This week, we’re featuring the life story and career arc of Canadian stock car driver Raphaël Lessard, the young Quebec phenom set to begin his second full season in the NASCAR Camping World truck series next Friday.
Yesterday, we took a look at his first professional years and his first major racing successes. Today we focus on the driver’s big breakthrough and the beginning of his relationship with two-time NASCAR Series champion Kyle Busch.
As touched upon yesterday, the 2016 campaign was a turning point for Raphaël Lessard. By capturing the CARS series championship with David Gilliland's team, Raphaël made a name for himself. Kyle Bush took notice, as did Toyota, which signed him as part of its young talent development program.
In 2017, however, Raphaël returned with David Gilliland's team (DGR) on the recommendation of Toyota, who saw his program as a better fit than Kyle Busch's at that point in time. The season proved difficult, however, as DGR’s 2016 successes led to an expansion and the addition of more cars entered in races. The result? More mechanical failures and less consistency.
Nevertheless, Raphaël found a way to shine, racking up two wins, eight top 5 resultss and 15 top 10 finishes over the span of 20 races in three prestigious series featuring Super Late Model cars. He also made his debut in the ARCA series, competing in two events.
And during that 2017 season, recognition continued to come his, but this time it came from elsewhere, notably from the Speed51.com website dedicated to development series and short tracks. Raphaël was voted the most popular driver in North America, one of the top 10 drivers to watch and as the seventh best development driver in the United States.
Not bad for a kid who that summer celebrated his 16th birthday and was now thinking about getting… his driver's license.
The following year, Raphaël made the jump to Kyle Busch's team, for which he competed in 16 races. He won two, finished in the top 5 seven times and in top 10 on 13 occasions. Better yet, at the Snowball Derby held in December, the most prestigious race of the season, he led for 60 laps, only to fall victim to a leak at a moment when he running third place with just six laps to go.
But the year 2018 was about more than race results: “I learned to work with new people, all within a very professional environment. I was well supervised. The team was always there to win. I gained experience and saw the other side of things, meaning that it can't always go smoothly in racing. The important thing is to stay positive because things always turn around. My parents always taught me to stay focused and get after it.”
A teenager with the wisdom of a veteran. That can only help guarantee success.
In 2019, Raphaël was everywhere. He took part in 22 events, driving seven different types of vehicles. Highlights included a win in the Canadian NASCAR Pinty's series and five races in the NASCAR Pickup Truck series, the one he is currently racing in. He was fastest at Dover and posted two top 10 finishes.
2019 was a good year for him not just because it allowed him to drive a lot of different cars, but more importantly because it gave him the chance to learn how to manage a race. Being fast is one thing, but any driver will tell you, you have to be there at the finish line.
Then, on November 14, 2019, the big announcement came: Raphaël signed up for a full season in the pickup truck series, piloting a vehicle prepped by Kyle Busch's team.
Tomorrow, a look at his first full season with the big boys.