Raphael Lessard put on quite a show in his first race on dirt today. The fifth round of the NCWTS Truck Series was run on the Bristol Motor Speedway oval which was covered with dirt just for the Pinty's Dirt Track Race. This race was highly anticipated by everyone, especially as rain forced NASCAR to postpone the event from Saturday to Sunday, then on to Monday. The field was unable to qualify on Saturday due to the weather, and Raphael Lessard started in 29th place as per NASCAR's calculation based on the team's results. From the first to the last lap, Raphael Lessard kept on overtaking his opponents, until placing his #24 GMS Racing Chevrolet Silverado on the podium at the finish.
After setting the fastest time in the first practice session on Friday (March 25), Raphael Lessard and his #24 GMS Racing Chevrolet Silverado set the 16th fastest time in the final practice session, on a track close to what the race would be run on. This was a promising lap time for a driver with no experience on this surface where the driving and suspension settings are totally different from those on asphalt in order to react effectively to the changing surface of the dirt track on every lap.
Starting from 29th on the grid for the Monday race, as per NASCAR's calculations based on the team's results, Raphael Lessard began his irrepressible march to the front of the race, marked by his 15th place on his first pit stop on lap 40 and by his 8th place on his second pit stop on lap 90. He then finished on the podium by tenaciously defending his third place which he had reached on lap 123 of the 150-lap event.
The GMS Racing team knew how to prepare an exceptional truck for Raphael Lessard, the same truck that had won on the dirt in 2019 in the hands of Stewart Friesen. The team gave their driver a truck with proven potential, and the driver made the team proud.
The race as seen by the driver (extracts)
"Third place and a first podium this year, I am happy. I was already feeling good with the quickest and then 16th time in Friday's two practice sessions with good dirt racers around me, like Kyle Larson and Chase Briscoe. I started the race from way back, but the quick drivers around me also wanted to move up to the front. I had to follow them, which I did in the race until they were eliminated, or I passed them.
Mud blocked my radiator at the start of the race and the engine temperature rose to over 300o F. The numerous yellow periods (at least 8) and the two pit stops allowed me to cool the engine down a bit. The team was able to add water and remove the dirt on the second stop, and the engine temperature returned to 220o F for the third stage. We were lucky because I thought the engine was going to fail.
"After the second stop, with the engine now healthy and with reasonable handling on the increasingly slippery track, we were in a good position to keep attacking. I worked with different lines and braking distribution to reduce the load on the right front tire so we didn't lose too much time in the last few laps. I managed to overtake other good drivers as I moved up to the leaders. The truck was losing grip in the corners and I worked hard to protect my position until the end of the race," explained the driver of the #24 GMS Racing Chevrolet Silverado who was delighted with his stellar performance.
Next race – Richmond Raceway – April 17, 2021
The NCWTS returns to normalcy for their next event, which will take place on the 0.75-mile oval of Richmond International Raceway (Virginia, United States).
Raphael Lessard and the NCWTS
After five (5) races in NASCAR trucks in 2019, Raphael Lessard competed in all 23 races of the NCWTS in 2020, his first full season at that level. His first 10 races of 2020 served him well as he worked hard with a professional team, and against seasoned drivers.
He learned more advanced driving techniques from these experienced drivers as well as from his spotter: learning new track quickly without a pre-race test or qualifying session, watching their driving trajectories and test new ones for himself as the track changes over the course of the race, managing downforce and turbulence, overtaking more effectively and protecting your position in the race, adapting to handling defects and adjusting his driving during a run, communicating effectively with the team during a run to describe any problems, managing front/rear braking distribution during a run, managing tire wear to optimize their performance at the end of the race and working in unison with team members during a pit stop.
The effects of this learning were clearly visible over the second half of the 2020 season, as Raphael Lessard caught and worked his way to the leaders several times to put himself in a position to win, as he did at Talladega, and accumulating four top-5 and seven top-10 finishes over the course of the season.
Raphael Lessard career highlights
Right from his start on the track at age 11, Raphael Lessard has raced throughout the Eastern Canada and then on to the United States, establishing a solid reputation as a driver to watch along the way.
In 2020, the young Beauceron decided to leap into professional racing and competed in all 23 races of the NCWTS series (formerly the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Trucks Series). In 28 starts (five in 2019) in NCWTS trucks, Raphael Lessard has won one race, finished four times in the top-5 (two podiums), and nine times in the top-10, giving him an average finish of 14.5.
In 2019, Raphael Lessard led 83 race laps, finished twice in the top-5 and three times in the top-10 in three starts in the ARCA Menards Series. He earned a win, a top five and two top10 finishes in the NASCAR Pinty's series. His NASCAR Pinty's series win came on his home track, Autodrome Chaudière in Vallée-Jonction (Quebec, Canada), on June 29, after leading 153 of 300 laps on the way to an emotional win.
He also won two important Super Late Model Series races in 2018, including the U.S. National Short Track Championship at Bristol Motor Speedway in May, and the ARCA/CRA Super Series Red Bud 400 race at Anderson Speedway in July.
In 2016, Raphael Lessard won the CARS Tour Super Late Model Championship after recording four wins, one pole, leading 157 laps and finishing with eight top-five and nine top-ten finishes out of 10 races.