LE MANS, France — Of all the motorsports legends roaming around Le Mans’ Circuit de la Sarthe this week — and there are many — one in particular received an exceedingly warm welcome by the NASCAR Garage 56 team. NASCAR Hall of Famer Hershel McGriff returned to the circuit on Wednesday afternoon — a race-week guest of Garage 56 — and the reception he received walking into the team‘s pit area couldn‘t have been more endearing.
“Welcome back to Le Mans,” NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France told him.
The entire team — NASCAR‘s “Innovative Class” entry in the June 10-11 24 Hours of Le Mans — was equally as excited to have the 95-year-old McGriff trackside. The NASCAR legend competed at Le Mans twice himself — in 1976 and 1982.
“Come on, let‘s get you in a driver‘s suit. Do you have your helmet?‘‘ Hendrick Motorsports Vice President and Garage 56 manager Chad Knaus said in greeting McGriff.
The look on the legendary driver‘s face said it all. He joked about forgetting his helmet but promised he would have loved to compete in this race again or even help out in the pits.
“I‘m just kind of a guest this week, but I told Jim France, ‘I don‘t really want to be a spectator, I just want to fill in somewhere,’ ” McGriff said, grinning. “I think Chad must have gotten the word.”
McGriff was genuinely moved to be a part of NASCAR‘s return to the race for the first time in 47 years. He flew to France with NASCAR executives and said he‘d been smiling from the time his feet hit the French pavement.
As soon as he arrived trackside, the Garage 56 drivers surrounded him — former Formula One champ Jenson Button and renowned sports-car champion Mike Rockenfeller smiling as they listened to McGriff‘s stories of stock cars past at the legendary sports-car venue.
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A member of McGriff‘s original 1976 Le Mans crew — Dick Pierson – even made the trip across the Atlantic, eager to share in his former team owner‘s connection with the track, which is celebrating the race‘s 100th year of existence.
“When I heard about this and that Hershel was coming, I just was like, ‘Oh man, this is so good,’ ” Pierson said. “I certainly decided then I needed to come here. And here I am.”
It was a reunion 47 years in the making and duly appreciated.
“Thank goodness for NASCAR, Jim France and [IMSA President] John Doonan, they invited me,” McGriff said. “Of course, I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come (smiling). And I‘ve been treated as royalty.
“This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing, but I‘m anxious to see everything,” McGriff said. “I‘ve been watching and seeing pictures, and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”