October 4, 2023

Garage 56 celebrates ‘mission accomplished’ at Le Mans

The champagne glasses were already set when NASCAR president Jim France walked into the garage of the Garage 56 team on Cirque de le Sarthe’s pit lane in the closing minutes of Sunday’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. But instead of an “early” toast, he smiled and reminded the group “we’re almost there” and insisted on waiting for the black and white checkered flag.

NASCAR executives Mike Helton and Steve O’Donnell, Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick and team vice president Jeff Gordon joined IMSA president John Doonan nearby as seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson took the final laps of the race ran in the No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.

They didn’t just watch those last moments, they took it all in – over a year from conception to execution to champagne. The excitement was palpable. The impending achievement a heart full.

And less than 10 minutes later, Johnson crossed that famous Le Mans finish line – the huge crowd in the grandstand outside shouted approval and the team’s family crowd in the garage also erupted in applause and cheers. NASCAR’s return to Le Mans for the first time since 1976 was an absolute success.

“We are very happy,” said France. “I am so proud of everyone. We came here to make a good impression on the fans here and I’m so proud that we were able to run all the way. This is a big challenge and it gives satisfaction to walk the distance here.

“I love France and I love the fans here too, so it was very heartwarming.”

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If there were many in the enthusiastic crowd of 300,000 at Le Mans this weekend who were new to NASCAR, they certainly left the famous sports car track converted and seemingly all aboard. The unmistakable engine sound of that Hendrick Motorsports-prepped Chevrolet was a major draw each of the 285 times it completed a race lap around the iconic 13.476-mile course.

“My heart is full,” said Johnson after returning to the team’s pit-side celebration. “All the reasons we came here with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, to come here with so many different faces and have this experience was just amazing. My bucket is full. I’m very happy.”

Even in the kind of exuberant exhaustion that exists in endurance racing, this team — from driver to crew to high-level support staff and executives — was still smiling, high-fiving and full of competitive energy 24 long hours after NBA superstar Lebron James delivered the starting command for the 100th anniversary of the legendary race.

Johnson and his co-drivers, Formula 1 champion Jenson Button, sports car star Mike Rockenfeller and reserve driver Jordan Taylor had spoken often and affectionately about their expectations on the track and ahead of the race weekend. And by all accounts, it was just the kind of unforgettable experience they all envisioned.

The car eventually finished 39th out of 62 cars entered – the only member of the special “Innovative Car class”.

He covered a distance more than three times that of the traditional NASCAR Cup Series “endurance test,” the Coca-Cola 600, completed just two weeks ago at Charlotte Motor Speedway. With six hours to go in the two-round-the-clock classic, he was faster than all the GT entries and held his 28th position in the field of 62 cars.

But as is so often the case with endurance sports car racing, the morning light brings a new perspective and in many cases new challenges and that is what the team dealt with in the closing hours of the race.

After completing lap 254 – just 10 laps into a scheduled double stint for Button – the car had an extended stop for new brakes. He went out again, but he had to pit again to have the team diagnose and repair a powertrain problem. The team – led by Hendrick’s Vice President of Competition Chad Knaus and former crew chief Greg Ives – went to work to ensure that the historic week ended on the same high as it started.

The No. 51 Ferrari AF Corse team took a popular overall win to claim its first Le Mans win since 1965. But the NASCAR celebration matched even that.

This effort – more than a year of highly choreographed work between all partners was important both personally to the people involved and more broadly for NASCAR and IMSA – a showcase of the talent and determination that characterizes both series and a culmination of a multi — effort to bring NASCAR back to Le Mans — for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Throughout the race week, and particularly over the race weekend, the NASCAR display center in the Le Mans infield was filled with both the hardcore European fans – many getting their first up close look at a series they already embraced – and also the newly converted stock car enthusiasts.

“There have been so many unique moments here, but at the end of the day I would say the fan reception [impacted most]’ Johnson said. “Whether it was in the parade, or just the cool down lap on the way back, even the corner commissioners went crazy, it was impressive.

“By talking to them and the fact that foreign race fans pay attention to NASCAR and also knew about my career. I praise them because their broken English was a lot better than my French so to get them to talk about my career and have them follow me and NASCAR whatever it may be I was just so impressed with how many race fans this know sports. ”

Simply put, the Garage 56 project delivered.

Button was impressed with the performance and attitude of the Hendrick Motorsports crew. Rainier Ehrhardt/Motorsport Images

“I quit F1 so I could race in other things,” said Button. “I wanted to have fun.

“You can definitely see why they’ve won so many championships over the years,” he said of Hendrick Motorsports. “Great team to work with, but also not just how good they are at what they do, but also the attitude. They know the importance of
this race, but they also want to have fun with it. And that’s exactly why I’m here. It’s fun and we enjoyed this trip. We are going to enjoy this moment.”

Doonan’s voice may have been a little hoarse as he stood at the back of the garage after the celebration. But he still smiled.

“It’s beyond expectations,” Doonan said. “Jim [France] had his expectations that we would take NASCAR further on a global stage and satisfy our partners who were critical to making this happen. I think the most rewarding thing for me was seeing all the men and women on this program experience this place, this event, especially as it’s the 100th anniversary. I’m walking out this circuit tonight with a whole new group of friends in this industry. And it’s hard to come by.”

Johnson – who brought with him a career of champions to Europe – didn’t mince words when describing how he felt. And maybe how it seemed everyone was feeling Sunday afternoon.

“Damn good,” Johnson said with a big smile. “Just awesome.”

Story originally appeared on Racer

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