Story By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LE MANS, FRANCE – The champagne glasses were already lined up as NASCAR Chairman Jim France walked into the Garage 56 team garage on the Cirque de le Sarthe pit road in the closing minutes of the 24 Hours of Le Mans on Sunday.
But instead of an “early” toast, he smiled and reminded the group, “we’re almost there” and insisted on waiting until the checkered flag.
NASCAR executives Mike Helton and Steve O’Donnell, Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick and team Vice Chairman Jeff Gordon joined IMSA President John Doonan nearby as seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson turned the race’s final laps in the No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.
They were not just watching those last moments, but soaking it all in – more than 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 drove across that famous Le Mans finish line – the enormous grandstand crowd outside screaming in approval and the team’s familial crowd inside the garage erupting in applause and cheers as well. NASCAR’s return to Le Mans for the first time since 1976 was an absolute success.
“We’re thrilled,” France said. “I’m so proud of everybody. We came over here to make a good impression on the fans over here and I’m so proud we were able to run all the way. This is a big challenge and it’s gratifying to run the distance here.
“I love France and I love the fans over here too, so it’s been very heart-warming.”
If there were many in the enthusiastic crowd of 300,000 at Le Mans this weekend that weren’t already familiar with NASCAR, they certainly left the famous sports car course converted and seemingly all on-board. The unmistakable sound of the engine of that Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet was a high-volume appeal every single one of the 285 times it completed a lap of competition around the iconic 8.476-mile course.
“My heart’s full,” Johnson said after making his way back 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 has just been awesome. My bucket’s full. I’m really happy.”
Even in the sort of exuberant exhaustion that exists in endurance racing, this team – from driver to crew to support staff and high-level executive – was still smiling, high-fiving and full of competitive energy 24 long hours after NBA superstar Lebron James issued the starting command for the Centennial celebration of the legendary race.
Johnson and his co-drivers, Formula One champion Jenson Button, sports car star Mike Rockenfeller and reserve driver Jordan Taylor had spoken often and fondly of their expectations on-track and in the lead-up to the race weekend. And by all accounts it was exactly the kind of unforgettable experience they all foresaw.
The car ultimately finished 39th out of 62 cars entered – the lone member of the special “Innovative Car Class.”
It completed a distance more than three times that of the NASCAR Cup Series’ traditional test of “endurance,” the Coca-Cola 600, which was completed just two weeks ago a at Charlotte Motor Speedway. With six hours remaining in the twice-around-the-clock classic, it had out-paced all the GT entries and was holding steady in 28th position among the 62-car field.
But as is so often the case in endurance sports car racing, the morning light brings a new outlook, and in many cases new challenges and that’s what the team dealt with in the closing hours of the race.
After completing Lap 254 – only 10 laps into a scheduled double stint for Button –the car had an extended stop for new brakes. It went back out, but he had to pit again to for the team to diagnose and repair a drive line issue. The team – led by Hendrick’s Vice President of Competition Chad Knaus and longtime crew chief Greg Ives – went to work ensuring the historic week finished on the same high note it started.
The Ferrari AF Corse No. 51 team scored a popular overall win – claiming its first Le Mans victory since 1965. But the NASCAR celebration rivalled even that.
This effort – more than a year of highly-choregraphed work between all the partners was important both personally for the people involved and in the broader scale for NASCAR and IMSA – a showcase of the talent and determination both series feature and a culmination of a multi-level effort to bring NASCAR to Le Mans again – for the first time in nearly 50 years.
Throughout the entire race week, and in particular during the race weekend, the NASCAR display center in the Le Mans infield was filled with both the hard-core European fans – many getting that first up-close look at a series they already embraced – and also the newly converted stock car lovers.
“There have been so many unique moments in this, but ultimately I would say the fan reception [impacted most],” Johnson said. “If it was in the parade, or just the cool down lap on the way back, even the corner marshals were going nuts, it was impressive.
“Chatting with them and the fact so may 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 have them speak of my career and have them follow me and NASCAR, whatever it might be I was just so impressed with how many race fans know about this sport.”
Simply put, the Garage 56 project delivered.
“I retired from F1 so I could race in other things,” Button said. “I wanted to have fun.
“You can certainly 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 with what they do, but the attitude. They know the importance of this race, but they also want to enjoy themselves while doing it. And that’s exactly why I’m here. It’s fun and we’ve enjoyed this journey. We’re going to savor this moment.”
Doonan’s voice may have been a little hoarse as he stood near the back of the garage after celebrating. But he was still smiling.
“It’s beyond expectations,” Doonan said. “Jim [France] had his expectations that we put NASCAR further on a global stage and satisfy our partners that were critical for this to happen. I think most rewarding for me was seeing all the men and women in this program experience this place, this event, especially it being the 100thanniversary. I walk out of this circuit this evening with a whole new group of friends in this industry. And that’s hard to come by.”
Johnson – who brought a career worth of championship acclaim with him to Europe – did not mince words describing how he felt. And perhaps how it appeared everyone felt Sunday afternoon.
“Pretty damn good,” Johnson said with a huge smile. “Just awesome.”