Editor’s Note: ‘The Rapsheet’ is a new feature on Speed51.com, telling the background of certain personalities within the sport of short track racing. This will be a recurring feature on Speed51.com, giving fans the dirt on the new, the old, and even the forgotten personalities of short track racing.
For many years now, the Southeast has been the most sought after destination for aspiring race car drivers hoping to develop their talents and shine in the hub of the NASCAR community. Drivers make their way to the region from the West Coast, the Heartland, and the furthest reaches of the Northeast. But some come from even farther away, including crossing international borders. That is just what young Canadian Raphael Lessard has done.
Two years ago at the fresh young age of 12, Lessard became recognized as one of the rising stars in Quebec, finishing top 10 in the Serie Sportsman Quebec standings. He began the 2015 racing season driving his family-owned No. 71 Super Late Model, spending much of his time getting acclimated to the heavier race car. On paper, his performance didn’t appear to be fantastic. He was getting lapped in many of the races he competed in and struggled to stay out of harm’s way.
Beginning with the Oxford 250 in August, Lessard teamed up with NASCAR driver and Late Model owner David Gilliland. He entered the David Gilliland Racing Driver Development program and started to show signs that he was going to be a real threat in the Late Model ranks.
In 2016, Lessard and his supporters made the decision to focus his racing efforts in the Southeast region competing on the CARS Tour in the Gilliland No. 99 Super Late Model. Now, with the season just two races old, Lessard is already feeling very comfortable with his new ride and new team.
“I think it is the best among teams to be in,” Lessard told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “I have learned a lot. I can learn with a small team.”
While Lessard used most of 2015 to become familiar with running Late Models both home and away, he believes that better communication with his team has allowed them to be able to put fast cars underneath him. He’s reached the point where he’s not just comfortable with the speed of the Super Late Models, but he’s now able to compete for wins. He proved that by scoring a Pro Late Model trophy during World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing competition at New Smyrna Speedway (FL) back in February.
“I think the difference this year is that me and my crew chief, the communication is a lot better, he knows how I like the car. The car is always very good,” explained Lessard. “Every time we come back out on the track, the car gets better and better.”
While Lessard has seen parallels in the level and tenacity of his competition, both PASS North and the CARS Tour Super Late Models, there is a bit of extra spice of being able to compete with other drivers who have already established themselves in the south.
“The competition is the same as being back north, there’s a lot of fast cars. The competition is very close, a lot of good drivers. But in the South it is very fun. Some guys like Christopher Bell and Dalton Sargeant, they are very good drivers. Everywhere we go, there is always good drivers.”
Speaking of Bell, both he and Lessard fought tooth and nail for the lead throughout much of the latest CARS Tour event at Orange County Speedway (NC). Lessard finished that race with a second-place finish to Bell while fending off Sargeant, who finished third. It is a moment that is still very much in Lessard’s mind with the next CARS race at Hickory Motor Speedway looming on Saturday.
“It was very fun, very exciting to battle for the lead with him (Bell). It has given me confidence for this weekend. It should be good.” Lessard said.
Despite his 14 year-old youthful enthusiasm, Lessard remains realistic in his goals for the season. He is already on track for what he had in mind and looks to continue that going forward, although he isn’t ruling out the possibility picking up a checkered flag.
“(My goal) will be to always run in the top five at each race and to keep the car on the track. If we do that, I will be happy,” he explained. “A win? For sure it’s possible, but it will be race by race and it will depend on how they go.”
Though Lessard has big dreams in future years, he is keeping his sights a little closer to the level he is currently competing at, but knows opportunities will open with his next birthday July 5.
“Maybe when I turn 15, like to do an ARCA race or a K&N race. We will see how it goes with this year after the season.”
Lessard, though, is enjoying every second of his experience and the honor of flying the Maple Leaf at every race he competes in.
“It is fun to represent Canada, I think I’m the only driver in the South from Canada. It’s very nice.”
-By Connor Sullivan, Speed51.com State Editor (CT, MA, LI); Twitter – @Connor51CT