How the Garage 56 NASCAR Camaro Stole the Show at Le Mans
I was there to witness a crowd of Europeans going “ooh” and “aww” each time the modified stock car drove past, and believe me, it was special.
The 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans was a few things. It was the 100th anniversary of the biggest endurance race on the planet. It was also an amazing contest of skill and endurance from the leading Hypercar and GTE teams. And finally, it proved that Europeans actually love NASCAR.
You might know the story about this year's Garage 56 entry by now. It's a specially prepared Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 NASCAR Cup car that uses most of the same parts from a normal Cup car but has been lightened by 500 pounds, given headlights, tail lights, paddle shifters, wider wheels and tires, and an aggressive aerodynamics package to help keep the team afloat in the highly competitive Le Mans field. Not only did Garage 56 stay afloat—it positively kicked ass.
In qualifying, the Camaro finished well ahead of the GTE field with an astronomical four-second advantage. Despite some setbacks early in the race, its team of 2009 F1 champion Jenson Button, 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, and NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson piloted the stock car back to the lead of the GTE field by sunrise. The Camaro thundered around the Circuit de la Sarthe flawlessly for most of the content but a late race gearbox issue took the car out of contention for 40 minutes and dropped it to the back of the GTE field. Despite this, Johnson took the checkered flag for the team to almost as much applause as the winning Ferrari 499P.
More than its final result of 39th overall, the Garage 56 car brought something to Le Mans that was completely unique. The NASCAR booth in the fan area was one of the most popular all weekend and that attendance correlated strongly with bright blue Garage 56 team shirts being worn all over the circuit. Just two cars brought the bald-eagle earthquake of cross-plane V8s to Le Mans, and the Camaro was way louder than the excellent Cadillac V-Series.R prototype.
Hearing the stock car, a sound I’ve heard a lot of in my life, never got old at Le Mans. For my first time ever at the race, it was a little slice of home that I appreciated. The warmth I felt for my homeland’s race car was multiplied by how people reacted to it; folks adored the Camaro for every single lap it completed. Granted, it was hard to miss visually and sonically, and it singlehandedly revived the “Big M8” meme, but the car and team were effortlessly charismatic.
Casually seeing Jeff Gordon (his number 24 adorned the Garage 56 car) in the paddock along with the distinctly American charm of bringing a loud, brash, huge race car to a top-flight European race was just the right amount of patriotism for me. And seeing the Hendrick garage squeezed into the pit building, Jimmie Johnson rubbing shoulders with some of Le Mans’ biggest legends, and hearing the distinct Cup car roar every three and a half minutes was magic. But it’s the fact that the car ran for the sake of running in the 24, regardless of results or prizes. It was only run for the love of racing, and to spread the word of what American race cars have to offer.
"My heart is full,” Johnson said after the race. “There were so many familiar faces, to have this experience was just off the charts. My bucket is full. I’m really happy.”
I honestly can’t put this into words. So I’m not gonna try. pic.twitter.com/F9KMLFYW7b— Josh Hamilton (@joshahamilton) June 11, 2023
As much as I joked to my colleagues at the race about a freak overall win for Garage 56, the experience of seeing the car run for nearly the full 24 hours reinforces a simple fact: racing is in another golden era. The Corvette team took home a class win on its last run, Cadillac Racing scored a strong third place overall, and Garage 56 brought American thunder to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. If that isn’t a damn good weekend of racing, I’m not sure what else is.
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