‘Family business’ keeps innovative eye on 2023 Le Mans

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The Next Gen car has produced everything NASCAR officials hoped and intended through the first 13 races of the season – 11 different winners, 10 races decided by less than one second and a 20 percent increase in number of leaders and number of lead changes from 2021.

As the NASCAR season heads into summer and the racing world at large readies for the 24 Hours of Le Mans next month, the innovation and pioneering spirit of Next Gen bodes well for NASCAR’s 2023 foray to France.

The sanctioning body, alongside IMSA and Hendrick Motorsports, continue preparations for the 2023 edition of the endurance race in France, one which will see a modified Next Gen stock car in the Garage 56 entry of the race’s centennial celebration.

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It’s both the next step in the evolution of the seventh-generation stock car for NASCAR’s top division, and a harkening back to the burgeoning days of NASCAR under Bill France Sr., NASCAR’s founder and father of current NASCAR Chairman & CEO, Jim France.

“I go back to what my father was trying to accomplish 50 years ago,” Jim France said when announcing the venture. “It’s an opportunity for NASCAR, for a lot of European fans that are Le Mans fans, to experience what our NASCAR racing is like firsthand. From my perspective, we’ve got IMSA and sports cars, but we also have a very important process for NASCAR and growing its awareness and relevance internationally. We’re doing a lot of different things. This happens to be something that my father envisioned 50 years ago. It is still important today.”

NASCAR’s first foray into the 24 Hours of Le Mans was in 1976, when Bill France Sr. and event organizers agreed to create a new Grand International class – a play on the “Grand National” name of the Cup Series at the time. That move opened the door for two stock-car entries: a Dodge Charger owned and driven by NASCAR Hall of Fame electee Hershel McGriff with his son, Doug, as a co-driver; and a Junie Donlavey-prepared Ford Torino for drivers Richard Brooks, Dick Hutcherson and Marcel Mignon.

Le Mans’ Garage 56 entry was created in 2012 to provide a featured spot for inventive cars with cutting-edge technology – all outside of the race’s normal classifications and its 55-car field limit. Garage 56 entries are not eligible to compete for the overall win, but are scored and classified in the official results. They must also meet safety and performance standards to race alongside the event’s other entries.

The Next Gen model debuted this season after years of development. Its sports-car chops and its adaptability would be tested at Le Mans, where the car would bring an American flavor to the renowned Circuit de la Sarthe.

“I think the best way to describe this is I’m doing it probably as my father was and my brother (Bill France Jr.) – as a racer,” France said. “We like challenges. It’s a tremendous opportunity for the sport that my dad started to further its reach with other fans, new fans.

“There’s no way that I can honor my dad. He was so much farther ahead than what I am. But to try and carry on some of his legacy and continue what he and my mom started, it’s our family business, and we’re looking forward to continuing to grow it.”