When the possibility of a NASCAR Cup Series car competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race was first discussed two years ago, there was some surprise.
“I talked to a few people, traditional sports-car folks and traditional racing folks, and when I told them about the project, they were scratching their head like, ‘You’re going to do what?’” John Doonan, president of the International Motor Sports Association, said in an interview.
Doonan is also the project leader of NASCAR’s return to Le Mans 47 years after the series was last involved, when a Dodge Charger and a Ford Torino failed to finish the race
Chevrolet, a two-time winner in the GTE Pro class, is supplying the car, a Camaro ZL1 run by Hendrick Motorsports of North Carolina that is the Garage 56 entry for Le Mans, which celebrates its centenary this year.
Since 2012, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the organizer of the race, has reserved Garage 56 for concept cars and projects that are not part of the official competition and don’t need to comply with the technical regulations.
The ZL1 still features a 5.8-liter small block V8, but it is nearly 500 pounds lighter and has a larger 32-gallon fuel cell and carbon brakes along with aerodynamic features important for negotiating the Circuit de la Sarthe. Uniquely for a Cup car, there are headlights and taillights, and there are wider tires, supplied by Goodyear.
“The car is so obnoxious,” Jenson Button, the 2009 Formula 1 champion and one of the car’s three drivers for Le Mans, said in an interview. “It’s so loud, so big, so aggressive, and it’s so not Le Mans, but it fits in perfectly because it’s so different from anything else.
“I think the fans are going to love it, and I think the other drivers will love seeing the car.”
Button will be driving with Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, and Mike Rockenfeller, who won Le Mans in 2010 with Audi.
“NASCAR largely wanted the vehicle to maintain its DNA from a Cup car,” Johnson said in an interview. “So from an aero-efficiency standpoint, we know and recognize it.”
Certain NASCAR traditions will be maintained. At pit stops when the tires are changed, the car will be raised via a hand jack, instead of built-in pneumatic jacks that other cars use, and at driver changeovers, they will enter and exit through the window, not the doors.
In preparation for Le Mans, the car completed a 24-hour test at Sebring International Raceway in Florida and tested on six other occasions, including at Daytona International Speedway in Florida and at Circuit of the Americas in Texas.
The car lapped the Texas track 10 seconds quicker than a Cup Series car.
“It is quick, but you don’t think it’s going to be that quick because there’s so much work that goes on, you’re fighting it all the time,” Button said. “It’s also quite forgiving in the way that you can drift the car.
“But it’s not like a single-seater, like an F1 car, that’s basically stuck to the road. You’re trying to catch oversteer and big understeer in places. It’s a workout. It really is. And I think that’s why we find it fun. We always come in laughing like, ‘What the hell? This thing is nuts.’ And it is.”
Doonan said the car and team were ready, even though as the sole concept entry it had no competition.
“The A.C.O. set a target for our performance to be right in the thick of the GT field, in terms of lap time,” he said. “So while we aren’t going to win a class, or win over all, getting to the end is No. 1.
“In the end, you’re going to see performance out of this car, at least based on what we learned in the simulator and what we learned at the tests, that this thing is a proper racecar, and I’m super pumped about seeing it in traffic, up against the GT cars to show what is really possible.”
Doonan said millions of dollars have been invested into the project, which would realize the objectives of introducing NASCAR to a wider audience and showcasing to the auto industry a car that debuted in the Cup Series last year.
“There is definitely a promotional element to this, to show the fans what this car looks like and sounds like,” he said.
NASCAR, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, introduced its next generation car last year, on which its Le Mans version is based. With the changes made to the Le Mans car, Johnson said he was hoping it was “not a one and done” but was the start of a new era for NASCAR.
“I would imagine there are ideas that can be pulled from this vehicle and potentially apply to NASCAR vehicles as they evolve,” he said. “Maybe we could start another series and run these, because it is a really cool, fun car.”
The car has captured the imagination of Pierre Fillon, president of the A.C.O. He said he was “immediately enthusiastic” when he was approached by Jim France, chairman and chief executive of NASCAR, about this “crazy idea.”
“We need something innovative,” Fillon said. “This generation of NASCAR is innovative and is the future of NASCAR, and will bring some wonderful memories to the fans.”
Despite the showcase opportunity for NASCAR, there is a clear target.
“A Cup car isn’t built to do 24 hours, so getting to the finish, for anyone at Le Mans, is a big deal,” Button said. “So that’s the main goal for the whole team.”