There’s been a sense brewing the last few weeks that, perhaps, the special Garage 56 entry Chevy Camaro NASCAR Cup car at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans won’t just be a rolling chicane around the track. During the first test session there was a sense that perhaps it could be as fast as the Aston Martins, Porsches, and other “real” sports cars running around the track. Nope. It isn’t. It’s faster. It’s freaking faster.
If you haven’t been paying attention, the Garage 56 entry at the 24 Hours of Le Mans is the special invite given to cars that don’t fit in a traditional class and therefore wouldn’t be able to compete in the race. Everything from DeltaWings to hydrogen-powered cars have been invited to run. A NASCAR stock car wouldn’t normally make sense, but the current generation of NASCAR stock car is actually more similar to a DTM or V8 Supercar chassis than the old-style NASCAR setup, meaning it’s capable of running on a quasi-street circuit like Le Mans (or Chicago, where NASCAR is going this summer for its first street race).
This is mostly a fun sideshow at the race, but Hendricks Motorsports is running this sideshow they don’t half-ass anything. The driver mix is F1 Champion Jenson Button, NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson, and Le Mans-winner Mike Rockenfeller. You want proof they’re taking this seriously? Every year the different teams have a pit stop challenge (it’s a long two weeks) to see which crew is the quickest. I’ve watched a dude try so hard to win this that he hit himself right in the nuts with an impact wrench. It’s a big deal.
Pretty much every car running at Le Mans in recent history uses airjacks that automatically lift the car up. Garage 56 is a stock car, so it runs a real jack and has a “jackman.” This should be a detriment to the team. It is not. Check this out, they not only competed, they actually won the challenge!
Le Mans has two categories of cars: Prototypes and GT cars. The prototypes are purpose-built race cars that don’t look anything like a production vehicle. The GTs are more traditional cars and are all based on real cars. The single GT category this year is made up of Porsche 911s, Ferrari 488 GTE Evos, Chevy Corvette C8.Rs, and Aston Martin Vantage AMRs. Because the Camaro ZL1 NASCAR entry is in Garage 56 it’s technically not in the class, but that’s what everyone is going to compare in terms of times.
It was hard to say how fast the Camaro would actually be, and most people I talked to initially expected it to run mid-pack in the GT class. In the first testing day the car was extremely competitive, within a few seconds of the other fastest GTE cars. Of course, testing (and even early practice) at Le Mans doesn’t mean that much. Because the GT classes have a Balance of Performance (basically, they try to keep the cars roughly equal in terms of speed), all the cars sandbag in early practices so they don’t get hit with extra weight or fuel/air restrictions. This was my concern. It turns out, it was the Camaro that was sandbagging.
One place where racers pretty much don’t sandbag is in qualifying. So here’s how qualifying turned out:
That’s right, the Camaro driven by Mike Rockenfeller did a lap time of 3:47.976, which is about four seconds faster than the closest Ferrari (a quasi factory program from AF Corse). That’s fast. The fastest lap any GT car did last year during the race was a Ferrari that managed 3:49.109, presumably at night. There’s one more qualifying session for the fastest cars, which they call hyperpole, but it’s already clear what the fastest non-prototype car is.
It will not surprise you to learn that the 24 Hours of Le Mans can be fairly political and there’s a lot invested in this car doing well. It’s not technically competitive with any of the other GT cars and therefore doesn’t have to worry about the same regulations or getting hit with BOP adjustments. It’s good for NASCAR if the car is competitive and it’s good for Le Mans if a bunch of Americans suddenly care about the race. Additionally, WEC sports cars have power levels in the 500s, while the ZL1 has a good ol’ American made NASCAR 5.8-liter V8 pumping out 750 of the Lord’s Own Horsepower, although it’s bigger and less aerodynamic.
Around the track, word is that the big V8 scares the delicate European campers as it goes by and no one is sure how anyone near the track is going to sleep.
I can’t wait.
Photos: NASCAR/Hendricks Motorsports
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