LE MANS, France — One of the primary differences in a NASCAR-type pit stop vs. a European sports-car-style stop found its way to the peak of the Le Mans podium, doused with champagne. Garage 56 jackman Donovan Williams made sure the apparatus — the only jack that will be used for tire changes in this weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans — traveled the length of the circuit’s pit road for its own place of prominence.
The Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 crew collected one of race week’s preliminary prizes Tuesday by showing the international crowd how it’s done stateside, winning the Le Mans Pit Stop Challenge. The Garage 56 effort — which is classified in the Innovative Car category — was best among the 21 LMGTE Am entries and fifth-fastest out of the 62-car field.
The crew was popping corks in the late-spring sunshine from the elevated start-finish platform Tuesday afternoon as the driver lineup of Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller took cell-phone videos and cheered.
“We were feeling good in practice, it was kind of a warm-up, starting off with a medium tempo and then continue to increase your speed, and then once our confidence, we just relied on our training, and it just came into place,” Williams said from the busy Garage 56 paddock. “Instinctively, I think we all just went out there and performed and didn’t think too much, and that’s what’s special about sports. Most of us have athletic backgrounds, and we’re able to kind of lean on that when you talk about canceling out a crowd and locking in and being in the moment. So that was a special moment, and we were able to capitalize.”
The competition gave the Garage 56 team members some early bragging rights, but it also showed a modified version of the stock-car pit procedures to an eager new audience, which applauded the choreography. It also illustrated how the pit crew has adapted to new regulations and equipment to prepare for a twice-around-the-clock endurance run.
Getting the Garage 56 crew to build chemistry and adjust to Le Mans rules has been the charge of Evan Kureczka, now in his sixth season with Hendrick Motorsports and currently its pit development manager. Since the group’s arrival at the French circuit, fellow racers have taken an interest in the American visitors — much as the fans have at every turn.
“I feel like a lot of teams on pit road have opened up to us, and they’ve come and asked why we’re doing pit stops one way compared to another and trying to give us tips,” Kureczka said. “It’s like NASCAR is like a big community. You can tell this style of racing is also like one big community, and they’ve accepted us in and we’re almost working together at this point.”
Indeed, all 62 teams are operating under the rules of the same house, run by race organizers Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) and Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA). And the pit stalls on the frontstretch of the iconic 8.467-mile Circuit de la Sarthe are their own unique being — snug both in width and in length, though the G56 entry has the benefit of some extra room as the pit box nearest the pit-lane exit.
The stalls also have air hoses affixed to an overhead boom that swivels as team members move from one side of the car to the other with their lug-nut guns. Kureczka says that’s meant making extra sure the jack handle doesn’t become entangled in the hoses as part of the rotation. He also said that Hendrick’s team mocked up a gantry-style system back home in North Carolina to practice with a similar setup.
The rules also require teams to complete fueling before tire changers can engage the car. The fuel comes from an overhead tank, and a nozzle seals with the filler — which is located behind the right-side B-post. The tall, quick-dump gas cans used in NASCAR are not found in Le Mans. Driver changes are done during fueling, and Kureczka says replenishing a full fuel load takes approximately 42 seconds — theoretically enough time to complete a change-out.
Tire changers are also not allowed to rush out in front of the car on its approach to get in position to start changing the outside tires. Changers and carriers begin on the right side before rotating over to the left, and there’s no pit wall for the crew members to start on. Regulations mandate four “over the wall” pit crew members, but the Garage 56 project was granted a fifth because of race officials’ insistence that the No. 24 team use a jack for NASCAR authenticity instead of the in-car pneumatic jack system that all other cars carry.
“Since we started, it’s been like a day-by-day process, learning how to go by their rules instead of NASCAR’s,” said Jarius Morehead, the rear tire carrier. “They’re so tedious about everything that we do, from the tires, the gun hose up top with the boom system, so it’s just getting used to everything that they do and try to do what we do in NASCAR.”
Kureczka said the Garage 56 pit crew is part of a development group but that all of the team have found some experience in NASCAR national-series events. This pit team was assembled a little under a year ago but has grown since their first at-track practice in a wintertime test at Daytona International Speedway.
“So they’re pretty seasoned,” Kureczka said. “We did plenty of two-a-days of practice leading up to the event, and so it was a little bit of a balance between them pitting Trucks, Xfinity and some of them pitting Cup and doing this, trying to get all our work in.”
If they’re not seasoned now, they will be before the 24 hours is up. If all goes according to plan, team members estimated approximately 25 to 30 pit stops for the full distance, with the No. 24 car stopping nearly hourly and drivers mostly working double stints after shorter earlier ones.
The Hendrick Motorsports crew members working the Le Mans event include:
- Front-tire changer Dawson Backus, who joined Hendrick in September 2019 and currently changes the rear tires for the No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet in the Cup Series.
- Front-tire carrier Cody French, who has changed tires, carried tires and manned the jack in his two-plus years with Hendrick. He’s now the jackman on the No. 77 for Spire in the Cup Series.
- Rear-tire carrier Jarius Morehead, former captain of the N.C. State football team and who has been a tire changer for various teams in Xfinity and Trucks.
- Rear-tire changer Mike Moss, a two-sport standout in basketball and football collegiately who is the newest member of the crew — joining just last October.
- Jackman Donovan Williams, who also signed on with Hendrick Motorsports less than a year ago and has served on the jack and as the fueler for Xfinity and Truck teams.
Then there’s Kureczka, who hasn’t been content to sit on the supervisory sidelines and merely observe and coach. Here at Le Mans, he’s donned a full fire suit and has been the self-termed “lollipop guy” handling the pit sign, which features the Camaro logo.
That, too, has been a little different.
“In NASCAR, the sign’s held from the other side of the wall — the cold side of the track,” Kureczka says. “And so now I’m out there on pit lane holding the sign, which is a great experience to be out there with the guys and be part of the team with them. I think they appreciate it, and they’re glad I’m out there with them.”
Before Tuesday’s pit stop challenge, Kureczka said he had a fleeting wish that the Garage 56 Next Gen car had been equipped with air jacks to lift the car. The 36-year-old coach said that such a modification would make their technique even faster. “I’d like to try it their way without the jack because I feel like you know for the pit challenge coming up, man, we can definitely win that.”
Nearly 24 hours after that speculation about the team’s chances, Kureczka was clearing French bubbly from his eyes. The No. 24 pit crew had practiced 8-10 stops already that day, he said, and the final one — the one that mattered — was the cleanest of the day, checking in at 10.364 seconds behind three Hypercar entries and one in LMP2.
“All the hard work these guys put in, and to see them to see them reap the rewards of all the work they put in is just phenomenal,” Kureczka said on the walk back from the podium to the front of pit road, a victory march interrupted every few stalls for photos by fans and press. “So glad they had the chance to go up there and experience that and represent all of NASCAR. Goodyear, all our sponsors, America, so it’s phenomenal.”