Jenson Button had never driven on a high-banked turn before his first trial run in the Garage 56 test car last week at Daytona International Speedway. The steepest curves he could recall navigating in his career were the 9-degree banks in parts of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway layout used for eight United States Grands Prix.
So imagine ratcheting up the degree of difficulty to 10/10 and the degree of banking to 31 on Button’s first laps at Daytona, all in an unfamiliar stock car on an unfamiliar course.
“It’s a bit of a shock at first. I was like, ‘Oh, wow! OK, where am I going? So, where do I look?” Button told NASCAR.com, laughing as he leaned and craned his upper body to mimic the car’s angle through the oval track’s sloping turns. “It’s a funny experience but took a bit of time to get used to, and a new track for me as well. On top of that, learning a car that’s very different to anything I’ve driven, but it’s such a blast. It’s still taking me time to really adapt to it, but I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying the process, and the guys have been great.”
The 2009 Formula One champion joined the Garage 56 driver lineup of Jimmie Johnson, Mike Rockenfeller and alternate-slash-coach Jordan Taylor, receiving his introduction during IMSA’s Rolex 24 weekend. Three days later, Button was suited up and in the rotation to drive the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 test car as part of the collaborative effort to race in the centennial edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 10-11.
Button said that his history with both of his primary co-drivers runs deep. He initially caught wind of the Garage 56 project by casually asking Johnson about his racing plans for 2023. That’s when the seven-time Cup Series champion mentioned the nature of the initiative, to bring a modified NASCAR vehicle to Le Mans. Button’s reaction: “I was like, sorry, what?”
Those early talks led to an invitation from Rockenfeller – with the blessing of IMSA President John Doonan – for Button to observe the car’s test at Sebring (Fla.) International Raceway in December. That session helped spark the 43-year-old driver’s interest in the project, watching the team make progress and igniting a rejuvenating desire to try something new.
Since making his participation official, Button has turned those well-established racing friendships into teamwork – soaking in the at-track feedback from his co-drivers and providing his own.
“First of all, I have a lot of respect for both of them,” Button said. “I’ve known Rocky for a few years, and I raced against him in DTM (German touring cars) in one race, and also at Le Mans have raced against him but in different categories. And Jimmie, I’ve watched his career for years, met him about 12, 13 years ago. Spent some time after the season in Homestead, we went to Miami together and had some fun. That’s the first time really got to know him. Great guy, obviously at the top of what he does, and racing a stock car, it’s very different to anything I’ve ever done. …
“But when I had the opportunity to come and race with these guys in a stock car, but on a race course, it’s something that I can work with. I can work with those guys, guys that are super-talented in their different fields. We’ve all experienced very different things and feel in different cars. We can bring all that useful information together to take this car to race in the biggest endurance race in the world.”
Relaying that information proved a tad tricky during last week’s test, if only in figuring out the proper terminology for the car’s handling characteristics. The Hendrick Motorsports personnel on the other end of the team communications has dealt with driver feedback primarily using terms such as “loose” or “tight” – lingo that’s not quite commonplace in international road racing.
“I was talking to the guys as I’m driving around, and it’s difficult to hear anyway, and you can hear them processing it – ‘understeer’ and ‘oversteer’ and what have you,” Button said. “So there’s definitely some different ways to explain a race car, and that language is really important. So yeah, we need to get a good understanding and a handle on that as soon as possible. I need to watch more NASCAR races, really, to listen to the drivers and their feedback to the teams.”
The concept of Button watching more NASCAR events begs the question of whether a Cup Series appearance might be in the offing. Trackhouse Racing opened the stock-car door to global motorsports stars last season with the birth of its Project 91 team, which fielded a one-off entry for Formula One great Kimi Räikkönen at Watkins Glen last August. The Justin Marks-owned organization also indicated at launch that it intended to expand Project 91’s international reach after its first season.
Button, however, said that his preference for pursuing a NASCAR opportunity would hinge on potentially making a more sustained go of it rather than just a one-time entry.
“For me, this is great because I can actually spend time in the car, spend time with the team,” Button said of his Garage 56 experience thus far. “It’s quite in-depth, the practice before Le Mans, so I’m going to be ready. I don’t want to jump in something when I’m not ready, you know? I’m not going to get the best out of myself. I’m not going to do it justice, really, in terms of performing at my best and for the team, I wouldn’t want to do that. So I don’t know. After this experience, obviously a Cup car is quite different in terms of it doesn’t have any downforce really, so this has a little bit. So it’s another step in a direction that I’m not used to, but yeah, I think if I could do a few races, I would be up for it. Jumping in for one? That doesn’t interest me. I would take a few to get myself into a position where I think I’d be competitive enough.
“We always want to fight for a win; that’s the whole thing about racing, right? So jumping in and finishing 25th isn’t what I’m here to do.”