LE MANS, France — A major “last day of school” feel shaped the celebration of the Garage 56 project’s last act as Jimmie Johnson churned out the final laps Sunday afternoon at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Handshakes and hugs, champagne toasts and some tears signaled the end of what’s been a journey through multiple years of development, a chock-full week of festivities and tuning in la République, and two full sweeps of a clock’s hour hand that counted it all down.
The specially built Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and the team that brought it to life wowed the international motorsports crowd gathered for all those moments in the Le Mans centennial. The moment was worth cherishing, but the culmination also came with the pang that the work was finally complete and with the tantalizing thought of what might be next on the global stage.
“I wish we could come back and do it again. I don’t want it to be over,” Johnson said after leaving the grime-covered No. 24 Chevrolet in parc fermé and arriving back in the Hendrick Motorsports paddock. “This moment, though, with everybody, I hate that it’s over because we had such a good time. I hope to come back without a doubt and do this race again, but this moment in time, this group of people won’t happen again. It’s just impossible, so I’m sad about that.”
Bubbly spirits after the popping of corks were part of the elation and relief. Jeff Gordon, an ambassador for the sport since his days as a driver and now as a Hendrick Motorsports executive, greeted NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France with the suggestion that they toast first before shaking hands. Johnson waved as he joined co-drivers Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller in thanking the cheering fans gathered outside the Garage 56 pit stall.
The Camaro itself had accomplished a big segment of its mission by completing 2,413.1 miles – into the great beyond in terms of stock-car durability and into the surreal with the Next Gen model bulling its way through Le Mans’ famous corners and the thundering Mulsanne. But the drivers also pushed the car into its own category of speed, giving the Innovative Car entry an edge in lap times over the LM GTE Am class and making an impression on fans and teams alike.
“I know we pissed off some GT cars out there because we were racing them and all of that, but you know what, it’s a race. We were over here to race, and that’s what we did,” said project lead Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports’ VP of Competition. “I think the fans loved it. I think the people in Le Mans loved it when we went down for scrutineering, and I’ve seen nothing but smiles on people’s faces every time they’ve seen that race car.”
The answer to what’s next on Knaus’ list syncs up with Hendrick’s stateside racing operations. The crew had NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series broadcasts running on a pair of monitors in the Le Mans garage during the 24-hour run, keeping tabs on its primary teams a continent away.
All three national series are off this weekend until racing resumes June 23-25 at Nashville Superspeedway, so at least some rest is in order. But what the Garage 56 project might inspire, he said, is anyone’s guess.
“Honestly, I would take a couple days off, and then I’m gonna go to Nashville,” Knaus said. “But yeah, I don’t really know what’s next. I don’t know. We’ll have to see. There’s got to be some ripple effect to this, I would have to assume. We had hoped to open some eyes in a positive manner. But you know, our foremost concern right now is to try to get our four cars all qualified for the final race in Phoenix and battle for the NASCAR championship. And if we can pull that off, what happens subsequently, happens.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick made a major investment in making the Garage 56 project breathe, and he was alongside France on the pit wall when the No. 24 Chevy made its final pass on the Circuit de la Sarthe’s main straight. His thrust was to make sure that the rest of the global racing community saw his team as a first-class operation, off the track and on it. With the on-track portion of that mission going better than expected, Hendrick imagined with the rest of us what other ships the Garage 56 initiative might launch into international waters.
“I was listening to TV this morning, where they were talking about how the car corners and how impressive they were, so we checked all the boxes,” Hendrick said. “And so we’ve had people say, now how can we run a class for these cars? I said talk to that guy in the yellow shirt.”
“That guy” that Hendrick motioned toward was Jim France, whose father dreamed up the distant forerunner to this NASCAR to Le Mans project in 1976. France had demurred earlier in the week about specifically where international stock-car racing – outside of the already established NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, Mexico Series and Pinty’s Series – might go from here, but took heart in the first impression that the Garage 56 team had made.
“Our goal was to be running at the end and have a good finish, and I feel like we’ve accomplished all that,” France said. “The other most important thing is I think the fans over here enjoyed what we were doing. And that’s very gratifying to know that we were embraced by Le Mans fans and accepted as a part of the event.”
NASCAR’s participation in the 100th-anniversary event added to an already diverse lineup in the 62-car field. Seven manufacturers alone competed in the top Hypercar class, led by Ferrari’s drive to a captivating overall triumph in its first go at Le Mans in 50 years, and four more automakers vied for the GT laurels.
Inviting other automotive brands to join NASCAR’s trio of Chevrolet, Ford and Toyota, Gordon said, would be another step in replicating some of that same intrigue on the grid.
“I think a lot of people have their own view of NASCAR from afar, and I think it just opens up the door to a lot of possibilities,” Gordon said, after noting the pressure of representing the project’s partners, the team and the country at Le Mans. “I do think that there’s a way for NASCAR to be more global and bring in more manufacturers. We’re happy with the ones we have, but you know, we all know how important that is. And so I think this definitely got a lot of the European fans, probably, to become more bigger fans of NASCAR if they weren’t already.
“And then who knows what could happen next. You know, this was a unique opportunity, and I’m glad Jim France and NASCAR came up with the idea, and it was pulled off the way that it was, and we’re just gonna take it from here and see where it goes.”
The immediate future for the Garage 56 effort will be a trip next month to the Goodwood Festival of Speed, a giant festival for petrolheads with all walks of cars visiting the Duke of Richmond’s estate in England. The next destination would likely be a place of prominence in Rick Hendrick’s vast collection of historic vehicles, and a possible side trip to the NASCAR Hall of Fame would rank as a brilliant idea.
Part of the project’s unique nature was to bend opinions about how stock-car racing is perceived outside of American soil. Spectators at Le Mans referred to the Garage 56 entry as “a NASCAR” or “the NASCAR,” and who are we to correct them as long as they think it’s cool.
But the other distinctive twist to the project was the narrowed-down focus. More than a year of creative thinking, preparation, testing and development went into just one prestigious race. While that event was the longest many in the NASCAR industry might experience, by two sweeps of the clock, it had come to an end.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Jessica Hook, the Garage 56 team’s chief of staff. “There’s obviously the relief side of it, but now that I do finally see all these people together, I’m gonna miss them. To think that after today, we won’t have these weekly meetings or things to talk about with this project, I think I just was in denial about it. And now that it’s here, it’s a little sad. I’m gonna miss a lot of these guys there. It’s been great getting to know everyone and meet all these intelligent, smart people, and I think they’ve made me a better person because of it.”
The post-race celebration lasted longer than most back home, and the choice of blended wine for partners, team members, friends and family seemed to fit the occasion and the setting.
“Do it again next year!” one fan yelled out before the group beckoned Jimmie Johnson out from the shade of the garage and into the afternoon sun.
Round deux? Let’s go.