Jenson Button has got a plan for Le Mans
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For the best part of a century, Nascar and the 24 Hours of Le Mans have happily coexisted at opposite ends of the racing spectrum. One was conceived in postwar America as an accessible, grassroots racing series on the beaches of Florida; the other as a glamorous competition for elite European carmakers to demonstrate their technical prowess. While each has expanded and grown a global following, the two motorsport worlds seldom interact, but Formula One World Champion Jenson Button has ambitious plans to change that.
Lining up alongside American Nascar racing legend Jimmie Johnson and former Le Mans winner Mike “Rocky” Rockenfeller, Button will form part of the Garage 56 team tasked with taking a Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Nascar to the 100th running of the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans race on 10 and 11 June. Created by Le Mans organisers Automobile Club de l’Ouest, Garage 56 is an entry set aside each year for something a little more left-field. In this case, it’s American.
“When I heard about it, my initial reaction was, ‘You’re mad,’” said Button, moments before a first test run in the car at Nascar’s home at the Daytona International Speedway in Florida earlier this month. “I had a couple of options to race at Le Mans this year, but if I race, it has to be something fun – and in something competitive.”
Racing since he was eight, Button has amassed a wealth of experience over his 35-year career in motorsport. During his 17-year stint in Formula One, in which he claimed 15 wins, 50 podiums and the championship in 2009, Button raced everything, from Super GT cars in Japan to an off-road trophy truck in the Baja 1000 in California. But he’s yet to take on the challenge of driving a Nascar car. “I’ve done the tough bit – winning the F1 World Championship – and now I’m in a position where I can really enjoy myself. This just made me smile,” he says of the Garage 56 project. “That rumble from the V8 that travels through your body – that’s what I live for.”
Button made his first attempt at the 24 Hours of Le Mans the year after leaving Formula One in 2017. But he failed to finish in his high-tech Le Mans Prototype 1 (LMP1) racer due to mechanical problems. His second shot at Le Mans will be more than a little different as he pitches a brawny but highly-tuned Nascar against purpose-built Ferraris, Porsches, Toyotas and Cadillacs. “For us, being competitive is finishing the 24-hour race – a stock car has never done that before,” says Button.
Famed for its thundering V8s, simple oval speedways and brutal approach to racing, Nascar is often misconstrued as the basic cousin to high-precision championships like Formula One and gruelling endurance races. When Nascar was first conceived, everyday drivers took to the beaches and dirt tracks of America to race their “stock” postwar production cars against each other. Since then, the formula has evolved, with modern Nascar vehicles sporting specialist frame constructions, gutsy 5.8-litre engines and bodywork to resemble everyday American road cars as a nod to the series’ beginnings. When lined up against the low-slung, lean and hybrid-engined cars that typically dart their way around the Le Mans circuit, it’s clear to see the scale of the challenge Button and his teammates are about to take on.
This will be the second time in Nascar’s 75-year history that it’s fielded a car at Le Mans. In 1976, an ill-fated attempt saw a lumbering Ford Torino and Dodge Charger take on the challenge, only for both cars to retire. This particular effort has been the result of a partnership between the Nascar series, racing team Hendrick Motorsports, auto giant Chevrolet and tyre manufacturer Goodyear. More than just an entertaining engineering exercise, it aims to forge closer ties between the European and American motorsport scenes. Putting this into practice, the first chicane at Le Mans’ legendary Mulsanne Straight has now been permanently named the “Daytona Chicane”, while across the pond, the chicane at Daytona International Speedway – once referred to as “The Bus Stop” – has been christened the “Le Mans Chicane”. Disturbing the peace in the elitist world of endurance racing, Nascar could well be the disruptive force that European motorsport didn’t know it needed.
“It will be great for people to see it closer and to see how special Nascars really are. It’s one of the highest levels in motorsport and the drivers are some of the best in the world,” says Button. He’s already eyeing more seat time on both sides of the Atlantic after the race. “I’ve always been a big fan of Nascar. The street circuits really excite me but I’ve always thought driving on ovals required a very different skill – I’m not sure that’s something I have,” he admits. “But I still want to race at Le Mans in the future – I love that team atmosphere that comes with endurance racing – and I’d like to race in the States as well. So, if there’s a possibility to race a Nascar on a track or a short course, I would definitely jump at the chance.”
Balancing his busy racing schedule with a host of other ventures, Button has amassed a growing business portfolio since he retired from Formula One. Building highly bespoke sports cars through Radford, the automotive coachbuilding company he co-founded, Button has also co-founded a whisky brand and taken up a sought-after spot as a Rolex Testimonial. In 2021 he took an advisory role with Williams Formula One team and occasionally features on Sky Sports F1 coverage as a pundit. “I’m only doing F1 on eight weekends of the year, so I need to go and race,” he says. “I want my kids to see me race.”
Not short of motorsport milestones, the Le Mans centenary race will also see Ferrari returning to top-class endurance racing for the first time in 50 years. To hold the spotlight, the Garage 56 drivers will need to keep calm and composed to ensure their lairy, underdog Camaro can cut it on the endurance racing scene. Whatever else, it’s bound to make a big impression. “The fans are going to hear it coming before they see it, that’s for sure,” says Button with a grin.
Click here for travel packages to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 10-11 June 2023