELLER: Well, I'd just kind of underline what Jimmie said. It's an incredible group of partners on this project. To be involved from day one is just a great honor, a lot of fun, and I can't wait now to share the car with these two especially young teammates.

THE MODERATOR: Jenson, this is something different. You've often said post-Formula 1 year, you're eyes wide open, open to different things, different projects. You still love to compete. This fits the boxes different, doesn't it.

JENSON BUTTON: Yeah, this is a total surprise. I was on the way to Disneyland and took the wrong road.

Yeah, it's really, really special to be here. Seriously, I've always thought of myself as a racing driver, and I've finished my F1 career and I look for new challenges. This is definitely an exciting challenge, to work alongside these two.

As you can see already there's some good banter here with Jimmie dreaming that he's the youngest. I think it just shows that that teamwork that we will need to go to Le Mans and to perform as we would like.

Very excited to work with this All-Stars team, and I think we can achieve something very special.

THE MODERATOR: Not to mention your coach, Jordan Taylor, right?

JENSON BUTTON: Yeah, where is Coach? There he is. I followed Jordan on social media and he's very funny, so I'm looking forward to working with you, Coach.

THE MODERATOR: Jeff, talk about it from a Hendrick Motorsports point of view. Like we said, there's a lot of cooks in the kitchen or a lot of entities trying to collaborate and collaborating successfully. What's it been like to have been the master puppeteer along with John?

JEFF ANDREWS: Thank you, Leigh, and I want to say on behalf of Hendrick Motorsports we couldn't be more proud of this driver lineup that's going to go forward and represent this great effort, kind of a monumental effort, so to speak, that we've been working on for quite some time.

We know they're going to represent NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet and Goodyear. This is going to be a great opportunity not only for us but for them, and we're looking forward to our trip to Le Mans here in June.

Yeah, from a vehicle side, everything is coming along well. We've got a test down here Tuesday and Wednesday. We're looking forward to that, on-track time and first time to get these three guys in that car consistently and get their feedback.

THE MODERATOR: By the way, Chad Knaus is here. You'll get a chance to talk to Chad later. The guys are going to take some questions now.

  1. Maybe for Jeff first, Jeff Gordon I know was trying to get in race shape and maybe do this. What happened there?

JEFF ANDREWS: I think I could speak for him and say these three guys came to the surface, and he was really good with the decision.

  1. Jimmie, are you okay with the decision, because he would have been the oldest?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: That would have helped tremendously, yes, and then I thought Rocky was in his 40s and he's still only 39, so I insulted him on the way over.

  1. Jimmie and Rocky, you come full circle here because you sent the email after the crash at Le Mans about Rocky in 2011. Both of you comment on that, how cool that is that you're going to be racing together at the event where you got to know each other.

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I guess through time, that portion of the story hasn't been in my mind. I just know the last two years and sharing the car with him here at the Rolex 24 how much fun we've had, the relationship we've built, and honestly being around one another and both being in the Action Express car really helped us move forward with this program and be in the early days of developing the car, and then now we've got the nod to participate in it together.

It's been a great couple of years. I think we've built a great friendship, and certainly looking forward to racing together in Le Mans.

MIKE ROCKENFELLER: Not much to add, I think. He said it all.

Like I said, to be with Hendrick for me, it was the first time, obviously, to work with the team, and it's such a high level. It's really, really impressive, and all the other partners involved.

To be with Jimmie, I know him, and from the early days we talked about it, when this thing started. I knew there was a high chance he would be involved; he told me. That was fun, so now to have a chance, which I never raced with in the same car, but we actually did race against each other once I think in Hockenheim, right, in a DTM race where he showed up, and I think we were in the press conference together.

Yeah, let's hope that we have some fun, and definitely I think the fans will love this car in Le Mans. That's for sure.

  1. Jenson, can you give us the backstory about how it came together? I know you've worked with Jeff Gordon in the past, but obviously this is a Hendrick executive. Did he help make this happen?

JENSON BUTTON: No, actually, it was initially through Jimmie a long time ago.

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Long time ago.

JENSON BUTTON: I was just asking Jimmie what he was up to in 2023, because this guy can't sit still. He was running through a few things he's hoping to do, and he said, I'm hoping to bring NASCAR to Le Mans. I was like, sorry, what? It started there, and then I got in touch with Rocky, and he said, we're testing out in Sebring. He said, come and check out what we're doing and see if it's something that would interest you. Then spoke to John, and it all started from there.

