A NASCAR stock car is a spectacle of its own. Anyone who has attended a Cup Series race on a road course knows that a massive car with a loud V-8 and big, blocky fenders hustling through a technical track is a sight to behold, one unlike anything seen anywhere else in the world. A growth-oriented NASCAR regime recognizes this, but racing fans outside of the U.S. who may have otherwise ignored NASCAR have no way of experiencing it without seeing a race in person. How do you bring the series to the attention of those fans? By bringing the cars to them, of course.
This is the sentiment that led to the creation of the Garage 56 Camaro, a celebration of the 75th anniversary of NASCAR at the centenary 24 Hours of Le Mans. NASCAR itself has partnered with Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports to develop a higher-performance, one-off variant of its new-for-2022 Next Gen stock car platform to race under Garage 56 rules as an unclassified car at the hundredth anniversary 24 Hours of Le Mans.
It's the same concept that brought NASCAR onto the field at the Los Angeles Coliseum and, next month, will bring the series onto the streets of Chicago. In both instances, NASCAR has compromised its typical expectations for a racing track to get their cars into the heart of a major city that had previously been asked to travel to intermediate ovals on the outskirts of the metro area. This is the same sentiment flipped, with the series willing to compromise the ideas of both what a NASCAR stock car actually is and what it does to get the car on a stage completely unique from its usual races.
The result is a revival of an old and very strange idea. Just as Bill France Jr. did back in 1976, NASCAR executive Jim France found a way to get a stock car into the world's greatest endurance race. France tapped John Doonan, who works alongside France as the president of IMSA in his day job, to run the program alongside Hendrick and Chevrolet.
Doonan says the series "wanted as much NASCAR DNA in the project as possible." That means a car that looks and sounds like it does on any given race weekend, of course, but it also means live pit stops with a manual jack and trained athletes who specialize in the practice. That, he notes, was a specific ask from Le Mans organizers; apparently, when the ACO saw the car initially presented with air jacks, they asked directly to "see proper NASCAR pit stops" instead.
After a week of testing, practicing, and winning pit stop competitions, the car is a quick fan favorite. Fly-by videos and still photos of the car next to its prototype competition have been viral hits across the web. Like the Deltawing before it, the car is the right kind of out of place, an absolute delight to see fly down the track at speed. Unlike the Deltawing, it has so far also proven to be fast and reliable; the car has yet to suffer a major problem in any practice session and was able to outrun every single GTE-Am car in testing and practice-qualifying.
As popular as the car is, the Garage 56 entry is about more than just a "for-the-fans" appeal to a raucous crowd. Doonan noted in a conversation with Road & Track that the race also presents an opportunity for manufacturer partners not currently involved in the sport to see exactly how versatile the Next Gen platform could be; that could inspire them to join NASCAR's top series, of course, but it could also help showcase the car's potential for other uses as creative as the Garage 56 entry. Promoters throughout Europe are also getting the chance to see the spectacle of a stock car in person, all while knowing that NASCAR's flagship Cup Series is suddenly flexible to try unique races in unique places. Even drivers are seeing for the first time what a stock car can do, a sight that has already led Formula 1 champion turned Garage 56 pilot Jenson Button to make a few appearances in NASCAR this season.
The speed that has made the car an early success is the result of the other major push behind the program. The Garage 56 entry is faster than either a GTE car or a typical NASCAR racer thanks to developments designed to push the somewhat modular Next Gen platform to its limits. Initially, the stock car's weight and narrow tires made extremely different mid-corner and straight-line speeds a major concern for the prototypes that will be lapping the car in traffic on race day. A cut of nearly 500 lb, a significant increase in downforce, and new wider Goodyear tires have solved the problem.
"We had to start looking at things to make more downforce, to help that mid-corner speed," Doonan said. "We had to look at overall power on the straightaway and the weight we took out of it, and what that was going to equate to when it comes to a top speed. So, with the new floor, we were looking at also a longer front splitter to help with downforce. We're probably making, maybe 1.5-2x the downforce compared to a Cup car to address [mid-corner speed]... We're about an inch wider than the Cup tire you see on Sundays, and have a wider front as well."
To keep the car from disrupting the rest of the race, these changes were made to keep the car in a target range. Performance has since smashed any outside expectations. That has led the ACO to make a surprise change just a day before the race: After setting a faster lap in practice-qualifying than any entry in the competitive GT class, the Garage 56 car's starting position set by the rulebook has been moved from behind the entire field to between the GTE cars and the faster LMP2 cars.
Tomorrow, the trio of Mike Rockenfeller, Jenson Button, and Jimmie Johnson set out to see what this car can do in a 24 hour race. It is the finish line for an ambitious project that has met every goal to date, turning a car designed primarily for oval racing into a legitimately quick endurance racer without compromising the things that make it a stock car. What comes next will depend on how the race goes and how other things shake out, but Doonan is not ruling out the possibility that we see the Garage 56 racer again:
"I think this starts the gears turning in everybody's mind, what's possible. I think we have to go over and execute a 24 hour race here. We're excited to go over there and do that, and we'll see how it shakes out. We'll see how the car performs. Obviously, there's been NASCAR cars that ran the Rolex 24 years ago, so you never know. We constantly look at our class structures [in IMSA] and determine what's best for the sport. Can't say there's any sort of commitment, but [there is] definitely something to consider going forward."
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