Sunday, September 19, 2021

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LEMANS: NASCAR Stars Who Have Tried Out The 24 Hours of Le Mans

The recent news of Jeff Gordon’s interest in trying his hand in the 24 Hours of Le Mans either this summer or in the future, is not a new wave of interest among those in the world of NASCAR stock car racing. Drivers with ties to the sport have long been enamored with the annual twice around the clock sports car challenge in France and some have tasted success in terms of results.

The most successful of those semi-NASCAR runners was A.J. Foyt, who teamed up with NASCAR road ringer Dan Gurney to win the event overall in 1967 in a Ford GT-40.. In addition to his success in his one and only start at Circuit de la Sarthe, Foyt would also claim overall wins in the other two legs of sports car racing’s unofficial triple crown; the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring, both earned during the 1980s decade.

Another NASCAR veteran John Andretti also tasted success in his efforts at Le Mans, taking sixth overall in the 1988 event, driving a factory Porsche 962 alongside cousin Michael Andretti, and his uncle Mario Andretti. Andretti, has tasted his first auto racing success in IMSA with Jim Busby’s Porsche squad, prior to his forays in both IndyCar and NASCAR, was among the last notable American driver to take a shot at Le Mans at that time, as the interest in American drivers competing, much less any tied to stock car racing slowly began to fade to solely who raced in sports cars exclusively.

The interest of the American public toward Le Mans began to increase again in the mid-to-late 1990s, with Chrysler entering the Dodge Viper in the grand touring divisions. The attraction though was limited as the main runner was the French-based ORECA squad, which while successful with three straight class victories from 1998 to 2000 never really made a major impact in attracting American driving talent. Things changed greatly though in the year 2000 when Corvette Racing, run by U.S.-based Pratt & Miller Engineering took the C5-R to Le Mans for the first time. Although the Americans would have to wait till the following year to claim a class win, the presence was enough to entice the interest of one NASCAR legend: Dale Earnhardt.

Earnhardt teamed up with his son Dale Jr. alongside Corvette Racing in the 2001 24 Hours of Daytona, claiming third place overall. The seven-time champion looked very much at home in the Corvette C5-R and had even hinted at an interest in trying his luck at Le Mans, once he retired from full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup competition. Unfortunately, he would never get that chance, as he was fatally injured in a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500 just weeks later.

It would be another decade before a NASCAR driver would look to Le Mans as a viable challenge. That pilot would be Michael Waltrip, who joined forces with his business partner Rob Kaufman and Portugal’s Rui Aguas to enter a Ferrari 458 Italia in the GTE-Amateur division in both 2011 and 2012. Waltrip’s success at La Sarthe was mixed in those efforts. The first appearance ended badly for the AF Corse-Waltrip Racing squad, as not only did the team fail to finish, the car will unfortunately also be known as the entry that clipped Mike Rockenfeller’s Audi R18 coupe during the overnight hours, sending one of the overall win favorites into a hard impact with the outer guardrail nearing the Indianapolis corner. The incident was enough for the ACO to remove Kaufman, who was driving at the time of the collision, from the remainder of the event.

Waltrip’s second attempt, this time featuring fellow NASCAR veteran Brian Vickers as a co-driver produced a sixth-place finish in GTE Am, but not without drama. The most notable of these was a cockpit fire suffered when Vickers was at the wheel on Sunday morning. Fortunately, the fire was put out on the pit lane and the car was not damaged severely enough to prevent it from continuing on.

In terms of Jeff Gordon’s hopes for a future chance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the most notable connection would be with Chevrolet, as it was in 2001 at the 24 Hours of Daytona with the Earnhardts. Gordon has already appeared once at the Daytona enduro in a GM-based product, joining Wayne Taylor Racing’s squad to drive a Pontiac-engined Riley Daytona Prototype in 2007. Matching the result posted by the Earnhardts, the Gordon entry finished third overall.

Although all of the six driving positions are filled for 2016 in the two-car factory Corvette Racing camp for Le Mans, the 60-car entry list does feature two more Corvettes in the GTE-Amateur division, the same class contested by Waltrip in 2011 and 2012. One of these machines is an ex-factory run Corvette C7.R entered by the French-based Larbre Competition team. The other is a previous generation Corvette C6.R with the Chinese Taipei’s Team AAI. While a pre-Le Mans trio of drivers has been temporarily set for Larbre, the presence of adding Gordon could draw interest to a team that has struggled recently at Circuit de la Sarthe. The same scenario holds true for AAI who has yet to confirm two members of its three driver lineup.

Of course, with only just over three months before major preparations for the 2016 edition of the grand prix of endurance, Gordon if indeed interested may not be able to find a ride this year. However, look out for his name to possibly pop up again in the Le Mans rumor mill in the years to come if the perfect scenario were to come about.

 

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