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 wild-looking prototype cars, and I thought…those are amazing. I want to drive them someday! My dad, after we left that race, said, ‘Well, have you ever seen the start of Le Mans? Are you brave enough to do that?’
Granted, these were old photos, but he showed me the guys running across the front stretch to jump in the car, and I thought that was super cool. So this race has literally been on my radar since I was eight years old.
Jenson, you’ve become something of a NASCAR cheerleader. In addition to teaming up with Jimmie here at Le Mans, you competed in an actual NASCAR Cup Series event at Circuit of the Americas in Austin a few months ago. How was that experience?
Jenson Button: My first NASCAR experience was… an experience, let’s just put it like that. As racing drivers, we learn to adapt pretty easily to different cars—you get up to speed quickly. But it was more the racing style that was tough. You go your whole life with one way of racing, and it’s the same everywhere except NASCAR. In the Cup Series, there’s a lot of aggression. And also you can hit people, which is, like, a no-no in every other type of motorsport!
I initially found it quite frustrating the first few laps, but then I loved it. Payback is awesome. I also saw how much talent there is in NASCAR, which most people may not realize on this side of the pond. I really do hope people here at Le Mans fall in love with what a Cup car is, and it’ll put more eyes on NASCAR, because the racing is great.
You’re also going to be competing in NASCAR’s upcoming Chicago street race. Jimmie, you’ll be competing at Chicago, too. Will you try to bump Jenson as much as possible out on track?
JJ: God, I hope so. I hope we run side by side the whole race—it’d be a blast.
Let’s talk a bit about your old racing series. Jenson, critics have been saying that Formula 1 has become *__too __*uncompetitive this season, after yet another runaway victory from Max Verstappen. You’ve seen it all as a competitor and analyst. How does a lack of competition impact the sport?
JB: Well, first off, how does it impact you? If you’re a driver who’s had competitive years, those uncompetitive ones are really, really tough.
IndyCar driver Will Power even said last week that he “feels sorry” for F1 drivers because of the lack of competition.
JB: Never feel bad for Formula 1 drivers! They have the best job in the world, they travel the globe, and get spoiled. You don’t realize how lucky you are until you step away.
But I think Formula 1 is in a great place overall. Not all the races are exciting, but not all football matches are exciting. There’s a big fan base in the States now, finally, and viewing figures are good—though not quite as good as NASCAR! But I think there are also good numbers at the races. People love watching Formula 1 live, and they love the glamor of what it brings.
NASCAR, on the flip side of that, has seemingly had a new winner every week. Jimmie, are there things Formula 1 could learn from NASCAR in that department?
JJ: I think it’s a two-way street. NASCAR has great equality on track, which can actually be frustrating at times. There’s an argument now that the cars are too equal.
But you don’t have the glamor. You see how well Formula 1 puts on a race weekend, and NASCAR is trying to take a page from that book, trying to learn how to adapt more and respond to that series’ great success. I’m not sure Formula 1 is looking at NASCAR and thinking about more competitive racing. Culturally, there are some differences: In Europe, motorsports fans really respect the engineering, beauty, and speed, and it’s less about the show. But in America, it’s way more about the show than anything.
JB: Yeah, and the show on track in NASCAR is amazing. But one thing I must say that Formula 1 and European racing do very well is hospitality.
JJ: As we sit here in a huge, two-story hospitality unit.
JB: Exactly! And that’s what brings the sponsors in. That was one thing that was surprising to me in Austin. I’m sure it’s different at a race like Daytona, but the hospitality in Formula 1 is insane. People want to come because they know they can watch the race and be spoiled for the weekend. It brings in a very different clientele to the race.
Looking ahead to this weekend, the Garage 56 entry can’t *__win __*anything at Le Mans, at least officially, but how are you hoping the race goes?
JJ: We have all treated this with a level of seriousness, as if we have a point to prove and a race to win. We’ve been putting our car through the paces, and I was initially feeling like a four-minute lap was what we were hoping to get inside of. By the end of the first day, we were seven seconds under that and the fastest GT [Grand Touring] style car here.
Honestly, we’d love to be the highest finishing GT car if we can—I know that’s a crazy goal, but why not?
How about you, Jenson—what’s your best-case scenario for how you finish?
JB: Finish, period. It’s a massive achievement just to finish this race! A NASCAR Cup Series car is built to handle four hours at most, so we’re adding another 20 to it.
I think beating the GT cars would be great, but also just bringing in more fans. People will see this car and love it—kids will be jumping up and down waiting for our car to fly by because of the noise. It’s big, muscular, aggressive. We’ve definitely brought a bit of excitement to what is already a very special race.
How do you plan to manage this race? It’s hard to fathom that you two—along with Mike Rockenfeller, your third teammate—will be taking turns racing for 24 hours, nonstop.
JJ: The team has an order we’ll drive, and we know that in advance. You plan the best you can, but then the race throws challenges. We have an area to rest, hydrate, and try to get some sleep.
Is it difficult to sleep here?
JB: It is, especially with our car going around—it’s so loud!
We’ll have four hours in the car at a time. Probably eat immediately after, then a massage, sleep, wake up, coffee, and then we’re off again. We actually don’t even get to see each other, our teammates, once it starts.
So you two won’t interact at all during the race?
JJ: Yeah, we really don’t see each other. It’s wild. Maybe a high five.
JB: You mostly speak to your engineer, and they relay to the other drivers.
JJ: We’ll have a beer after!