After a smashing season of success, which included a CARS Tour Super Late Model title in 2016, Raphael Lessard took on the challenge that is the Snowball Derby last December with his eyes wide open. During the week, the teenager from Quebec would face challenge after challenge, which included a difficult racecar, a struggle to make the 300-lap feature and a great climb through the field.
Despite all the early troubles, Lessard and David Gilliland Racing overcame the circumstances to score a strong top-10 finish. With last year’s experiences now behind him, the 16-year-old Lessard is ready for his return to Five Flags Speedway for the 50th Annual Snowball Derby on December 3.
“I can’t wait to go back, you’re in the car every day for four days and it’s pretty awesome,” Lessard told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “Last year was challenging. We had to go to the last chance race, started at the back and we will still finished tenth even though we got into some wrecks in the race. But, with the car I had, to make our way up to the top ten, it felt pretty good.”
Compared to 2016, the 2017 season has been a quieter year for Lessard, with the Quebec native running an “outlaw” style schedule across different series and races with the No. 99 DGR Super Late Model team. Additionally, he dipped his toes into ARCA Stock Cars with Venturini Motorsports. With a single Super Late Model win at Hickory Motor Speedway back in the spring, Lessard has treated the season as a further learning experience, hoping to put his lessons into practice come December.
“I think we learned a lot this year,” he reflected. “It didn’t go our way this year also, but we are learning every time we get on the race track. We are better than we were last year and we got more experience too. Should be good for the Snowball this year.”
While Lessard has great enthusiasm for running at Five Flags, it is a track that has never treated him as well as most other tracks. He hopes that the extra prep work by DGR and Toyota, coupled with an appearance this weekend in the Florida Governor’s Cup at New Smyrna Speedway, will give him and the team the leg up they lacked last year.
“We had been struggling every time we went to Pensacola, but we just got to focus on what we can do better and just try to do our best. This weekend we are racing at New Smyrna, I hope we can get a good result there so we can be calm for the Snowball after that. I think we’ll be in good shape.”
The biggest leg up that Lessard knows he needs is for Friday qualifying, where last year he did not make the top 30, forcing him to race his way in through a last chance race on Saturday. He knows that they will need to get the majority of their work done on Thursday in order to be completely in order for time trials.
“We are going to have to work on qualifying speed and do more mock runs than we had been there, so we can qualify better than last year,” Lessard admitted. “We don’t want to go into the race like last year and I’m sure we won’t because we are better than last year and we are getting faster every time we go out.”
The field for the 50th Annual Snowball Derby is once again shaping up to be a diverse one, with drivers coming from all corners of the continent, and in between. Lessard is one of three Canadians entered so far and also the only representing the province of Quebec. He hopes to be able to give a good showing to his fans up north, especially against a stout field that includes champions at the highest levels of NASCAR, including fellow Toyota driver and 2009 Derby winner Kyle Busch.
“That’s going to be so cool. I can’t wait to race against those guys, it’s always fun when they come and race against us,” Lessard said. “You got to race the best and beat the best if you want to be the best. It’s great because you can see the experience they have and try to learn from them.”
As for the question of having a shot at the win after 300 laps on December 3, Lessard is more than confident that if the team can hit their marks, they are definitely going to have a chance.
“I’m sure we can. David Gilliland Racing and Toyota, we have a chance. That’s the goal, every race we go to we want to win.”
Tickets for the 50th Annual Snowball Derby are still on sale at www.5flagsspeedway.com.
Race fans who cannot make the trip to Pensacola, FL can watch the entire week of racing for the Snowball Derby right here via a television-style broadcast on Speed51.com. Live video tickets for the broadcast can be purchased today by clicking here.
-By: Connor Sullivan, Speed51.com CT, MA, RI & Long Island Editor - Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com