Partners NASCAR, Chevrolet, Goodyear, and Hendrick Motorsports revealed the final livery for the 24 Hours of Le Mans Garage 56 entry last Friday, and it pretty much is what the whole project is: An advertisement for NASCAR, with a big “NASCAR 56” on the sides of the otherwise blue, silver, and gold Camaro ZL1.
It was, after all, the brainchild of NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France, who is also the chairman of IMSA, the NASCAR-owned sports-car racing series that sanctions the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. With IMSA’s top prototype class now legal for this year’s 24-hour race at Le Mans, France wanted to take the connection one step further.
“I would have never come up with this idea if [NASCAR chairman] Jim France hadn’t tapped me on the shoulder,” said Rick Hendrick, chairman of Hendrick Motorsports. “Once you get involved in something like that, it gets very exciting. 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.’” Hendrick’s company fields four NASCAR Cup car entries.
Garage 56 originated in 2012 as a one-car exhibition-only class for vehicles that showed advanced technology but didn’t fit in an established racing class. The first Garage 56 car—so named because each Le Mans entry has a garage, and there had long been 55 of them—was the oddball but successful DeltaWing, styled by Chip Ganassi Racing designer Ben Bowlby, and built by Dan Gurney’s All American Racers company.
The DeltaWing was an ultra-lightweight, ultra-streamlined car that used a Nissan-sourced four-cylinder engine to ran lap times comparable to V-8-powered prototypes. After Le Mans, it competed in the American Le Mans Series, which made it legal for competition, possibly since the owner of the car, and the owner of the series, was Dr. Donald Panoz, wealthy inventor of the transdermal process that made the nicotine patch possible.
The Chevrolet Camaro Garage 56 is a bit of a reversal, since—as far as we know—it doesn’t use technology that is essentially new to the sport. Rumor originally was that it would use hybrid power in addition to the 5.8-liter Chevrolet V-8, but rumor is currently that the hybrid idea went by the wayside to help keep weight down. That weight is 2960 pounds, slightly lighter than a NASCAR Cup car.
In testing at U.S. tracks, including Daytona International Speedway, informal lap times were comparable to IMSA GT-class cars, which is impressive, though there are no real limits on engine horsepower in the Garage 56 Camaro, and there are limits to the output of the GT cars.
The car began life as a NASCAR stocker, with changes that include functioning headlights and taillights, a larger fuel cell, carbon brake discs, and specially designed Goodyear Eagle race tires capable of running an endurance race (IMSA uses Michelin tires). Drivers will be seven-time NASCAR Cup champ Jimmie Johnson, former Formula 1 champion Jensen Button, and two-time Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, who has done the lion’s share of testing.
“From the beginning of this project, it was important to us that the car we bring to Le Mans is a true NASCAR stock car,” said France, the NASCAR chairman. “While there have been some adjustments to allow the car to compete in a 24-hour endurance race, fans in Le Mans will be treated to the full NASCAR experience.”
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