NASCAR is coming to northwestern France.
Yes, you read that right: The American stock car series is competing in this weekend’s 24 Hours of Le Mans as the race’s “Garage 56”experimental entry intended to showcase innovative tech. And so far, it’s been stealing the spotlight.
NASCAR’s entry, a modified version of the sport’s typical stock car, is unlike anything that’s ever been seen at the famed French endurance race: a hulking beast on track, sticking out like a sore thumb next to the Porsches, Ferraris, and Lamborghinis throughout the field.
And its V8 engine, in typical American fashion, is loud.
“Fans are absolutely loving it,” says Jimmie Johnson, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion who is serving as one of the team’s drivers. “Even other teams have been stopping what they’re doing to come check us out when we hit the track.”
Johnson, a NASCAR legend, was an obvious choice to helm the team, but he’s joined by a more surprising teammate in English driver Jenson Button, the 2009 Formula 1 world champion and current commentator for SKY Sports. The two have been friends for more than a decade and found that they share a similar trait: they love to race just about anything, anywhere.
“I texted Jimmie a while back asking him what he’s racing this year,” Button recalls. “He said he’d be competing at Le Mans in a stock car. I said, ‘Uh… what?’”
After flying out to Florida to witness the car in action, Button knew he had to join the project. “I had a huge grin on my face,” he says. “Where do I sign?”
Outside of the NASCAR entry, this is a particularly busy year at Le Mans. The race is celebrating its centennial, and a sold-out crowd of more than 300,000 is expected throughout the weekend. LeBron James will serve as its honorary starter.
And although the “Garage 56” entry technically cannot win Le Mans—its results are deemed unofficial in the record books—Johnson and Button hope to put on a good show, and have a blast while doing it.
“We’re definitely having more fun than everyone else,” Button says.
GQ sat down with Johnson and Button to chat about the difficulties of endurance racing, the growth of Formula 1 and NASCAR, and the mystique of Le Mans.
GQ: Jimmie, you’ve mentioned that Le Mans has been on your bucket list for a long time. For a lot of mainstream American sports fans, Le Mans is kind of a deep cut. What about this race makes it so special to you?
Jimmie Johnson: Well, I think Hollywood has helped Americans understand this race a bit more. Ford v. Ferrari showed the challenge that this race can throw at teams and drivers.
My dad was a huge motorsports fan. If we weren’t racing, we were at a race watching. And one thing I remember was watching the GTP (Grand Prototype Touring) cars racing in Del Mar, California, near my home in San Diego. I remember these…
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