Taste of Le Mans: Fans welcome Garage 56 team, drivers in city-square scrutineering

LE MANS, France — Cars have yet to turn a lap in preparation for next week’s centenary edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but a number of firsts have already taken place after this week’s initial set-up time for the endurance classic.

Appreciative French fans clicked away with cameras and phones to preserve what — for many — was likely their first glimpse of a NASCAR stock car on their home soil. And the Hendrick Motorsports contingent that prepared the No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 for the invited Garage 56 entry witnessed a brand-new spectacle, presenting a car for inspection in the heart of a thriving downtown European square.

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The Garage 56 Camaro had its final administrative and technical checks from race organizers during Friday’s scrutineering session in the Place de la République in Le Mans, a last once-over before the car hits the 8.467-mile Circuit de la Sarthe for Sunday’s opening practice. Adding to the pageantry, the car joined the majority of the field in rolling through the bustling city centre for weights and measurements, plus the mandatory systems and safety checks.

“This is a first for certain, but what an amazing experience,” said Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports’ VP of Competition. “It’s really been a pleasure and a privilege to be able to work with the folks from the ACO and the FIA (race organizers Automobile Club de l’Ouest and Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) to get this car over here. Really proud of it, and it’s presented really well. The guys did a tremendous job in Hendrick Motorsports getting the car prepared and all the details met for them to be happy with the car. It’s beautiful. It’s a lot of fun.”

The event was free for fans, who jammed the area to see Garage 56 drivers Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller don their white fire suits for interviews, a Q&A session and a group photo after scrutineering was complete. While Button might be the most familiar to European fans given his previous successes and involvement with the Formula 1 circuit, but the recognition was strong with the other two — Rockenfeller as a past Le Mans champ, and Johnson’s racing prestige, which had fans bearing No. 48 die-cast cars from his heyday and shouting “Jimmie! S’il vous plait,” through thick accents for his autograph.

“Shoot, I saw a NASCAR Sprint Cup champion hat earlier, which is hilarious,” Knaus said. “So that dates back however many years. All the fans here, they’ve been super supportive.”

At 47 years old, Johnson is the oldest of the veteran group of drivers — Button is 43 and Rockenfeller 39 — but he’s a Le Mans newbie. Since entering his semi-retirement years after his last full NASCAR Cup Series season in 2020, he’s assembled a dream-worthy list of motorsports to-dos. Sports-car racing in IMSA and trying his hand at driving Indy cars and the Indianapolis 500 are boxes recently checked, but the 24 Hours of Le Mans is next on the docket.

“I didn’t know what to expect, so it’s definitely more so,” Johnson said as he took everything in. “I’ve just heard about how special today is, and really every day that follows. I wasn’t as prepared to be shocked as I was yesterday, pulling into the speedway just to see the scale and magnitude. This is awesome. I’m really, really enjoying it so far.”

The Garage 56 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 goes through scrutineering at the Place de la République in Le Mans
The Garage 56 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 goes through scrutineering at the Place de la République in Le Mans

The car spent most of Friday morning at the circuit, with the Hendrick Motorsports crew getting better accustomed to their surroundings at the far end of pit road — occupying the stall nearest the pit exit. Pit-crew members won’t have a pit wall to surmount to service the car, but the changes in the pit-stop process — using a fuel nozzle instead of gas cans, and an overhead air hose mounted on swiveling arms for tire changes — required some practice during Friday’s walk-through.

The three drivers took off from the pit lane for a morning jog on part of the course but beforehand observed the attention that the Garage 56 entry received from early trackside visitors and fellow teams. Crew members wearing Ferrari red and prancing horse logos joined Cool Racing’s LMP2 staff and other drivers and crew in getting a closer look.

“This is such a cool journey for all of us, but to see people’s reactions in the pit lane when they see the car, it’s great,” Button said. “And also to see it for the first time with other cars racing this weekend is pretty cool. Yeah, there’s been a lot of people interested, taking pictures of it because it’s something so different that races here at Le Mans. The best bit for me is when they start it up, though. It will blow everyone’s mind, the sound of it. It is insane. You hear the Cadillac’s impressive. This thing is .. it will rock your world. So yeah, looking forward to that.”

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The No. 24 Chevrolet’s turn through the scrutineering line was the next-to-last of the sunny afternoon. The remaining 23 cars will be inspected in Saturday’s ceremonies, which will include a parade of eight select vehicles — including the Hendrick G56 reserve car and a 1923 Chenard & Walcker identical to the first Le Mans winner.

It marked the final check in what’s been an ongoing process. ACO and FIA officials were at the Garage 56 car’s two-day test at Circuit of The Americas in March for a preliminary inspection, and the car was subject to further review Thursday at the Le Mans track. Each driver’s safety equipment will also be certified through the scrutineering procedures.

But amid the formality, there was a time to savor being on a grand stage with the full Hendrick Motorsports delegation standing alongside the drivers and the car in preparing for a race that predates all but the centenarians among us.

“Frankly, this moment is something I wanted every member of this program to experience because there’s a lot of milestones in life, there’s a lot of milestones in careers, and there’s big milestones in our sport, and this is one of them,” said IMSA president John Doonan, who walked alongside the car for every stop of scrutineering. “So for each of the men and women that have put so much into getting us here, they need to take this moment in, and that makes me so happy for them. They deserve that. And for the fans, when NASCAR came here to Le Mans in 1976, the fans were enamored by the car and the sound the car made. Certainly, the car has gotten everyone’s attention so far this week, and when we go on track on Sunday, I think they’re going to once again be enamored by the sound of NASCAR.”