LE MANS, France – The room was packed, the smiles flashing and the vibe all-good.
The Garage 56 organizers and the team’s key players met with the international media in the middle of the famed Circuit de la Sarthe Thursday afternoon, eager to share the story of the impetus and expectations of the NASCAR 24 Hours of Le Mans project.
With NASCAR Chairman Jim France, Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick and NASCAR Hall of Famer Hershel McGriff among those sitting in the audience, IMSA President John Doonan proudly introduced Hendrick executive and Garage 56 program manager Chad Knaus as well as the drivers of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 – seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, former Formula One champion Jenson Button and two-time Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller as well as reserve driver, four-time IMSA champ Jordan Taylor.
Doonan smiled broadly recalling the initial, somewhat casual conversation with France about Le Mans more than two years ago that ultimately set the project into motion.
“We wanted to put together the best [partners] in NASCAR history,’’ Doonan said of bringing on partners Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear.
“Throughout the process it was extremely important that we kept as much of the NASCAR DNA as possible for the Garage 56 entry, from the way it sounds to the way it looks and the way it performs,’’ Doonan continued. “And thanks to an amazing group at Hendrick Motorsports, we certainly achieved that.’’
Button, who won the 2009 world championship, reiterated how glad he was to be a part of the team, noting that he flew on his accord – a redeye flight – to Sebring to watch Rockenfeller run one of the first tests back in December.
“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,’’ Button said. “When you see it go by and you hear it, it just puts a massive smile on your face. For me, after my long career in F1, I wanted to do something that was fun. I’m in a very lucky position to do fun racing and it’s not so much a job any more and this just ticked all the boxes. I asked them, where do I sign? I want to go racing.
“That’s how it started and here we are now, six months later, we’ve had lots of testing and we’ve had so much fun along the way. It’s been such an enjoyable experience, I think we’ve progressed a lot and here we are, we’ve qualified four and a half seconds quicker than all the GT cars. Phenomenal effort.’’
“Everything has been spot on and all the homework has been done by this team.’’
The No 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – which is the lone “Innovative Car” Class entrant on the 62-car grid – rolled off pit road with only a half hour remaining in Thursday afternoon’s practice session after putting the race engine in earlier in the day.
The team planned to run most of Thursday’s hour-long night session beginning at 10 p.m. locally – the last time cars are on track until Saturday’s morning pre-race warm-up.
The “Centenary” running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is set for a 10 a.m. ET start.
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