Yeah, I haven't driven the car yet, but I was at the test in Sebring watching and listening to all the information that the drivers were feeding back about the car and the big steps forward that they were making with the car was very impressive.

Yes, looking forward to driving the car on Tuesday.

  1. So Jimmie, you dumped Jeff? You picked Jenson and got Jeff out of there?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Sure, and then I kicked him out of the GTP car this morning, so I could drive it, as well.

  1. But he's sick, right?


  1. You tested the Next Gen this week earlier --


  1. And that was your first time, correct?


  1. So what did you think?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: It's a much different vehicle than what I remember. From the drive line perspective and shifting, just the general feel, the attitude of the car, I'm not used to the cars running so nose up, and now with the underwing on the car and trying to charge the underwing itself for downforce, it's just a different animal. So I'm very thankful I got those laps.

It did feel foreign, but it felt a hell of a lot closer to home than driving an INDYCAR. Within six laps I was right there on pace with the guys, so that was nice to be back at home.

  1. Jimmie, can you tell us a little bit how much different this car is to your usual NASCAR car?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I think we're going to have some more details come out in another announcement more specific to the car itself, but I can say that we're taking every effort we can to really carry the NASCAR DNA over to Le Mans. That's really the design and the intent for this program. Even that big V-8 engine, everybody in France is going to love hearing that thing scream down the straightaways.

  1. You obviously in the last couple years have driven a lot of different stuff. How does this compare, and how is it going to feel representing both NASCAR and Hendrick at Le Mans?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Huge honor to represent NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, all the partners involved, Goodyear, Chevrolet. A lot of history -- I have a lot of history with all the people involved, so it's very meaningful to me to be invited to come do this and to represent everyone.

Then yeah, the car is different than your typical NASCAR vehicle. There have been some modifications made. But it's really a fun car, and I'd kind of put it somewhere in between what a NASCAR vehicle is capable of and maybe one of the prototypes that are on track here this weekend. It's kind of a hybrid of the two.

  1. For Jeff, Hendrick Motorsports obviously involved in this program, they helped Jimmie in his North American endurance championship years, and you're going to Indianapolis in 2024 with Kyle Larson. Do you see Hendrick Motorsports going past part time programs in other motorsports? Do you want to go full time in IMSA or INDYCAR?

JEFF ANDREWS: For us, we certainly have an interest in obviously Mr. Hendrick and racing and winning and doing well, and we're certainly as a company over the years, no doubt have been really solely focused on NASCAR, but now we're taking some opportunities with some different drivers we have and getting out and looking at some other things.

This is another great example of Chad Knaus has put together an amazing team at Hendrick Motorsports, Greg Ives, former crew chief for us, Ben Wright, a lot of experience in this industry.

We're definitely getting our toe in the water, just to kind of see what's out there. We do want to be involved in some other forms of racing. I don't have a time frame for you, but this is a great way for us to kind of get our toe wet.

  1. This question is for Jimmie. When it's all said and done, I know you've done Sebring, done a lot with NASCAR and INDYCAR, but when your career is all said and done, do you want to feel like you've accomplished everything that you can on the motorsports stage where you left nothing undone?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: Yeah, I think that is buried in my mind somewhere. More than anything, I just want to drive race cars. I think the last couple years I've proven that or I've shown that, I should say, and an opportunity like this is a chance-of-a-lifetime opportunity.

It's the last thing standing on my bucket list, as well, my own personal list that I've had through the years, is to go to Le Mans. But I also feel like with my involvement now with Legacy Motor Club and my future in the sport itself, I'm not done. I love motorsport far and wide and really look forward to the years that I have ahead of myself.

I think there are less years driving the car and holding the steering wheel and more years outside of, but just really excited for the challenges ahead.

  1. The thought of driving in a 24-hour race, is that something that -- how do you approach that knowing that this is one heck of a challenge and it's on that list of things that you're looking to accomplish?

JIMMIE JOHNSON: I have enjoyed the races I've had here at the Rolex 24 and can only imagine what it will be like in France. As an endurance sports athlete, doing triathlons and marathons and such, I just love that kind of challenge. I've always left a 24-hour race here just exhausted physically and mentally with a smile on my face. I really do enjoy the challenge.

  1. In terms of the new GTP class and Hypercar class at Le Mans, would that interest any of you drivers in driving those in the future, or is that something you've put behind you?

MIKE ROCKENFELLER: Yeah, I think the year after we are all together in the top category. We start with the Garage 56 and then we will be there.

