LE MANS, France — With his years of experience as a NASCAR crew chief, Greg Ives is familiar with the routine: Arrive at the track, work diligently to prepare a race car, leave the track, hotel time, repeat.
“I’m not quite the tourist, you know, I’m a worker,” Ives said as the Garage 56 project wrapped up its final test at Sebring International Raceway. He was seven weeks away from his first trip to Le Mans, where the modified Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 will take on the grand 24-hour race that commemorates its 100th year.
Now that he’s here, that hotel-to-track-and-back routine is still familiar, but with some key differences in his surroundings in France.
“Having maybe a bit more team outings where I go and spend a little bit more time with the guys and have dinner and try to enjoy it more so than trying to pressure myself to be better every lap, that’s probably a difference,” Ives said between the two sessions of Sunday’s test day ahead of the June 10-11 endurance classic, adding that his family would be joining him for race week to savor some of the experience. “The spectacle of Le Mans is unlike any other. I feel like if I want to compare it to something, it’d probably be considered the Daytona 500 where you’re here for two weeks, setting up and getting prepped and going through tech. You have all your new clothing and your new branding everywhere. Trailers look good, and you bring some extra here and there. But like I said, all in all, this is going to be a race like no other than I’ve been a part of.”
Ives manned the headset for Sunday’s test, just as he has for the rigorous testing of the Garage 56 car – a NASCAR Next Gen-based racer built to match wits with the sports-car crowd in the Innovative Car classification. Calling those shots over the team communications has been his business in the NASCAR national-series ranks since 2013.
Since then, Ives has collected 10 Cup Series wins and an Xfinity Series championship before coming off the road with his retirement from that full-time role with Hendrick’s No. 48 team at the end of last season. Though he joined VP of Competition Chad Knaus’ group in that transition, the crew chief label still fits with the unique project ahead of the team.
“I’ll tell you that Greg and Chad take a lot of pride in this event, and they’ve taken a lot of pride in this car,” team owner Rick Hendrick said at Sebring in April. “Little innovative things that we’ve done, I mean, some people don’t realize the engineering talent we have in NASCAR, how many engineers we have in our shop that are looking at every aspect of the car to try to make it better.”
The experience has been a new one for Ives and the rest of the No. 24 team in France, from conducting pre-race inspection in front of a phalanx of fans in a downtown square to the distinctive paddock footprint on a massive pit road that will accommodate the 62-car field. But it’s also been a unique happening for the rest of the European motoring world. Firing the Camaro’s throaty V8 for test runs has attracted a swell of curious onlookers – fans and other team members alike.
Though Ives admitted that being an extra entrant — invited to race but not competing for a win – from another discipline of motorsports has made the Garage 56 car something of an outsider. But Ives said that the team has also made its best effort to be gracious visitors who look the part – on and off the circuit.
“For me, the level of professionalism, the level that Mr. Hendrick expects, the level that Chad wants us to be here in presence is accepted by everybody and they know their role in making sure that when they see us, we have a nice pit area, we’re clean, we’re performing on the race track,” Ives said. “I think that probably was a big thing. An innovation car is probably, I wouldn’t say well-accepted no matter if you’re NASCAR or not, but NASCAR brought a different dynamic and they see us on Sundays and have maybe formed their own opinion between what they watch with F1, Indy and NASCAR.
“But in our environment, we had a given goal of lap time and mile per hour, and you give that to any type of racer here at Hendrick Motorsports and we’re going to try to achieve it — and not only achieve it, but we’re going to try and make sure we win. So there’s no real winning in this, but getting to that 24-hour mark, having pace, having people look down and say, ‘Hey, man, they did a great job.’ And that’s all we can ask for.”
So far in the early stages, the job has gone well. The Garage 56 car outpaced the others in the LMGTE Am class in Sunday’s final three-hour test session, and the accomplished driver roster of veteran aces Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller have excelled – both with an incident-free six hours of track time and by waging their own friendly internal competition in finding speed at Circuit de la Sarthe.
There was some satisfaction to be found in the car’s performance, according to Ives. It also helped put away any fears that the full-bodied stocker would be a slower nuisance amid the lightning-fast Hypercar prototypes.
“You can never question the driver lineup that we have in the car, and I get their concerns, you know. The car is unlike any other,” Ives says. “They feel like it’s big, it’s heavy, may not be able to handle as well, top speed might not be as high. But like I said, the (race organizers) ACO, the FIA, Dallara, all those people are communicating well with each other, gave us the target that we needed to hit. I think they are happy that we are in that sentence, and that the true meaning of why there’s an innovative car in this paddock right now is to do exactly what we’re doing — bring another form of racing, bring in another form of technology to Le Mans, allow people to see it and maybe learn from it.”