Here’s what happens when you send a NASCAR stock car to Le Mans

Here’s what happens when you send a NASCAR stock car to Le Mans

Enlarge / The NASCAR/Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 leads a Ferrari 499P and assorted other racing cars at a test day at the Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans, France.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

When Le Mans renovated its facilities in 2012, it built 55 pit garages for regular entrants in its annual 24-hour race and one more for entrants that want to demonstrate something new (there are actually a total of 62 entrants this year, but the special one is still called Garage 56).

These have included the pint-size Nissan Deltawing in 2012 and the closely related electric Nissan ZEOD RC in 2014. In 2016, quadruple amputee Frédéric Sausset did something neither of those two Nissans could manage, finishing the race in a specially modified prototype with the SRT 41 team, which repeated the feat with a pair of paraplegic drivers in 2021. And there have been attempts to run a hydrogen-powered racer from Garage 56. But this year’s entry is a bit different—and a little more familiar to Americans. It’s a NASCAR stock car.

It was certainly an incongruous sight as the NASCAR stock cars took to the track this weekend with the normal prototypes and GT cars at a test held before next weekend’s race at Le Mans. NASCAR stock cars are not exactly small, and they’re known for going fast in a straight line, not for their cornering prowess. There was even talk of trackside marshals waving a white flag—for a slow car ahead—to warn other competitors if they were going to encounter the stock car in one of the track’s more curvy sections.

That attitude was undeserved. Not only did the Garage 56 entry not embarrass itself, but it went more than two seconds a lap faster than any of the production-based GT cars. Not bad for a fish out of water.

The 2023-era NASCAR stock car has proved as popular with fans as the 1976 versions did.
Enlarge / The 2023-era NASCAR stock car has proved as popular with fans as the 1976 versions did.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

This has happened before

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is one of the world’s oldest motor races, and it’s a strenuous test for both people and machines. Over the years, Le Mans has attracted more than a few entrants from the USA. Cadillac sent a very odd-looking car nicknamed “Le Monstre” there in 1950. Ford, having been snubbed in its attempt to buy Ferrari, took the Italians on at their own game, winning four times between 1966 and 1969 with its GT40s.

And in recent years, production-based Dodge Vipers and Chevrolet Corvettes have repeatedly claimed wins in the GT classes. But the oddest American entry was probably in 1976, when the people behind NASCAR entered a pair of stock cars. The big, cumbersome V8s proved to be a hit with the locals, but neither car lasted the distance—low-octane gas saw one car’s engine fail on the second lap, and the other was out with a broken transmission by hour 11.

Links have remained close between the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, which organizes the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and NASCAR. The latter owns the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship for cars like the ones that race at Le Mans, so a bit of cross-promotion is never bad. And that explains why seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, 2009 F1 champion Jenson Button, and German touring car champion and Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller will be racing their big blue beast among the more normal entrants next weekend.

While it will be racing on the same track at the same time as the other 61 cars in the race, the Garage 56 entry is in its own class, and it’s there to entertain the fans and hopefully finish the race rather than fight for overall victory. The drivers appear to be having fun, too.

A look inside the Garage 56 car's cockpit.
Enlarge / A look inside the Garage 56 car’s cockpit.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

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