Despite the NASCAR Garage 56 because not competing for the win during the 24 Hours of Le Mans this weekend, the Garage 56 pit crew had their moment to shine on Tuesday afternoon.
To the delight of the French crowd, the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet crew won the Pit Stop Challenge, bettering 14 GTE entries they were competing against.
“These guys have been training hard,” said Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports Vice President of Competition and manager of the Garage56 project. “What's amazing is everybody's been doing this [pit stop preparation] along with what they're trying to do as a real job seven days a week.
“They've been training really hard as well as pitting Xfinity cars and NASCAR Cup Series cars and doing this, which is significantly different choreography on significantly different race cars. They've done a really good job and I'm super proud of them.''
A lot of the Garage 56 pit crew are first and second-year members of the championship Hendrick Motorsports team, according to Knaus. A few others have more experience and all of them have been training specifically for Le Mans, working all the tests leading up to this weekend's race.
“We picked all these guys and have been training with them for eight months. They've been working hard on this.''
The crew - which included Evan Kureczka, Dawson Backus, Mike Moss, Cody French, Jarius Morehead, Donavan Williams and Jamie Frady – got a chance to set the winning tone for the team.
“It's amazing, just to think about all the hard work we've done and the guys in the shop, they started even way before us putting this project in place the last nine months,” Williams said after the champagne-drenched victory celebration.
“It's just a special moment to be able to represent Hendrick Motorsports, represent our families, ourselves and the organization, America and NASCAR as a whole.”
The first two official practice sessions in advance of the June 10-11 “Centenary” 24 Hours of Le Mans at the 8.467-mile course will be Wednesday with qualifying at 7 pm French local time.
LE MANS BEGINNING
A year ago, Tyler Church could count on one hand how many times he'd been on an airplane. This week he's working in Le Mans, France as a body fabricator with the Garage 56 entry.
“The other night I spoke up at the team dinner and told everyone that this meant a lot for me from where I came from,'' said Church, acknowledging his family's humble beginnings to the opportunity he has earned now as a member of the Hendrick Motorsport team. When he told his father about his chance to travel to Europe, he said his dad cried in happiness and pride.
Church, 34, of Hickory, NC, smiles recounting the experiences he's had since joining the Garage 56 crew – from flying on a private aircraft with Jeff Gordon after a test session to simply crossing the Mississippi River for travel the first time.
“I got to the plane later than everybody else so I walked in and all the seats were taken except one beside Jeff Gordon,'' Church recalled. “So, I looked around and asked, 'is it okay if I sit here?' And everyone was like, 'sure, sit down, sit down.' So I got to eat pizza flying on a plane sitting next to my hero Jeff Gordon.
“That was pretty cool,'' he said with a wide smile, “Eating pizza with Jeff.''
Although Church has been enjoying his experience in France, but concedes he misses his family – wife Heather and sons Dawson, 5 and Heather, 4. As for the culture, Church says he has not picked up much of the French language, adding with a smile, “I've been telling everybody, they're gonna have to learn Hickory.''
Even under a bright and hot mid-afternoon sun, the line of autograph seekers stretched from the Garage 56 pit stall, a good 40 yards away and then doubled up again; easily the most popular spot at the Le Mans circuit on Tuesday.
Dressed in No. 48 hats – a nod to Jimmie Johnson's seven-championship NASCAR tenure in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet – and many wearing No. 24 t-shirts (a nod to Hendrick executive and former driver Jeff Gordon) it was a rowdy and enthusiastic group eager to meet their racing heroes.
Mike Rockenfeller, Jenson Button, Johnson and Jordan Taylor sat at the table smiling and signing – smiling and signing and so forth, for more than an hour, genuinely enjoying the interaction and appreciation.
The Walkenhorst Motorsport team drivers immediately to Garage 56 group, smiled and pointed to the autographed cards sitting on their table and noticeably smaller crowd of admirers.
“I think you should ask them [Garage 56 drivers], what it's like sitting next to us,'' Walkenhorst's American driver Jeff Segal said with a laugh.
At one point French fan Vaelentin Vitu, 25, of Champagne, placed seven No. 48 diecast cars and a No. 48 helmet in front of Johnson for an autograph – getting the ultimate fan triple play of autographs, selfies and conversation with his longtime favorite driver. Johnson signed, posed and smiled – clearly moved by all the love he was receiving a continent away from home.
“I followed Jimmie since 2010,'' Vitu said. “I always watch NASCAR and when I heard he will come to France for Le Mans, it was very special opportunity for me to see him in person. I don't have the chance to come to the United States to see him in NASCAR so it was very special for him to come here.
“I was very nervous to meet him, but it was a special moment.”