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Why NASCAR is Sending a Next Gen to Le Mans

It's about marketing but also technological innovation.


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Technological innovation is at the heart of motorsports and Le Mans is its most celebrated proving ground.

Le Mans is where performance and durability are put to the ultimate test. Alongside Indianapolis and Monaco, Le Mans is a crown jewel and has the complete attention of the international racing community.

So why wouldn’t NASCAR want to be represented in some way?

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear will team up next summer to tackle the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a modified version of the Next Gen Camaro ZL1 that made its debut last month in the NASCAR Cup Series.

The car will race out Garage 56 -- a designated spot in the field that showcases innovation within the automotive industry.

Since making its debut in 2012, Garage 56 has featured experimental and emerging technological entries with the DeltaWing after its dismissal as a potential future Indy Car. Two years after that, a zero-emission coupe version of the DeltaWing named ZEOD RC, turned laps entirely using an electric powerplant.

The 2020 race was meant to feature a modified Prototype featuring two paralyzed drivers from the waist down and a left-handed amputee.

Essentially, the single Next Gen will represent a class unto itself during the 100th running of the endurance classic and will not be classified in the official results, but that doesn’t mean the project is without merit.

The point is that NASCAR, which owns IMSA, views Le Mans has an opportunity to push the Next Gen beyond the boundaries of merely serving as the top-level platform for Stock Car competition. Perhaps the chassis, with its GT3 and SUPERCARS influence, could serve as an IMSA division at the Rolex 24 somewhere down the road.

Certainly, hybrid engines are coming to the Cup Series within the next half-decade and it’s a certainty that this technology will make its debut with the Next Gen at Le Mans in 2023. It will be interesting to see what General Motors and Hendrick-Childress Engines come up with over the next several months.

In all, NASCAR president Steve Phelps says this a showcase to the international community as to what the discipline is becoming.

"For those of you who have been at the racetrack in ’22, there’s a new sense of energy and enthusiasm to the sport that the sport hasn’t had in a long, long time, as evidenced by what happened at the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum," Phelps said during an introductory press conference on Friday at Sebring International Raceway.

"The centerpiece of that wasn’t just that amazing venue, it was the Next Gen car. If you think about the racing we’ve seen with the Next Gen car in these five races, there’s something special that’s happening here.

"We are, as a sport, trying to look at things that are unique and different … what puts us apart. I think that’s exactly what we’re doing. That’s what this opportunity is."

It’s not the first time a Cup Series car has competed on this stage either.

In 1976, Le Mans paid for two Cup Series cars to enter the race. The first was entry a Dodge Charger piloted by Herschel McGriff and the other was a Ford Torino shared by Dick Brooks, Dick Hutcherson, and Marcel Mignot.

NASCAR president Jim France -- sharing a table with Phelps, Hendrick, Chevrolet’s Jim Cambell, IMSA president John Doonan and Le Mans president Pierre Fillon -- recalled a story from Brooks about how positive the experience in 1976 was.

"He said, 'number one, the fans love the car. Number two, it was a fantastic experience. Number three, it was a hell of a challenge,' and if you look at the folks at this table, they all like the big challenge. Really we want to expose Pierre’s great fan base to our NASCAR cars and drivers."

The 2023 NASCAR schedule has not been finalized and it's not out of the question that Le Mans could fall on a Cup Series off weekend to allow top drivers to make the trip to France.

"I think it would be nice to have a mix," Hendrick said of Cup drivers and Chevrolet affiliated Sports Car drivers. "We’ve talked about it a lot. If the calendar works out. We’ll just wait and see what’s available.

"But we’ve got from the IMSA drivers a lot of drivers that have Le Mans experience. Especially with Chevrolet’s involvement, we’ll be covered with drivers, but we would like to see a Cup driver in the system if we could."

Even Jimmie Johnson could be available if his IMSA and IndyCar schedule allows.

Lastly, the chassis and engine formula will be so different than what the Cup Series currently runs that Chevrolet and Hendrick will not have a performance advantage due to their participation.

This is purely about pushing the Next Gen to its limits over 24 hours and introducing future technology that could make its way into the Cup Series over the next decade, and maybe your car, too.

"These events are absolutely a place to test man, woman and machine," Doonan said. "The technology, whether it’s power train, whether it’s new fuels, whether it’s tires, whether it’s potential hybrids, things like that.

"There’s no question that these events are laboratories for the auto industry. I think over the course of time, there’s been innovations that have been tested at the racetrack that end up being in road cars."