LE MANS, France (AP) — The crowd chanted “USA! USA!” as NASCAR’s driver lineup for the 24 Hours of Le Mans passed through the city center atop a convertible Chevrolet Camaro. Jimmie Johnson tossed branded NASCAR 75th anniversary shoelaces to the fans, all eager to see the entry now dubbed “Le Monster” attempt the most iconic endurance race in the world during the centenary celebration of the event.
German driver Mike Rockenfeller, a two-time Le Mans winner, started the twice-around-the-clock event in the No. 24 Camaro fielded by Hendrick Motorsports with a lineup of seven-time NASCAR champion Johnson and 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button. The race marked the first time since 1976 NASCAR had a presence at Le Mans.
The NASCAR effort has wowed all week — its V8 engine growls and is far louder than any other entry in the 62-car field — and Rockenfeller qualified it more than three seconds faster than the entire GTE AM class. His qualifying lap was rewarded when race officials decided the “Garage 56” entry would not start last in the field as planned; the Chevy was moved ahead of the 21 entries in the GTE class because of the speed discrepancy.
That put the car 39th for the start, but because NASCAR is running its second-year Next Gen car in the specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development, the entry is not competing against any other cars. Even so, the Hendrick crew set a goal of at least finishing the race, and maybe even beating cars from other classes.
“It was incredible,” Johnson said after his nearly hour-long stint. “All in all, just an amazing experience. One of the slow zones, it was a very crowded area with the fans – they were waving at me so I was waving back. It was really really fun. I want every lap I can get.
“As long as they can keep me in the car, I’ll take it.”
Ferrari’s two-car effort led the field to green in a celebration of Le Mans’ 100th running, marked by a military flyover of jets leaving plumes of smoke in the colors of the French flag in front of French President Emmanuel Macron. But from James as the official starter, to future NASCAR Hall of Famer Johnson, the race had a heavy American feel.
The top class of sports cars from the United States were permitted to compete this year under a convergence of rules that created a new hybrid hyperclass that has brought manufacturers flocking to IMSA and the World Endurance Championship as a means to showcase their hybrid and electric technology.
It brought Roger Penske to Le Mans with three Porsches as the 86-year-old attempts to win his first ever Le Mans. Penske is coming off wins in the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 last month — a first time sweep — and currently holds both the NASCAR Cup title and IndyCar championship.
Chip Ganassi had a pair of Cadillacs racing for the overall win with a lineup that included six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, and Action Express Racing, a team supported by NASCAR and IMSA owner Jim France, also had a Cadillac.
France’s start to the race got off to a mixed start, though, when the No. 31 Cadillac was involved in an opening-lap crash at the same time France was celebrating a stock car circling the Circuit de la Sarthe. The car was being driven by Jack Aitken, a British former F1 reserve driver for Williams, at the start of the race.
All the hypercars were chasing Toyota Gazoo, which has won the overall title the last five years. Even though Ferrari started two cars on the front row, Toyota had the lead before the first trip completed around the 8.467-mile (13.626 km) track.
Privately, many teams conceded the only way to topple Toyota was if its two cars couldn’t complete the race, and that allowed attention to shift to NASCAR and its star show.
The project was briefly controversial in NASCAR because Ford, Toyota and all the teams were blindsided last March when France announced he was taking a car to Le Mans with Hendrick, Chevrolet and Goodyear, the winningest team, manufacturer and tire maker in the series’ 75 years.
At issue was that the project involved a brand new car, and the collaborators would have unprecedented access to the Next Gen while everyone else was subjected to stringent testing rules. France immediately appeased the industry by granting access to any data collected by Hendrick and Chevrolet, but as project lead Chad Knaus tried to build a car worthy of its spot in the race, the final product has been heavily modified from what is currently being used in the Cup Series.
The systems and components on the Le Mans model are very similar to the Next Gen car, although this one has functioning headlights and taillights. The major differences in the Le Mans entry is it is about 500 pounds (226 kg) lighter than the Cup car, has a larger fuel cell by roughly 12 gallons (45 liters) because of the length of the track, carbon brake discs and a Goodyear tire designed specifically for this race.