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Mike Rockenfeller Reflects on Garage 56 Experience

(Photo: Sam Draiss | The Podium Finish)

WATKINS GLEN, NY – Mike Rockenfeller has made 11 starts in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. However, his most recent appearance was the most special.

Rockenfeller participated in the 94th edition of the race in the Hendrick Motorsports prepared Garage 56 entry along with Jimmie Johnson, seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, and Jensen Button, 2009 Formula 1 World Champion.

The unprecedented car, a variation of the NASCAR Next Gen car, tested for over a year before entering Le Mans and made history by participating in the 24-hour endurance event. The entry had its own class but raced against the overall field and the clock.

With about four hours remaining in the race and Button behind the wheel, the driveline broke and the car returned to the paddock for about an hour repairs. The car got back on track and finished the race 39th overall among 62 cars.

Ahead of the IMSA Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen, Rockenfeller reflected on the Garage 56 experience.

Nathan Solomon : You’ve done a lot of races over in Le Mans before, but what was your overall experience like working with Hendrick Motorsports and the Garage 56 entry?

Mike Rockenfeller : Honestly, one of the best in my life as a whole. The team, the whole preparation, the execution, the spirit, the car, the vibe around it, my teammates — it was just great and crazy to be part of it. Last year in March, when I heard about the project and Sebring, I knew I would do the development, but I didn’t know at the time if I would race the car or not. I never expected something like that. But then I grew into it and I understood the partners involved, and then I also understood how big it is.

When I heard about the teammates … it was a very cool experience that I didn’t want to miss, even though it was very different from all the years. All my other years in Le Mans, you’ll fight in a category even overall or in class, GT, or whatever for victory against the others. Here, that was the only thing we were missing a little bit. But still, we had the goal to race the clock and to race as high in the ranks as we could. Unfortunately, we had a transmission issue that put us down a little bit.

Solomon : What was the process like of becoming involved in Garage 56? How did you get approached to do this?

Rockenfeller : Well, I was racing at the time with the Action Express and 48 car [in the IMSA Weathertech Championship]. So already there, Hendrick was involved and Action. And those two, Action, at the very, very beginning, started to build the very first Cup car to test tires. They asked me — very simple, and it didn’t take me that long to say yes.

Solomon : Is there anything that the car could compare to? Is there anything similar that you’ve driven to before?

Rockenfeller : I would say in a way, it’s not far away from a GT at all, as you could see from lap times. It’s a bit heavier and more powerful, so those two things are different. But, I have to say, the way it drove, not only in Le Mans but also in all the preparation, was pretty impressive. And yeah, it was just fun. The balance was nice. It gives you a nice window. It’s not crazy tricky. It’s very honest and you have to muscle it around. I feel like it’s a real man’s car and the sound is awesome. Everything about it was just cool. We did a few updates on it from the standard Cup car, but in the end, it was still a Cup car. We just tried to make it a bit faster, a bit more efficient for Le Mans.

Solomon : You made two Cup Series starts with the Next Gen car, one at Watkins Glen and one at the Charlotte ROVAL. Did those starts help you prepare to drive the Garage 56 car?

Rockenfeller : Yes and no. I mean, a Cup race, I think it’s something on its own. Not only because the car was a little different at the end, but just because of the race, how it unfolds and so on. An endurance race with driver changes — it’s very different.

The Cup races were great to experience and thankful to have had the opportunity to do it. But yeah, it was just nice to understand. I always looked up to NASCAR in my whole life and career. I was like a little kid on Christmas when I knew about it. And then of course to be with Hendrick after my Cup experience with Spire, as you can imagine, that’s a different level.

Rockenfeller before his second NASCAR Cup Series start at the Charlotte ROVAL. (Photo: Molly Gastineau | The Podium Finish)

Solomon : What was the general reaction from everyone over in Le Mans when they saw the car?

Rockenfeller : Very positive, not only from the fans — they were loving it. The sound, the look, the pace — everything. Everybody was happy about it, but also the whole paddock. I think we gained a lot of respect in the way we ran the car. For me, that was actually the most impressive that no matter who of the OEMs or whatever — bosses, drivers, mechanics, engineers … everybody I know in the paddock came up and was like man, this is so impressive. So it was, I think, overall a success.

Solomon : Were you surprised at all with the pace of the car?

Rockenfeller : Well, I mean, I did all the development, so I knew what was coming. Of course, you don’t know until the last second, but we were in the area of what we wanted to be, where we wanted to be and what we worked for so hard. So I was not completely surprised.

Solomon : As you said, the Garage 56 car wasn’t directly competing against other entries because it was in its own class. However, it outpaced all the GT cars before a driveline issue. What exactly happened when the car broke down?

Rockenfeller : We did testing and endurance tests before and we never had that issue. So that’s a little bit of a bummer. Our goal was to overcome the deficit on pit stops because of tire [wear compared to other cars] on pace and on track, and we did. We were leading the GTs. I mean, that’s why you want to race in the Le Mans. It’s a huge race. It always has been one of the toughest races for the material, and unfortunately, we had that issue, which made us have to change the gearbox to finish the race and that caused a lot of time. That’s what it is, right? I mean, you can prepare and prepare and prepare and you feel safe.

As I said, we never ever had an issue before with a gearbox, and it just happened to be. I don’t know further analysis if they looked into it and maybe what was happening exactly. It just happened out of the blue four and a half hours before the end. Nevertheless, we finished, which is great.

That gearbox issue sidelined the car for about an hour, but the main goal was to finish the race, which was achieved. How fulfilling was it to achieve that goal?

Rockenfeller : That was definitely nice. We were a bit sad with the issue to lose so much time, but again, the team overcame this problem. They changed the gearbox way faster than we expected to because we weren’t sure if we could make it until the finish, and they definitely made it. We went out there and I did the quickest race lap right after. The car was in perfect condition. Everything was great, and that shows again how good the team is.

In the end, everybody was happy. Mr. Hendrick was there, Mr. France, Jeff Gordon, all the drivers, the whole team, and Chad Knaus. Greg [Ives], our engineer/crew chief. Everybody on the team, every mechanic — I’m so proud of them. It’s a bit sad to go away and basically not work together anymore, probably for the rest of our life. But it was definitely something I will look back at with a lot of joy, probably more than many other things I did in my career.

(Photo: Jared Bokanowski | The Podium Finish)

Solomon : You’ve worked with Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus before with Action Express, but what was it like to share the seat with Jensen Button?

Rockenfeller : It was super cool. I knew him before, we always had a little bit of contact and we raced against each other in the DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters) one race and we stayed in touch. When I knew that there was a chance he was in the car, I thought it was a perfect fit for the program and it turned out that it was. Jimmie, of course, being Jimmie Johnson and Jensen, being a World Champion in Formula 1. Super fast, very competitive, British humor — perfect.

What do you think is next for Garage 56? Is it a one-and-done program, or do you foresee something continuing in the future?

Rockenfeller : It’s a one-and-done. Not [anything else] that I know of.

Solomon : And then for you, you’ve been involved in stock car racing the last year. Do you anticipate increasing your involvement in NASCAR and stock car racing?

Rockenfeller : It’s not something I think about. I probably think that’s it. But of course, if somebody wants me, I’m always available and I’m happy to join and jump in. But right now, I’m focused on IMSA with Porsche 963 with JDC Miller MotorSports and see what happens for next year. 

Author’s Note

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Nathan Solomon serves as the managing editor of The Podium Finish. He has been part of the team since 2021 and is accredited by the National Motorsports Press Association. Solomon is a senior in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University. Contact him at

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