DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The Garage 56 project is another step closer to being endurance-race ready.
A two-day test session for the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 test car wrapped up Wednesday night at Daytona International Speedway, with the new roster of drivers finding pace in the latest prep for the team’s proposed entry into the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 10-11. Plenty remains to be sorted in the four-plus months between this week’s testing and the sports-car classic, but several new pieces of the collaborative project among NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear are falling into place.
The team sent out the Camaro test car for successive long runs of roughly 25-30 laps each on Day 2, stopping in the garage for quick adjustments, data downloads and practicing driver changes and pit stops. Garage 56 crew chief Greg Ives said the test car accumulated approximately 1,500 miles during the two days, running for roughly 9 1/2 hours of the 12-hour testing block on Wednesday.
By late Wednesday, the Next Gen-based car had gained enough speed that with sports-car ace Mike Rockenfeller behind the wheel, it caught and passed the 2024 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 GT3.R that shared the track in the two-day test — drawing a special mention over the team communications. Another endurance session is scheduled for later this month at Sebring International Raceway.
“In general, the car’s probably from a fundamental configuration standpoint pretty close to what we’re going to have when we go to Le Mans in June,” said Garage 56 project lead Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports’ VP of Competition. “We’ve had some small electrical gremlins that are creeping up occasionally like we’ve heard a lot here recently in motorsports, so we’re trying to get that stuff sorted out. But all in all, I think it’s pretty good. We’ve got our driver lineup secured, which is exciting, obviously. Working on pit stops and our pit crew, so we’ve got a lot of things going, and we’re getting close.”
The crew cycled through several throttle-map settings, working toward target numbers on performance, fuel consumption and mileage – with calculations made in gallons, not liters, despite the car’s metric-friendly European destination. Tire wear was also a focus. Jimmie Johnson indicated Tuesday that wet weather at earlier tests had altered the development schedule for the Goodyear rubber, and the drivers managed the grip level in the daytime warmth and the cooler nights on the 3.56-mile road course.
“Ultimately, these tires are hand-built, and we’re trying to do tire testing with a bigger front and bigger rear (tire) than we’re used to running on, with a car with more downforce, with a lighter car as well,” Ives said, “so there’s a lot of variables that go into not only setup from my side of things, but also from Goodyear in trying to get the rubber to the road, if you want to say. So you definitely see a lot of swing in lap time. Sometimes when you see peak performance out of a tire, you see a lot of degradation, and then in some of them, you may not have the lap time, but they hold on a little longer. So we’re trying to fine-balance that, and like I said, it’s going to be very critical from hot track temps to cooler track temps and what the drivers can find some consistency in.”
The new driver roster has started to click in relatively short order, with Johnson and Rockenfeller, plus project newcomers Jenson Button and Jordan Taylor, sharing stints and getting a feel for stock-car driver changes. Those personnel swaps, of note, will retain a NASCAR feel with the three drivers entering and exiting the car through the door window, eschewing the customary doors used in sports-car racing.
Johnson’s stock-car expertise, Button’s Formula One background plus the sports-car roots shared by Rockenfeller and Taylor have already cooked up a versatile blend for the Next Gen platform’s Le Mans crossover. But there’s also some camaraderie, as evidenced by Rockenfeller and Button venturing into the infield bleachers Tuesday to cheer on Taylor, their driver coach and reserve driver, on an evening rip through the International Horseshoe.
“Oh, it’s critical. It really is,” Knaus said of the driver chemistry. “Obviously, they’re all very accomplished race car drivers, so that helps. They all have a huge amount of respect for one another. Everybody understands what it is that we’re trying to achieve, what we’re trying to do and how important of a project it is. So there’s definitely a level of seriousness in what we’re doing, but these guys are very, very good at what they do. So they get along really well. And they understand what’s happening, and it’s been great.
“With the addition of Jordan and Jensen, I think that you know that we’ve got a very well-rounded group of drivers that are working with us on this.”
Part of the test was spent getting familiar with the in-car controls and communication systems. MRTC, a UK-based motorsport and event communications specialist, has provided the radio system for the Le Mans effort.
“Trying to work and get everybody sorted there and using new equipment, maybe a little awkward for me at first, but definitely got used to it,” Ives said. “And I told everybody, let’s get it wrong here. It’s OK to hit the wrong button, you’re not going to affect a thing. It’s OK to talk on the radio and realize you’re muted. Those are the things that we want to work through, gain that experience.”
Testing went into the night Wednesday, with each driver making extended runs with the Garage 56 test car’s new headlights ablaze. Knaus said that Hendrick Motorsports worked “hand in hand” with Dallara to develop the lighting system to use at the 8.467-mile Circuit de la Sarthe.
“We had to lean on them and their experience,” Knaus said of Dallara. “We knew, obviously, they’ve developed a lot of sports cars like the GTP car, the Cadillac DPi and other race cars, so they have a pretty good understanding of what you need. We went back and looked at some of the cars that were not bright enough that we knew from history, and said, ‘OK, we know we need to be brighter than this.’
“The Corvette, for instance, is extremely bright, right?” Knaus added, motioning toward the proposed 2024 IMSA entry that shared test-day garage space with Garage 56 at Daytona. “So there’s a level that we were trying to achieve, and I think we got there with pretty good reason.”
The drivers put the lights to good use both evenings, testing out the supplementary apex lights Wednesday night.
“I mean, they’re definitely bright, so the guys did a good job with that,” Taylor said after his final stint. “I think the big thing is just aiming them correctly. It’s new to NASCAR, so mapping them so you can see not just in front of you but apexes and kind of what’s approaching you. So I think from last night and tonight, we actually asked the speedway to lower the lights a little bit to kind of replicate more of Le Mans-style lighting, so it was good to get a sense of that so we could work on the headlights to aim them a little bit better.”
Wednesday also provided more opportunity for pit-stop practice with the Hendrick Motorsports personnel on site, many of whom will be part of the pit crew for the proposed Le Mans effort. Knaus said that the final pit-crew roster was “really close” to being set and that pit practice and critiques of pit-stop footage would continue back at the team’s North Carolina shop.
Some of the basic principles of routine stock-car pit stops will carry over, save for some nuances in the rules and procedures. While sports cars rely on built-in air jacks to lift all four wheels during pit service, the Garage 56 project intends to keep a layer of NASCAR authenticity with a jackman raising each side of the car during stops.
“The cadence of the pit stop is obviously significantly different than what it is in NASCAR because when the car’s stopped, you can only fuel the car; you can’t service the car in any other way while you’re fueling it,” Knaus said. “So add the fuel, then the guys attack the race car to change the tires and do what they need to do. So it’s definitely going to be a work in progress and an evolution.
“We’re gonna grind it out today, and we’re going to go to Sebring, we’re gonna grind it out at Sebring for 24 hours and just keep doing it.”