By Jerry Jordan, Editor
LE MANS, France – When NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports dropped the bombshell on the stockcar racing community, as well as, the entire world that it had been secretly working on the Garage 56 project to race a modified Cup Series car in the Centenary 24 Hours of Le Mans, it caught everyone off-guard … and caused some concern for other manufacturer representatives like Toyota Racing Development President David Wilson.
Chevrolet, with NASCAR’s blessing, would certainly benefit from unprecedented testing, development and innovative advancements on the car that would most certainly be used in future generations and possibly even the current version of the Cup Series car. The question was, what about Ford and Toyota?
While Ford executives and representatives decline to public make statements about the program, and said they would have conversations with NASCAR officials in private; Wilson, however, was his usual candid self. Never one to hold back but always giving a fair analysis of any situation presented to him, Wilson did not hide that he had concerns and was perhaps even a little perturbed. The plans for Le Mans were announced at Sebring in March 2022. Wilson was at the event and heard about NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports plans as everyone else did and not from NASCAR. In fact, NASCAR even brought a small group of core media members to the event and kept secret the reason for their impromptu trip.
“I would have much preferred that Jim France take Gary Nelson and his (IMSA) sports car team (Action Express Racing) to Le Mans and run a Chevy, but of course, you need the sex appeal of a Hendrick Motorsports,” Wilson said, not long after the announcement. “I get it. Unfortunately, they are an active competitor in the sport, and they are going to be taking some form of a derivative of the car that we race every Sunday to Le Mans.”
So, over a year later, Wilson has a different tune and the praise he shared for NASCAR and Garage 56 during a press conference to announce that Japanese driver Kamui Kobayashi would drive the No. 67 Cup Series Toyota for 23XI Racing at the Indy Road Course. Wilson confided to Kickin’ the Tires that NASCAR had kept its promise to keep the other OEMs in the loop on the Garage 56 development and he is here at Le Mans and, “we’re fans.”
“I will rewind and admit that at the early stages, I was, Toyota was, a bit concerned because we weren’t participating directly but very quickly with Jim France’s (NASCAR CEO) support, Steve Phelps (NASCAR President), Steve O’Donnell (NASCAR Chief Operation Officer and Executive VP for Racing Development), they made sure this was done the right way and that is with transparency across all the manufacturers. Let’s be fair, I am here today, my team is here today with Garage 56 to support Garage 56. And NASCAR’s view of this, this isn’t about Chevrolet or Hendrick Motorsports, this is about NASCAR first and foremost and Garage 56 is a vehicle for them to promote our sport globally.
“When first came here this morning was of our first stops was the Garage 56 paddock. We walked through the garage and we talked to the Hendrick Motorsports people and they were delighted to have us see their car that they have been working on for so long and putting their blood, sweat and tears into. So, we’re fans. We’re fans this weekend and we really hope it opens some eyes and we hope it is a fun experience. In terms of a return on that investment, Jerry, I think it is a little too early to tell. But I know already in some of the testing they’ve done and some of the special parts, aero that they’ve put on this car they’ve learned some things and it’s provided some direction for looking at the car that we are racing right now, the current NextGen car and how we can adapt some of these as they make sense but it is early days. You can’t help but learn from experience like this.”
Wilson also praised NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports for the lengths they went to in development and getting the Garage 56 car to the track and its competitiveness. He explained it’s one thing to take a Cup Series car and bolt on a few parts and pieces so that it meets certain standards to race at Le Mans but this isn’t that. The car running at the 24 Hours of Le Mans is the real deal.
“This is no fly by night, take your NextGen car and bolt on a couple of goodies,” Wilson said. “There has been a tremendous amount of testing and development that has gone into this racecar. Through that process, we’d be foolish not to come away with some lessons learned. So, again, the neat thing is that Toyota, Ford have been a part of all of these tests. We have been there to observe, we’ve been there to look at the data, so collectively I think we are all learning about where some of our future might be focused.”