In so many ways, Friday's annual Grand Parade Des Pilotes through the historic streets of Le Mans could not have been more appropriate or telling for the NASCAR 56 operation.
The massive crowds in downtown Le Mans under the shadow of the Cathedrale St-Julien du Mans were orderly, but energetic and enthusiastic, pushing forward in hopes of catching the eye of the NASCAR Garage 56 drivers – seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson , Formula One champion Jenson Button and Mike Rockenfeller – riding side by side atop a convertible Chevrolet Camaro.
Just behind the trio in the parade was the team's reserve driver, multi-time IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship champion Jordan Taylor. .. or rather his alter ego “Rodney Sandstorm” in full “Rodney regalia” and met with full appreciation from the crowds.
The always highly-anticipated parade featured the entire starting field of drivers for Saturday's 100 th celebration of the 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race and marks both the culmination of nearly two years of effort to bring an iconic American entry to the grand race, but also the launch of the real work: faring well in the race.
The American team has been overwhelmed by the support and adoration from the fans here at this worldwide stage of Le Mans and acknowledges the grand opportunity to participate. But this effort is, after all, a group of some of the most competitive and accomplished people in racing – from the Hendrick Motorsports crew fielding the No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 to the A-list driver lineup to the racing executives who have prioritized this meaningful entry.
Savoring moments like the cheering crowd have been part and parcel of the Le Mans experience for the Garage 56 crew – from NASCAR Chairman Jim France to Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick to IMSA President John Doonan and all the executives from Goodyear and Chevrolet in town and trackside . All seizing the joy. There has been no question the passionate sports car crowd is enjoying the team. And no question the team is enjoying the Le Mans crowd.
“The car's been performing very well, all our durability testing has really put us in a comfortable place with the car's consistency, just everything's in a good place,'' Johnson said.
“As I'm sure you can pick up on, we're really here in race mode. Sure we're having fun, but we really are focused on performance in every aspect and we'd love to set a high bar for future Garage 56 programs and certainly want to represent NASCAR to our fullest potential.''
The car has already impressed so much, the WEC sanctioning body issued a ruling acknowledging the - perhaps unexpected – speed of the car.
Although the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Camaro ZL1 is in the single car “Innovative Car” class, because of the sustained speed it's shown all week in practices and qualifying the WEC announced Friday it will allow the No. 24 to grid ahead of the 21 GTE class cars it has out-paced easily and consistently.
It's all something the team has taken in stride. Hendrick Motorsports boasts the most championships in NASCAR history. It is used to raising and setting the bar. And the work put in by the team for the past year and a half – the 24 hour tests, long days at Daytona International Speedway, Austin's Circuit of the Americas road course and multiple visits to rural Sebring (Fla.) International Raceway have at last , paid off and set the team up for a historical run this weekend.
“It's huge,'' Hendrick said, of France's effort bringing the Garage 56 project to fruition. “To see something he wants to do that bad and fulfill a family dream, that means a lot to me and we wanted to make sure we showed up professionally with a car that's capable and we wanted to show everybody here the technology and how sharp our people and crew are from pit crews to mechanics and I think that's been on display.
“Other teams have come down [to our pits] just to hear the motor run and watch our guys work. I think we've shown them the high level of technology and expertise that NASCAR has, is not what it was 30 years ago.''
“This has been fun. I told our guys when we started, the one thing we have to do is be professional, look professional and when people walk by they are impressed with the way you handle yourself, the technology on the car, the way you go about your testing. ”
France has been unquestionably, the great impetus behind the Garage 56 project – from inception to track to Saturday's flag to start the iconic event.
“It's been great,'' France said. “Rick Hendrick and his entire organization and Chad [Knaus] have done an unbelievable job the way they've taken this step by step to the point we've got it over here and they even won the pit stop competition. It's another testimonial to the NASCAR guys.
“The response [from everyone] has been fantastic. The whole team with Rick [Hendrick] what all his guys have done, is unbelievable. The only credit I can take is getting Rick, Goodyear and GM together to help us with this project and they are all on board and it's been first class.''
HIGH ABOVE LEMANS
After a celebrated eight-year career as a crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Alex Bowman, Greg Ives stepped away from the position fulltime in the NASCAR Cup Series at the end of last season. But he has found himself a highly-regarded leader again – this time for the Garage 56 project – handling crew chief duties and helping oversee development of the No. 24 Chevy Camaro ZL1 since stepping away from crew chief work last November.
He joined Garage 56 reserve driver Jordan Taylor and Hendrick Motorsports' Ben Wright a couple thousand feet about Le Mans' Circuit de la Sarthe on Friday morning with the opportunity to view the track from another perspective – in the iconic Goodyear blimp.
“The biggest thing for me is understanding where all the slow zones are,'' Ives said. “I took the track walk and was able to see a few things here and there, but up here you can kind of understand where each slow zone is. You can look at the geometry of the track. …understand what situations they can get themselves in down there. That if we don't have radio communication, how to help them if there's a slow zone in [Turn] six or they're coming out a slow zone out of [Turn] five. .. so letting them know right away, see cars go out on track right now just understanding the lines and the flow of the race track.''
Of the sheer size of the 8.467-mile road Le Mans course, Ives said, “This is kind of like putting eight Dovers in one space or 16 Martinsvilles.''
Hendrick Motorsports executive Chad Knaus, who served as crew chief for Johnson's seven-NASCAR Cup Series championship seasons has joined Ives leading the technical side of the Le Mans venture. He is hopeful for their performance over the weekend and says the crew has prepared all it can at this point.
“A lot of the other teams changed their bits on the race car earlier in the week than we did, so we'll be going into the race with a little bit of unknowns as far as the car, but as far as drivers, driver rotation, pit crew, just the basics of the car and the speed, I feel pretty good about that,'' Knaus said.
“Race procedures are a little bit different, but we're learning those. The good news is the drivers are used to being told what to do and Jordan has been a huge asset because he has so much experience here.''