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Le Mans 24 Hours of Le Mans

Inside the adaptations needed to realise NASCAR's Le Mans return

Accommodating a NASCAR Cup machine into the Le Mans 24 Hours was no small task for the FIA. Here's how the governing body brought the fan favourite machine in line with its existing class structure for a memorable Garage 56 exploit

#24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 of Jimmie Johnson, Mike Rockenfeller, Jenson Button

Engineering

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“Strange and exciting.” Those are the words that came into FIA chief technical and safety officer Xavier Mestelan Pinon’s mind when he was told about the Garage 56 entry for this year’s Le Mans 24 Hours. And for good reason. The car that filled the grid slot reserved – but not always allocated – for an innovative or experimental car at the World Endurance Championship blue riband was, off all things, a NASCAR Cup contender.

It was strange because an American stock car, Next Gen Cup racer developed in conjunction with Dallara or no, is very different from the prototype and GT machinery that makes up the WEC grid. And it was exciting for the very same reason.

Incorporating the Chevrolet Camaro LS1 run by Hendrick Motorsports and driven by Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller into that field of Hypercar, LMP2 and GTE Am cars was the challenge faced by Le Mans organiser the Automobile Club de l’Ouest in conjunction with the FIA, co-organiser of the WEC.

“The car was extreme,” he says. “That’s in terms of power, weight and design. It’s very different from what we are usually looking at in Formula 1, endurance and rallying. It was something completely new, a breath of fresh air, a nice project for the FIA and myself personally.”

Mestelan Pinon, who joined the FIA in February 2021 after a 20-year career at Citroen and sister brand DS, stresses that Garage 56 is what he calls “an ACO project”. But the FIA has the responsibility for the safety, which was the twin challenge faced along with just how it would fit into the existing class structure at the French enduro. He describes meeting those challenges as “a collaborative effort” involving the twin sanctioning bodies of the WEC and also NASCAR and IMSA, which oversaw the project under the leadership of its boss, John Doonan.

It was far from a new collaboration, however. The FIA, ACO and IMSA had jointly devised the LMP2 rulebook that came into force in 2017 and then the LMDh category, which from this year is an integral part of the WEC. NASCAR, meanwhile, has an involvement in a number of FIA working groups, including the one headed ‘research and strategy’, which looks at the future of motorsport.

Package of changes included the addition of headlights which don't come as standard on Cup cars

Package of changes included the addition of headlights which don't come as standard on Cup cars

Photo by: Marc Fleury

“The FIA’s role was to assess the safety and give feedback,” explains Mestelan Pinon. “The redline was to certify the car.” It was, he says, about “trying to take the best from each set of regulations”. The driver’s seat of the Camaro, for example, remained pure NASCAR. “We clearly considered that their technical choice was something very relevant for such a car,” he explains.

On the other hand, the fuel tank was moved, as per FIA regulations, from the boot to the centre of the car within the rollcage structure. There was, meanwhile, “some small work and adjustment to do” on the steering column and on the thickness of the polycarbonate windscreen and windows.

The main task, however, was to bring the Camaro in line with the crash test requirements of the GTE regulations. This was inextricably linked to the attempt to equate the performance of the Camaro with the Porsches, Ferraris, Aston Martins and the Chevrolet competing in what had become the WEC’s lone GT class.

The changes to the car, including a switch from steel to carbon brakes, was aimed at making it quicker into and through the corners

Central to that was an extreme diet. The dry weight of the Garage 56 entry at Le Mans this year was 1340kg, around 150kg less than a pure Cup Camaro. The reality was the weight saving was much greater than that.

The car had to incorporate extra kit necessary for it to take part in an endurance race. For example, a NASCAR doesn’t have lights! This diet involved changes to the rollcage. The FIA oversaw static load tests and crash testing in the virtual realm to make sure it complied with FIA regulations and standards.

The target wasn’t just for the Camaro to lap the 8.47-mile Circuit de la Sarthe at GTE Am speeds. Rather it was for the car to have a similar performance profile to the cars in that class. The changes to the car, including a switch from steel to carbon brakes, was aimed at making it quicker into and through the corners.

A 1500kg NASCAR with 700bhp would have been a rocketship on the straights and potentially able to lap at GTE Am pace, but it could have been a disruptive influence on the race.

It was important for the FIA and ACO to ensure that the Garage 56 wasn't a disruptive influence on the race

It was important for the FIA and ACO to ensure that the Garage 56 wasn't a disruptive influence on the race

Photo by: Marc Fleury

“We had to imagine how the car could be manageable in the middle of the track with the other GTE Ams, LMP2s and Hypercars,” explains Mestelan Pinon.

Rockefeller qualified the Camaro more than four seconds ahead of the best GTE Am. But Mestelan Pinon explains that the efforts of the FIA, the ACO et al to equate its performance with the GT machinery pretty much hit the target.

“Before the race, it was difficult to know exactly if the car would be faster or slower than a GTE,” he says. “We can say it was half a second faster if we take the 20% best lap times from the race.”

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Mestelan Pinon has no doubt that the project was a success: “It was something good for the fan and everybody.”

The rumbling Camaro was a popular fan favourite at La Sarthe in June

The rumbling Camaro was a popular fan favourite at La Sarthe in June

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

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