DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When IMSA and NASCAR executive Jim France conceived the idea of modifying a NASCAR Cup Series Next Gen car to compete at the 100th anniversary running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans as the experimental “Garage 56” entry, he knew where to look to make it happen.
The fact that Rick Hendrick felt he had unfinished business in sports car racing certainly helped.
Hendrick Motorsports is now renowned as NASCAR’s most successful team, the flag-bearer for General Motors’ racing efforts. But in the mid-1980s, Hendrick was a relatively new organization, finding its footing in NASCAR with drivers Geoff Bodine and Tim Richmond. At the time, Hendrick hedged his bets by teaming with the GM Motorsports Technology Group in 1985 to field the Corvette GTP prototype in the IMSA Camel GT championship. Doc Bundy and Sarel van der Merwe claimed a pair of race wins with an endurance driver lineup that included Bobby Rahal, Michael Andretti and John Andretti.
By the time the Corvette GTP program concluded at the end of the 1988 season, Hendrick was established as a winning NASCAR team, well on the way to forging a legacy that would lead to more than 300 Cup Series race wins with a Hall of Fame roster of drivers including Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.
But Hendrick still kept tabs on the sports car scene – especially more recently when seven-time Cup Series champion Johnson competed in the Michelin Endurance Cup rounds of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in a second Cadillac prototype entered by Action Express Racing and featuring key Hendrick personnel, including Vice President of Competition (and longtime Johnson crew chief) Chad Knaus.
So when France approached Hendrick about participating in the Garage 56 project, “Mr. H.” was immediately all-in. The project is a collaboration between NASCAR, IMSA, Chevrolet and Goodyear, with extensive cooperation from the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), the organizer and promoter of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“I would have never come up with this idea if Jim France hadn’t tapped me on the shoulder,” Hendrick admitted. “It’s an honor for us to be involved in it and build the car. We’ve put our ‘A’ team on it with Chad and Greg (Ives). This has been a monumental effort from our part and everybody’s part. To me, I want to showcase our very best. I want people to look at this car and say, ‘Wow, they did something remarkable here!’
“There’s a place in my heart when I ran the GTP car and we stopped,” Hendrick added. “I thought, ‘I love road racing, but I want to focus on NASCAR.’ This gives me a shot to go to Le Mans, which I never dreamed I would do. When I look at my history in motorsports, I’ve done just about everything, and this is kind of the pinnacle.”
NASCAR, IMSA, Chevrolet … an Ideal Partnership
IMSA President John Doonan has served as the Garage 56 project leader, coordinating communication between all of the participating constituents. When France proposed the idea of taking a stock car to Le Mans – revisiting the events of 1976, when NASCAR entrants Dick Hutcherson and Herschel McGriff famously took modified Cup cars to compete – the decision to team with Hendrick and Chevrolet was simple.
“Obviously, Hendrick works with Chevrolet, so they know those people from the retail side of the industry as well as the race team side,” Doonan commented. “We worked very closely with Chevy, an outstanding partner in NASCAR, to try and keep as much of the NASCAR DNA in the car. They had to think about how to make a motor designed to last 600 miles on Memorial Day weekend and make it last for 24 hours, or hopefully 3,000 miles. A lot of things that have been learned by Chevrolet in sports car racing have been applied to the motor, the valve train primarily.
“GM Performance has a Cadillac and a Corvette competing in the WEC,” Doonan continued. “And now they have this project. Cadillac, Corvette and now the Camaro in this project – you’ve got the three Cs of GM racing right there!”
Knaus won 81 races and a record seven championships while serving as Johnson’s crew chief, then guided William Byron to his first Cup Series win before his promotion to the team’s competition director at the end of the 2020 season. Since stepping into the executive role, Knaus has managed a variety of projects for Hendrick, including the second Action Express entry that made eight IMSA Michelin Endurance Cup starts in 2021 and ’22, claiming podium finishes at the ’21 Rolex 24 At Daytona and the ’22 Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.
The new role has been invigorating for Knaus, as he works to get the best out of his staff in arenas outside NASCAR. Approximately 30 Hendrick personnel are involved with Garage 56.
“The biggest takeaway is how proud I am that Hendrick Motorsports can adapt as quickly as they can to a different product,” Knaus stated. “I know that we’ve got great people, but this has just been another testament to that. To see that confidence grow in the team and the car, and starting to realize when we get over there we might actually have something that is going to perform really well, that’s really been fun to see.”
Early indications are promising. During Sunday’s test day, sports car veteran Mike Rockenfeller logged a best lap of 3 minutes, 53.761 seconds that was 2.3 seconds quicker than the fastest LMGTE Am entry. A single lap is one thing. Co-drivers Rockenfeller, Johnson and Jenson Button need to make the performance last two times around the clock in the race.
“At a track as difficult and challenging as that is for eight-and-a-quarter miles, to run that for 24 hours and see Hendrick Motorsports all over that race car and our Hendrick Motorsports teammates over there representing NASCAR, that means the world to me,” Knaus said. “Running for 24 hours, that will be success. Managing the race, avoiding incidents, doing a brake change, watching the car degrade as you go through the course of a 24-hour race and managing that and making sure we are making appropriate adjustments to it are important.
“If we are able to do all that and walk out of there underneath the checkered flag, that will be a huge success for us.”
(Photo credit: CoForce)