When Xavier Mestelan, at the time the FIA’s chief technical officer, first heard about the NASCAR Garage 56 project, he was slightly puzzled about why there was a desire to run a stock car as an experimental entry. Then he realized he’d have to get to work.
The Garage 56 project was a joint effort between NASCAR and the Automobile Club de l’Oest (ACO), the sanctioning body of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. While the FIA doesn’t technically run the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the race is part of the World Endurance Championship, and the FIA is essentially the authority on motorsport safety. It’s the group that sets the standards for safety of basically everything that races professionally around the globe. NASCAR stock cars follow FIA standards, but those standards are designed around the fact that stock cars race stock cars, typically on ovals. At Le Mans, this stock car would be out on track with Hypercars, LMP2s, and GTEs.
This presented several problems, both in the crashworthiness of the car itself, and the risk it could pose to others. “When you’re speaking about safety, it’s important also to imagine how the car could be manageable in the middle of the track with other GT cars, amateurs, LMP2, and Hypercars,” Mestelan said in a media roundtable attended by Road & Track. Essentially, the FIA was afraid the Garage 56 car would be a rolling chicane, and that defined a lot of the recommendations it made to NASCAR.
The FIA wanted the Garage 56 car to target a lap time comparable to the GTE cars that make up a huge portion of the grid. Though NASCAR’s new Next-Gen car is far better suited for road courses than any other stock car before it, in standard form, it wouldn’t be nearly quick enough to keep up at Le Mans. To make the car faster, it had to get lighter. A standard Next-Gen car weighs 3485 pounds while the Garage 56 weighs 2960 pounds. Still heavier than the minimum 2745 pounds of a GTE car, but not too far off in the big scheme of things. This obviously helped make the Garage 56 car faster—quicker, it turns out, than the whole GTE field—so it didn’t pose a danger to other cars, but also reduced the level of danger in a crash. So much of motorsport safety is about impact attenuation—managing the huge force generated by a crash. Cut nearly 500 pounds out of a car and that’s a lot less inertia to deal with.
Mestelan says the weight savings were achieved in part by mandating the use of prototype-style carbon-carbon brakes, which are lighter and more efficient than the conventional cast-iron systems used by GTE cars. One of the bigger areas of focus, however, was the roll cage. NASCAR roll cages deal with the big, multi-car pile ups you see in pack racing and with almost constant contact between cars in the form of bump drafting. The FIA had the Garage 56 team simplify the roll cage design, while also tweaking the front and rear impact structures to more resemble those used in GT3 cars. The fuel tank was also moved forward ahead of the rear axle.
Still, it was the car’s performance that Mestalan described as the FIA’s “main issue.” A NASCAR stock car makes around 700 hp while a GTE makes around 500 hp (depending on Balance of Performance). “The target was to have a NASCAR close to a GT car in terms of lap time, but also in terms of speed and braking capabilities so that we don’t have a chicane in the middle of the track,” Mestelan explained. “Or a car which is very fast, but too slow in the corners, or the opposite, very fast in the corners, but slow in a straight line.”
The FIA did some simulation work with the team to find the best mix of power, tire performance, and aero efficiency. Hendrick Motorsports, the team running the program, decided to go with a high-downforce setup to get speed up in the fast Porsche curves towards the end of the lap, while also reducing top speed on the straights. The car ended up with much wider Goodyear tires, too, as well as a larger fuel tank.
Even with all this in place, there were a lot of unknowns. “It was very difficult to know exactly if the car would be faster or slower than the GTEs before the race. Honestly, the week before the race, it was very difficult,” Mestelan said. “We knew that the car would be a rocket in a straight line, but there was a big question for cornering.” After the first practice, the Garage 56 stock car surprised everyone by outrunning the GTE field, qualifying 4.2 seconds quicker than the leading Corvette C8.R. The initial plan was to have the NASCAR start at the back of the field, as is typical with Garage 56 experimental entries, but the car was moved to start at the head of the GTE field so it wouldn’t have to charge through in the early stages of the race.
Funny enough, the stock car’s lack of doors wasn’t an issue. The FIA mandates that a driver be able to extricate themselves out of the driver’s side in seven seconds and nine seconds on the passenger side. The FIA also had the team add a collapsible steering column and use a polycarbonate windscreen. Mestelan also pointed out that NASCAR itself has very high safety standards, it’s just that those standards are designed around a very different type of racing. One also with different sorts of external safety systems in place.
Thankfully, none of the car’s safety systems were put into use during the race, and the car maintained a great pace throughout the 24 hours—save for a late gearbox issue—so it wasn’t an obstacle for other drivers. But surely, the Garage 56 drivers and the rest of the competitors could race easily knowing that their safety was taken seriously.
“It was funny but in parallel it was, to be honest, very exciting, because clearly NASCAR racing is something that’s a dream for a lot of people,” Mestelan said. “A lot of us working for the FIA follow what happens in U.S. and I think that NASCAR, like other high-level series, it’s something very exciting for us.”
A car enthusiast since childhood, Chris Perkins is Road & Track’s engineering nerd and Porsche apologist. He joined the staff in 2016 and no one has figured out a way to fire him since. He street-parks a Porsche Boxster in Brooklyn, New York, much to the horror of everyone who sees the car, not least the author himself. He also insists he’s not a convertible person, despite owning three.