No, of course it's a great era. Let's be honest; I have been there, I don't know when it was the first time in a GT car in Le Mans, and for me Le Mans is really, in Europe, in endurance racing, one of the -- the biggest race in the world.

To be there and fight for overall victory, I think every driver wants to do that. But this year for sure for us it's a little different. We won't be able to.

But we will for sure see the cars and watch it closely, and I think for the sport, it's just amazing to see all these manufacturers coming to Le Mans. I remember we raced there and we were one or two brands, and it was already great. But now to have all these manufacturers on the grid, it's truly amazing for Le Mans but also I think we don't need to look that far, we just watch the race today and we see already what it will be like.

  1. Jenson, these two guys next to you are no surprise on this project. You are a little bit. Were there any reservations when you were first offered the opportunity?

JENSON BUTTON: Reservations, no. I wanted to understand the project a lot more and I wanted to spend a bit of time with the team, speak to these two drivers. I visited Hendrick Motorsports, and I have to say I was blown away at the facility. I've raced for some of the best Formula 1 teams in the world, and it still surprised me how good the facility was, the intrinsic detail that goes into everything they do within the team.

I knew they would be developing and producing a fantastic car for us to race at Le Mans. Still a lot of work to do, obviously, but it's a great base, and something that us three with our involvement, and Jordan, we should be able to make something that is nice to drive at Le Mans and also competitive to race at Le Mans.

Getting back to the previous question, I raced at Le Mans in 2018, and before I went there, I was like, what's the big deal with Le Mans. I thought Formula 1 is the pinnacle. But Le Mans is such a special race. It's such a big team event.

We all have to work together to perform and to get a result out of it. Even though I didn't finish in 2018, it just got me excited to go back there for more.

This is my first time back since then, and really looking forward to it. Yeah, possibly in the future if there's the right situation, I would jump at the chance to jump in an LMH, LMDH.

  1. For John, quite the varied mix sitting next to you. Was that the intent of the project from the start, to have this kind of mix of backgrounds?

JOHN DOONAN: I would suggest if there is ever such a thing as an All-Star team in motorsports, this project is the absolute poster of that. First started with Jim France's vision. Then it started almost a year ago with a conversation with Rick Hendrick. The organization that Rick and his whole entire organization, it's unbelievable to have Chad Knaus and Greg Ives involved in this. You couple that with what Chad and Jimmie accomplished over 15 seasons, seven championships, 83 wins, twice here on this stage in '06 and 2013, unbelievable.

Then you go on to Mike Rockenfeller, Le Mans winner, unbelievable endurance sports car experience. Then you add in a world champion from Formula 1, it's exactly what the vision was was to put NASCAR on a global stage and bring drivers from so many different disciplines like you've seen in NASCAR Cup.

Mike ran twice last year at Watkins Glen, the Charlotte Roval; Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen and on and on and on, and the list keeps growing. Then it was a conversation with the folks at Chevrolet, Mark Reuss, Jim Campbell, Jim Danahy and their whole entire team, and they embraced the idea of joining in this project. Then of course Goodyear, Justin Fantozzi, Stu Grant, Rich Kramer, those folks said absolutely, what an amazing opportunity to be with this All-Star team.

In the end our hope is to put NASCAR on a global stage. Steve Phelps, Steve O'Donnell, John Probst, Brandon Thomas, they have created something absolutely incredible with the Next Gen Cup car. 19 different winners in Cup last year, unbelievable. I'd like to think that we're going to break that record as a company in 2023.

The other piece is we've learned a lot already about this car and what might be able to be applied to the Next Gen Cup car. Just this week, based on the work Rocky has done in the sim, Jimmie has done in the sim, Jenson in the sim, Dr. Eric Jacuzzi, our aerodynamicist for NASCAR, there were components that we've tested on the Garage 56 car that were tested at Phoenix that might be applied for short track racing or road course racing.

Then here on Tuesday, we're going to fire up headlights, working headlights, working taillights. No more stickers.

We're really excited about that, to help maybe bring some things from this project that could be applied, and again, it's all about putting NASCAR on a global stage.

On behalf of Jim France and Rick Hendrick who really started this, we have an awesome opportunity, and I know on February 23rd Mr. France is going to be rushing to the mailbox waiting for that invitation from Pierre and the board, and I think his first phone call will be to Mr. Hendrick to let him know the great news that this awesome team of All-Stars are going to go over and compete at Le Mans. Unbelievable.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Thank all of you gentlemen.


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