Of all the motorsports legends roaming around Le Mans' Circuit de la Sarthe this week – and there are many – one in particular received an exceedingly warm welcome by the NASCAR Garage 56 team. NASCAR Hall of Famer Hershel McGriff returned to the circuit on Wednesday afternoon – a race week guest of NASCAR – and the reception he received walking into the team's pit area couldn't have been more endearing.
“Welcome back to Le Mans,'' NASCAR Chairman Jim France told him.
The entire team – NASCAR's “Innovative Class” entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans - was equally as excited to have the 95-year-old McGriff trackside. The NASCAR legend competed at Le Mans twice himself – he was one of two drivers to compete in the 1976 race after NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. struck a deal with race officials.
“Come on let's get you in a driver's suit, do you have your helmet?'' Hendrick Motorsports Vice President and Garage 56 manager Chad Knaus said greeting McGriff.
The look on the legendary driver's face said it all. He joked about forgetting his helmet, but promised he would have loved to compete in this race again or even help out in the pits.
“I'm just kind of a guest this week, but I told Jim France, 'I don't really want to be a spectator, I just want to fill in somewhere,''' McGriff said grinning. “I think Chad must have gotten the word.”
McGriff was genuinely moved to be a part of NASCAR's return to the race for the first time in 47 years. He flew to France with NASCAR executives and said he'd been smiling from the time his feet hit the French pavement.
As soon as he arrived trackside, the Garage 56 drivers surrounded him – former Formula One champ Jenson Button and renowned sports car champion Mike Rockenfeller smiling as they listened to McGriff's stories of stock cars past at the legendary sports car venue.
A member of McGriff's original 1976 Le Mans crew – Dick Pierson – even made the trip across the Atlantic, eager to share in his former team owner's connection with the track, which is celebrating the race's 100th year of existence.
“When I heard about this, and that Hershel was coming, I just was like, 'oh man, this is so good,'“ Pierson said. “I certainly decided then I needed to come here. And here I am.
It was a reunion 47 years in the making. And duly appreciated.
“Thank goodness for NASCAR, Jim France and [IMSA President] John Doonan, they invited me,'' McGriff said. “Of course, I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come (smiling). And I've been treated as royalty.
“This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I'm anxious to see everything,'' McGriff said. “I've been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”
KOBAYASHI TO MAKE NASCAR DEBUT
World-renowned Japanese racer Kamui Kobayashi will add the NASCAR Cup Series to his long list of auto racing competitions – announcing Wednesday he will make his NASCAR debut in the Aug. 13 Verizon 200 at the Brickyard at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course driving the No. 67 Toyota for 23XI Racing team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and NBA legend Michael Jordan.
“Obviously, I had very different path in motorsports, but I have always wanted to try NASCAR, it has been my dream'' Kobayashi told an enthusiastic crowd – that included NASCAR Chairman Jim France and IMSA President John Doonan among other NASCAR dignitaries – Wednesday afternoon at the NASCAR Fan Zone located inside the Le Mans' Circuit de le Sarthe.
“Actually, my first racing on TV was NASCAR, when I was like four or five years old. … That's when I said I wanted to be a race car driver.''
Kobayashi, 36, who now races fulltime in the World Endurance Championship (WEC) is a two-time overall winner of the Rolex 24 at Daytona IMSA season-opener, has won a pair of WEC season titles, and spent five years in Formula One .
He becomes only the second Japanese driver to compete in the NASCAR Cup Series and first since Hideo Fukuyama, who ran four races between 2002-03 – the last in June 2003.
France said he first had talks with Toyota TRD USA chief executive David Wilson late last year about the idea of having Kobayashi on a NASCAR Cup Series grid and it was well-received by all.
“I got to know Kamui from his IMSA racing with Wayne Taylor then Action Express,'' France said smiling. He's such a great guy personally, plus his driving talent to be able to get into a NASCAR car.
“That was kind of a dream for me and it sounds like he had the same dream.”
“To compete in motorsports in stock cars in the United States is a big, big dream,” Kobayashi said. “This is something I really want to try.
LE MANS QUALIFYING
Wednesday marked the first day of practice and qualifying for Saturday's “Centenary” running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. German driver Mike Rockenfeller certainly brought the team's A-game in provisional qualifying turning a fast lap of 3:52.431 around the 8.467-mile Circuit de la Sarthe in the No. 24 Garage 56 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 - his time better than the entire 21- car GTE-AM cars.
The fastest eight cars in each class – Hypercar, LMP2 and GTE AM – advanced to final “Hyperpole” qualifying at 8 pm local time Thursday to formally set the top positions in each class.