CONCORD, N.C. – Success with Garage 56 in the 24 Hours of Le Mans holds different meanings for each competitor.
The driver lineup is composed of a group of highly decorated racers. Formula One champion Jenson Button, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, two-time Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller and backup driver/coach Jordan Taylor (a four-time IMSA champion) make up the roster. Hendrick Motorsports vice president of competition and seven-time championship-winning crew chief Chad Knaus is overseeing the project with former Cup Series crew chief Greg Ives managing the race.
The Garage 56 entry in the endurance race presents a unique case because it is a single-entry class of competition for innovative cars – there is no other car in the class. Garage 56 was introduced in 2012 and allows for creativity without taking away a spot in the traditional starting grid. Hendrick Motorsports, in collaboration with NASCAR, Chevrolet, IMSA and Goodyear, is fielding the No. 24 entry.
"I’ve never done a race where we are on our own in terms of we have nobody else in class," Rockenfeller said. "We have some goals. We hopefully will fight some guys on track (for position). The goal is not to be last at the end. You have to be realistic with this project. It’s a NASCAR. Initially, it’s not made for what we are doing with it. Obviously, we developed it a lot.
"The goal is to finish the race and to hopefully have not a lot of time in the pits and impress people. Really what I want is to have a lot of fun with everybody and the team. Make sure that the fans really talk a lot about this car in a positive way. That the sound is great, looks cool and it is unique. I think we will bring a lot of attention out there to the fans."
Since the announcement in March 2022, Knaus has overseen a team preparing for Le Mans. The driver lineup has conducted four team tests at Daytona International Speedway in January, Sebring International Raceway in February and April and at Circuit of The Americas in March.
The team’s 24-hour test at Sebring in February served as valuable preparation to get ready for what Le Mans will be like. There are physical and mental hurdles to work through for a race that long.
"Doing a 24-hour race with that much more throttle time is very tough on mechanical equipment," Button said. "We’ve all done 24-hour races before, but it is tough on the team and it is tough on the car. This thing is built strong and I think we understand in terms of backing certain things off to keep the reliability there. I think we are in pretty good place."
Johnson recognizes the attention that this Garage 56 entry has on it, not just from NASCAR enthusiasts but from fans curious about the Next Gen car.
"In my eyes, it’s looking good, having fun and running 24 hours -- with running the 24 hours as the most important part," Johnson said. "I know there’s going to be a lot of attention around this program. I feel that us as NASCAR folks, we have an obligation to impress and show the rest of the world what our industry is like and the professionalism that exists in the world of NASCAR. I am excited for the opportunity."
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Like his drivers, Knaus is focused on not only finishing the race but remaining competitive throughout the event.
"Running for 24 hours, that will be success," Knaus said. "Managing the race, avoiding incidents, doing a brake change, watching the car degrade as you go through the course of a 24-hour race and managing that and making sure we are making appropriate adjustments to it are important. If we are able to do all that and walk out of there underneath the checkered flag, that will be a huge success for us."
Tune in to watch the 100th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, starting at 10 a.m. ET on Saturday, June 10, on MotorTrend TV/MotorTrend+.