The room was packed, the smiles flashing and the vibe all-good.
The Garage 56 organizers and the team's key players met with the international media in the middle of the famous Circuit de la Sarthe Thursday afternoon, eager to share the story of the impetus and expectations of the NASCAR 24 Hours of Le Mans project.
With NASCAR Chairman Jim France, Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick and NASCAR Hall of Famer Hershel McGriff among those sitting in the audience, IMSA President John Doonan proudly introduced Hendrick executive and Garage 56 program manager Chad Knaus as well as the drivers of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 – seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, former Formula One champion Jenson Button and two-time Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller as well as reserve driver, four-time IMSA champ Jordan Taylor.
Doonan smiled broadly recalling the initial, somewhat casual conversation with France about Le Mans more than two years ago that ultimately set the project into motion.
“We wanted to put together the best [partners] in NASCAR history,'' Doonan said of bringing on partners Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear.
“Throughout the process it was extremely important that we kept as much of the NASCAR DNA as possible for the Garage 56 entry, from the way it sounds to the way it looks and the way it performs,'' Doonan continued. “And thanks to an amazing group at Hendrick Motorsports, we certainly achieved that.''
Button, who won the 2009 world championship, reiterated how glad he was to be a part of the team, noting that he flew on his accord – a redeye flight – to Sebring to watch Rockenfeller run one of the first tests back in December.
“If you haven't seen this car live yet, it's an absolute beast,'' Button said. “When you see it go by and you hear it, it just puts a massive smile on your face. For me, after my long career in F1, I wanted to do something that was fun. I'm in a very lucky position to do fun racing and it's not so much a job any more and this just ticked all the boxes. I asked them, where do I sign? I want to go racing.
“That's how it started and here we are now, six months later, we've had lots of testing and we've had so much fun along the way. It's been such an enjoyable experience, I think we've progressed a lot and here we are, we've qualified four and a half seconds quicker than all the GT cars. Phenomenal effort.''
“Everything has been spot on and all the homework has been done by this team.”
The No 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – which is the lone “Innovative Car” Class entering on the 62-car grid - rolled off pit road with only a half hour remaining in Thursday afternoon's practice session after putting the race engine in earlier in the day.
The team planned to run most of Thursday's hour-long night session beginning at 10 pm locally – the last time cars are on track until Saturday's morning pre-race warm-up.
The “Centenary” running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is set for a 10 am ET start.
SPECIAL EDITION GARAGE 56 CAMAROS
At the end of opening remarks in the Garage 56 team press availability, IMSA President John Doonan dropped a well-received surprise announcement. A production-version 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 edition will be presented for sale later this year – a nod to this week's celebrated entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans – and there will be only 56 of the iconic Camaros available in the United States .
The Garage 56 effort is a tribute to NASCAR's 75th Anniversary season whose entry at Le Mans this week is a collaboration among NASCAR, NASCAR's winningest team (Hendrick Motorsports); the winningest manufacturer (Chevrolet) and winningest tire (Goodyear). Production is expected to begin later this year at the Lansing, Mich. Grand River Assembly plant.
Among the special details, the Camaro will have a Garage 56 “badge” on the front fenders, Garage 56 emblems on the floormats and steering wheel badge. A NASCAR windshield header decal, white Goodyear front wheel arch decals and door decals of the No. 24.
“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we've never done anything quite like Garage 56,'' said General Motors President Mark Reuss, who is expected to be at Le Mans this week.
Less than a week removed from his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut, IMSA champion Jordan Taylor flew straight from Portland, Oregon to Paris – a stop in Salt Lake City – then a three-hour car drive to Le Mans to join the Garage 56 team Monday. The popular and highly-decorated sports car driver has been referred to as the “secret weapon” for the Garage 56 team. Although he is technically a reserve driver, he is absolutely a huge part of the team.
Wearing a black t-shirt that said “coach” in white letters and a whistle around his neck, the 32-year old Floridian Taylor sat with his teammates, Johnson, Jenson and Rockenfeller for the full field Le Mans autograph session on Tuesday. Several of the “seekers” even recognizing him for the “Rodney Sandstorm” alter-ID that he playfully uses on social media – a nod to the super fandom of Jeff Gordon, four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion-turned-Hendrick Motorsports executive. Sandstorm and Taylor's favorite stock car driver.
The chance to run for Kaulig Racing at Portland was important to Taylor, who ran among the Top-10 for much of the second half of the race and still managed a lead lap finish despite losing second and third gear.
So even with the travel challenges, Taylor is enjoying back-to-back weekends that will surely make his 2023 highlight real.
“It was unfortunate, obviously, to not get a better result [at Portland], but it was nice to run well and hopefully people noticed,'' Taylor said Tuesday from the Garage56 pit stall, adding, “I'd love to do more of it because I've been enjoying it and I think now that I'm learning each car in different series it will just keep getting better and more understanding of what the car can do.”
Now in Le Mans, it's Taylor who provides insight and familiarity. He drives the No. 3 Corvette Racing Corvette in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Series, where he won a prototype title in 2017 and GTLM crowns in 2020-21. He's been a major player testing the Garage 56 car and his success in sports cars has made him a crucial element to the success of the team.
“I've never really been in this role before so I don't know what to expect really,'' Taylor said of his race weekend. “I think I'll just be around for the sessions and before and after, keeping an eye on things and if something sticks out to me, I'll obviously voice it.”
“I am excited,” he continued. “When I saw what they did in practice, I was like, 'okay, that's not bad on day one' - not bad knowing there's still a lot of development to go set-up wise to find more lap time. So that's promising.
“It shows the preparation worked, all the time in the simulator, all the time at the shop and Sebring, COTA, Daytona, everywhere we went,'' he continued. “It all worked and we knew what to bring here. It's impressive.''