Story By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LE MANS, FRANCE – The atmosphere was as expected – an estimated 300,000 excited and energized fans descended on the small central France city of Le Mans Saturday for the 100th celebration of the 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car classic.
National Basketball Association (NBA) superstar LeBron James waved the French flag and gave the traditional command to start engines – in French no less – to signal the start of the race, while hugely popular Ferrari Formula One driver Charles LeClerc chatted on the grid with his sports car counterparts and newly-retired National Football League (NFL) legend Tom Brady made his way to a trackside suite to take it all in.
Undoubtedly the biggest star of the race week, however, has been NASCAR’s Garage 56 endeavor – the No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 driven by seven-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson, Formula One champion Jenson Button and two-time Le Mans winner, Mike Rockenfeller.
A conglomerate of racing greats came together to make the project come to fruition – the NASCAR and IMSA race sanctioning bodies, Chevrolet, Goodyear and Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR’s all-time leading championship organization. The brainchild of NASCAR Chairman Jim France, after more than a year of testing and unprecedented cooperation among the participants, the project finally took the green flag Saturday afternoon – assigned to the single entry “Innovative Car” class.
Pride and expectation were high. The reward real.
“All and all, just an amazing experience,’’ Johnson said after getting out the car following his first stint. “One of the slow zones was a very crowded area with the fans and they were waving at me, so I was waving back. It was really, really fun.
“Definitely trying to soak it in which is easy to do and fun to do with my family here. Just so different in every aspect of it, so really trying to savor it best I can.’’
The start of the race involved single stints for the first two drivers (about 45-50 minutes) – Rockenfeller, Johnson and then Button took the first double stint, with Johnson following and Rockenfeller later.
“I want every lap I can get as long as they can keep me in the car I’ll take it,’’ Johnson said smiling.
As the sun began to set on the massive 8.467-mile course, the drivers had kept it clean and competitive running among the GT-class leaders.
ACTION PACKED RACE START
As is typically the case in a large field (62 cars) on a large circuit (8.467-miles) with a mixture of dry track and rain-slicked portions, there was a lot of action in the early going on the Le Mans race.
The Hypercar Class featured a lot of compelling and competitive racing – especially among the pole-sitting pair of Ferraris and the multi-Le Mans winning Toyota Gazoos, but there were multiple incidents behind – the result of close-quarter racing and navigating the changing conditions.
The No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and its group of elite drivers however, handled the situation flawlessly – never getting collected in the incidents elsewhere on track.
“I didn’t see anything dicey from where I was,’’ Johnson said. “There certainly were a lot of incidents that took place. We’re kind of in preservation mode, just trying to be smart with the car and take care of it, so I think our eagerness isn’t as high as the others out there trying to win on hour two or three.”
CLASS OF ITS OWN
Beyond the obvious look and distinctive sound of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, it also features certain idiosyncrasies in race mode.
Ironically the team – which impressed the crowd winning the GT Class pit stop competition on Tuesday – has to take a slightly different approach to pit stops in the live race. The car cannot be fueled and have the tires changed at the same time.
And while rain on portions of the course caused some havoc in the early hours, the Garage 56 entry steered clear of contact and/or rain-slick incidents that affected a good portion of the other competitors.
Both Rockenfeller, who started the car, and Johnson reported no problems during their opening stints. The only “extra” adjustment beyond driver changes, gas fills and tire changes was an aero adjustment later in the evening during Button’s extended stint. It was running a conservative approach – focusing on the finish not putting itself in perilous positions.