The last time NASCAR raced in the 24 Hours of Le Mans was 1976, when a Dodge Charger and Ford Torino were shipped over to France. Unfortunately, neither car would finish brutal endurance race, with the Charger bowing out with only two laps due to engine issues and the Torino falling victim to gearbox issues after roughly 11 hours. Now, after nearly 50 years and seven generations of Cup car chassis and technologies, Hendrick Motorsports (HMS), Goodyear, Chevrolet, NASCAR, and IMSA are taking another shot at the historic 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2023 under a Garage 56 entry with an HMS Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Cup car.
The Conversation Starter
The idea of taking the Gen Seven Cup car to Le Mans started when the new car was still in development after a conversation with Jim France, NASCAR’s CEO, and Pierre Fillon, president of the l’Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO). “I talked to Pierre when he had the Garage 56,” said France, “if there was a possibility we could bring our new car over. He said he would work on it. We got together last August. He said he could try and make that happen for us.” After that, France began talking to Rick Hendrick, owner of HMS who is not only the 2021 NASCAR Cup Championship team owner, but also has 24 hour racing experience in 1987 with a Corvette.
A Garage 56 Entry
Per the ACO and Le Mans, Garage 56 entries are typically reserved for manufacturers looking to debut and test new technologies like hybrids, full electrics, and new fuels. However, it’s not limited to just those types of entries, and so a NASCAR Gen Seven car could potentially fill that spot. It also opens the door for NASCAR to use the HMS entry to try some new things with the Gen Seven, as hybrid and even full electric vehicle technology has been in the eyes of NASCAR since announcing the development of the new car.
Could a NASCAR Gen Seven Car Really Work?
Looking at the technology used on the new Gen Seven car, not much would really need to change. The new 18-inch wheels allow for much larger brakes that are better suited for this type of endurance racing. The chassis is also better suited to road racing with its independent rear suspension and new rack-and-pinion steering. While the transaxle is revolutionary for a NASCAR Cup car, the fact that it’s in the back of the car isn’t the part that helps. Instead of four gears of the old transmission, the new transaxle has five and will potentially allow for fewer shifts than the old cars needed in 1976 (about 22 per lap for the old Mulsanne Straight configuration).
The biggest issues will be running the car for 24 hours, driver cooling, and driver changes, neither of which NASCAR does regularly. The engine will probably be of the least concern, as the OHV engine in the Gen Seven car isn’t terribly removed from the LS-based engine in the C7.R, so much of the technology from the C7.R engine can be used in the Gen Seven’s V-8. Lights, however, will need to be installed on the car. The new car does resemble the street version much more closely than the Gen Six cars, but even the Gen Seven cars aren’t made to use lights normally.
Driver changes, however, would be an interesting issue. The Gen Seven car does have a fairly large greenhouse and entry isn’t as hard as trying to hop through the window of the 2022 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. With that being the case, it will still be more difficult to enter than a car that has a much larger opening from being able to open its doors. Maybe we’ll see a Gen Seven car with a full door or a half door like we see in Trans Am TA class? “That hasn’t been decided yet,” said Jim Campbell, Vice President of Performance and Motorsports at GM and the leader of Chevrolet’s NASCAR efforts, “That’s one of the things the work group will be working on.”
The next biggest issue is related to the rules of keeping the cabin of any car racing at Le Mans within a certain temperature. Since 2007, a forced cooling or air conditioning system has been required in any car competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans that keeps the cabin “89.6 degrees maximum when the ambient temperature is less than or equal to 77 degrees” and “a temperature less than or equal to ambient temperature above 44.6 degrees if it is above 77 degrees.” Currently, NASCAR Gen Seven cars only have a vent opening in the front windshield that allows air in and slits cut in the rear window to allow that air out. The new cars should be able to keep that temperature requirement, but an air conditioning system might need to be installed.
This Is A Real Effort
Unlike the 1976 Le Mans race, this effort is being handled as a much more serious effort. During the press conference at Sebring making the announcement, Rick Hendrick stated that they weren’t taking this lightly. “This is a full bore, full blown effort to run 24 hours and to run competitive times. Our guys are working aero, weight, horsepower. We’re looking at different classes. They’ve told us kind of where we’d like to be. But we’re not going over there to ride around. We’re going to put the best effort out there and run very competitively and finish the race.”
Jim Campbell added, “I would add the experience we have going to Le Mans, Corvette is an example, but also our experience in IMSA with both Cadillac and Corvette, preparation is everything. We will be all in, preparing as a team to run the 24 hours. That will be the focus.” For now, we’ll have to wait and see if a new NASCAR Cup Car can run the 24 hours. Hopefully, it will be a far more successful effort over the 1976 one.
Additional Images by Getty and NASCAR Media
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