This weekend is the 100th Anniversary of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Famous nameplates have re-entered top-tier sports car racing just in time for the historic event, with Ferrari locking out the front row in qualifying. Thank goodness the Formula 1 cost cap inadvertently resurrected the red team’s prototype sportscar program, dormant for nearly 50 years.
Another interesting story that’s attracted attention is the Garage 56 entry of a NASCAR Cup Car straight from the high-banks of Talladega to the Mulsanne Straight. The “next gen” Camaro ZL1 by Hendrick Motorsports has been modified to compete in the 24-hour road race (stickers off, headlights on) but still has all the DNA of a stock car. The French media seem to get a real kick out of driver swaps through the window.
One of the drivers in NASCAR’s assault on France is 2009 F1 World Champion Jenson Button who has exactly one NASCAR race on his resume. Not exactly a good ol’ boy. He’s partnered up with 7-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson and, thankfully, experienced racer Mike Rockenfeller who has ten starts at Le Mans including a win in both LMP1 and GT2. So, it’s more like an international team of champions than a pure NASCAR entry.
Drivers from different disciplines reminds some motorsports fans of the International Race of Champions (IROC) from the 1970s. Back in the day, Roger Penske (of course) and his partners created IROC as a motorsports equivalent of an All-Star Game. Respected racers from IndyCar, NASCAR and sports cars raced in identical Porsche Carrera RSRs (and the Camaro IROC-Z in later years). Mark Donohue was the first driver to win the IROC championship, and was later succeeded A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart. Although the IROC series became fundamentally a stock-car formula (mostly ovals) that list of champions have all competed in open-wheel and closed-wheel cars. They were the best of the best.
More recently, Race of Champions (RoC) followed in IROC’s footsteps. First organised in 1988 by rally driver Michele Mouton and her partners, the RoC was essentially a competition between the world’s best rally drivers. Even when road-racing specialists qualified, there was little chance at victory as the event was fundamentally a rally-car formula. The RoC later morphed to include competitors from top-tier series like Formula One, IndyCar, NASCAR and WRC racing vehicles such as the KTM X-Bow, Audi R8 LMS, Lamborghini Gallardo SuperTrofeo, and the NASCAR European Stock Car. This variety of equipment was chosen to eliminate any advantage one driver may have in a specific discipline. The tile ‘Champion of Champions’ was won by multi-discipline racer Juan Pablo Montoya, although RoC is still dominated by rally drivers.
Back to Le Mans, what puzzles many is why Toyota didn’t bring a stock-car and star driver to Le Mans? They have plenty of teams in NASCAR, and even won the Cup in 2019 with Kyle Busch. Toyota has dominated Prototype racing at Le Mans in recent years, with five wins in a row since 2018. It looks Team Chevy caught the Japanese giant sleeping.
So, Toyota brought out the big guns. At press event at Le Mans this week, Toyota announced that Kamui Kobayashi (former F1 driver with the Panasonic Toyota Racing, and WEC champion with Toyota Gazoo Racing) will become the first Japanese driver to race a Toyota in the NASCAR Cup Series. Kobayashi will pilot the No. 67 Toyota Camry TRD on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road-course in August. Toyota is following an exciting trend by NASCAR Cup teams to bring in international racing stars for one-off races, including Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button.
So, is it a gimmick? Is Toyota embarrassed that Chevy thought of bringing a NASCAR to Le Mans with championship-caliber ringers? Not if you ask Kamui Kobayashi!
“Actually my memory, the first racing on TV was actually NASCAR. When I was like four or five years old. I said, ‘wow, that’s cool!’ And the first time when I raced a go-kart, honestly I didn’t know Formula 1. At the end of the day when I remember, what I saw when I was really young was a NASCAR race, because it was an oval. And I remember, the highlight, thinking one day to race in NASCAR was my dream.”
Kamui Kobayashi, at Le Mans press event
Kobayashi is all in on this opportunity, and has been waiting to drive NASCAR for a long time. What could be more alluring to a young Japanese racer than NASCAR? Japanese tuner cars aren’t big, hulking V8 powered beasts! The only big oval in Japan is Motegi, and the super speedway hasn’t been used since the 2011 Tohoku earthquake. Marketing vehicle or not, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Kobayashi.
Seeing racers cross-over into different disciplines is exciting. Whether it’s Jacques Villeneuve qualifying for Daytona, or Fernando Alonso racing anything and everything, enthusiasts want to see their racing heroes go up against the best in the world in competitions like IROC, RoC and Le Mans. It is certainly an interesting time to be a motorsports fan!