Zack Albert | NASCAR Studios
ALTON, Va. – The testing phase of the Garage 56 prototype test car wrote its next chapter Monday, sending a loud V-8 rumble through the frigid air of the southern Virginia hills. The troubleshooting process at times swayed the assembled crowd of crew and support staff, but encouraging signs were found among the challenges.
Built by Hendrick Motorsports in Garage 56, the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 tester made its debut at Virginia International Raceway on Monday, marking only the second session of the program at the track ahead of a planned special appearance at next June’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.
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The track time brought the project another step closer to a potential exhibition entry for the 2023 endurance classic, but it was also a reminder of just how early the car is to launch.
“No, it’s definitely a toddler,” said Chad Knaus, Hendrick Motorsports VP of Competition. “So we’re still trying to make it work and to be honest, the way it went today I’m actually happy with the car’s performance. We just have to start fixing some of the bugs.”
Sports car veteran Mike Rockenfeller, former Le Mans overall winner, was again behind the wheel of the test car. The German road racing ace also drove a Camaro prepared by IMSA team Action Express Racing in a previous Garage 56 test from August 29-30 at Road Atlanta.
That entry, Knaus said, is a more accurate representation of what the actual Le Mans racer could be when it hits the French countryside, with significant updates to the chassis, engine and suspension components, and the addition of side mirrors. Among the most visible changes were the aerodynamic parts, with the addition of stabilizing dive planes and a sturdier front splitter and rear diffuser – a nod to the slack tether the Garage 56 team will have with the specs when they build the next-gen template.
“This is definitely a big step. I mean, we have…where do I start?” said Rockenfeller after completing his day’s work chasing the car around the 3.27-mile VIR enforcement course. “We have less weight, we have a little more downforce. The tires are the same because we did the tire testing in Atlanta, so similar. Performance is a bit different, so we’ve increased that area a bit as well. Now we’ve got paddle shifters, we’ve put in traction control, we’ve got a new dashboard. I mean basically everything is different. So we’re pretty close to what we think the Le Mans race car will be like. But of course there is still a very long way to go.
“We will definitely improve pace and reliability. So I would say that’s the difference. Between the current Cup car and this test car, I would say it’s pretty much the same, its weight, its power, its tire grip – it’s just a lot faster. I mean, to give you a number, I think we’re about 10 seconds faster here than what I did in a cup car, so it’s quite a bit faster.
MORE: @ NASCARG56 updates
Achieving this speed on Monday required all efforts. An “electro-imp”, which Knaus attributes to a defective power distribution module, prevented the test car from driving continuously in the morning hours. Afternoon testing was cut short just before sunset by a fuel pump problem, which the crew worked on into the evening hours.
This caught the attention of the representatives present – including from Hendrick, Goodyear, NASCAR and Bosch – to step in and lend a hand with remedies.
“I think it’s a big milestone for us. Of course, that doesn’t come without challenges, but that’s why you come to the racetrack to test,” said Knaus. “But I think with all the people here and all the resources that have been here at VIR today, it shows the importance of this program and what a huge commitment it was for everyone.”
Further testing was scheduled for Tuesday at the scenic Virginia street circuit as Rockenfeller put the car through its paces in the morning, with significant rain forecast later. But the course for the further development of the project has already been set – both in terms of performance and endurance.
“Well, that’s a first step, and there’s going to be a lot of iteration over the next six months,” Knaus said. “Obviously we’re always trying to give ourselves more leeway from a pace point of view, so we want to keep trying to make the car faster from a weight and power point of view. Downforce, putting more aero efficiency in the car, Goodyear has done a really good job putting together some construction and compound combinations and we’re going to start by really packing that into the tires. So a lot of work from that point on.”