LE MANS, France – Jordan Taylor had been in France for barely more than 24 hours and he was already doing coach things. The Garage 56 project’s alternate driver joined Tuesday’s autograph session and then, promptly, playfully took it over.
Donning his “COACH” T-shirt and equipped with a proper coach’s whistle, Taylor kept the autograph line moving and directed his teammates in the 24 Hours of Le Mans preliminary. He’d arrived at the track freshly from his first NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Portland International Raceway last Saturday, flying from Oregon to Salt Lake City then on to land in Paris on Monday morning.
Taylor’s vast Le Mans experience has been a crucial factor in why he was recruited to join the Garage 56 initiative, the NASCAR Next Gen-based project that’s inching closer to its run at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this Saturday and Sunday. But the 32-year-old IMSA ace has already made strides in diversifying his own portfolio, dipping his toe in the stock-car waters with recent starts in the Cup Series, Xfinity and even Late Models.
“I’ve been enjoying it,” Taylor says, “and I think now that I’m learning each car and different series, it’ll just keep getting better and more understanding what the cars can do.”
Those experiences have also opened the eyes of the NASCAR community, who have recognized Taylor’s skill, along with his embrace of the stock-car world through the eyes of his alter-ego of Rodney Sandstorm. Taylor made his Cup Series debut in place of the injured Chase Elliott in March at Circuit of The Americas, qualifying the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevy an impressive fourth before a series of bruising late-race restarts left him 24th in the final order.
It was enough of a performance to compel the Hendrick executive branch to keep his number handy.
“We absolutely, 100 percent would give Jordan another opportunity if something arose within our camp,” said Jeff Andrews, Hendrick Motorsports team president and general manager. “Trying to help him currently with a couple other possible scenarios for him within the NASCAR arena to get him some more experience, but I think he showed what he’s capable of in a very difficult situation getting in that 9 car at COTA in just a handful of laps and going out there and qualifying as well as he did.
“Certainly the racing is a lot different than what he’s used to, and that was a heck of a baptism, so to speak, with what he went through there, but he handled it like a pro and (has) got a ton of talent. So without question we would, if we have that need, we would look to Jordan very quickly. He fit in very well with our group and contributed a very high level.”
The other opportunities Andrews mentioned have already come to pass. Taylor said a conversation at COTA between Hendrick vice chairman Jeff Gordon and Kaulig Racing president Chris Rice put his appearance at Portland in motion. Taylor said he had never driven an Xfinity Series car, but he had the pace to qualify Kaulig’s No. 10 Chevrolet sixth on the grid with limited practice.
Taylor remained just outside of the top five through the first two stages at Portland. His car sustained some nose damage in the final segment of the race, then limped home to a 27th-place outcome after the gearbox gave out.
“It was unfortunate, obviously, to not get a result, but it was nice to run well,” Taylor said. “And, hopefully, people noticed.”
Among those taking note of his stock-car exploits was team owner Rick Hendrick, who seconded Andrews’ sentiments.
“He’s got so much talent, he can do it,” Hendrick said. “He is an unbelievable road racer, unbelievable communicator and just a perfectionist, so he’s put his heart and soul in this car. I hate we couldn’t run four drivers (at Le Mans). I’d love to see him have an opportunity. We might have him in a car again, in NASCAR.”
Now that he’s here, Taylor says he’s not sure what to expect in an unfamiliar role as a reserve driver, but that hasn’t kept him from coming to Le Mans prepared. He said he wrote a report for teammates Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller containing notes on the race-specific procedures, plus reference points on the optimal way to let faster cars overtake. He also has notes on the car’s characteristics, given his seat time in the No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 during testing.
Just like any other coach, Taylor has his playbook ready – and it’s providing the rest of the team with some peace of mind.
“He has the most current and in-depth GT experience, and that’s basically what this car is or the closest thing it is to,” Johnson said. “So he’s done a phenomenal job in the car, and I wish we could run four (drivers), because he is so deserving of the formal label.”
Before his arrival, Taylor followed the early progress of the Garage 56 effort with its show of speed during Sunday’s test day, where the No. 24 posted laps that eventually slotted the “Innovative Car” entry between the LMGTE Am class and the faster LMP2 cars.
Since the Garage 56 car is not racing for the overall win, the program is free of the politics and gamesmanship surrounding the balance of power regulations that other classes face. But the showing on the speed chart has put an early end to the concerns that the modified Next Gen Camaro would be a roadblock to other cars in the field.
That’s bulletin-board material for any coach worth his salt.
“I think there’s no games to play for us – just go as fast as possible,” Taylor says. “But yes, it’s very good. I think it shocked a lot of people, which is exciting, I think. I’m glad it’s surprising people because I think a lot of people didn’t respect it as much as they should’ve, and now they’re seeing that it’s a proper race car, a proper program that everyone took very seriously coming into this.”