KINSTON, Ala. – The new year may have brought about a change of scenery for Canadian young gun Raphael Lessard, but the 16-year-old is enjoying every moment of his best opportunity to-date.
Lessard, a member of the Toyota Racing driver development program, was signed during the offseason to an 18-race deal with the potent Kyle Busch Motorsports team, moving over to KBM after a two-year stint with David Gilliland Racing that included the inaugural CARS Tour super late model crown in 2016.
A native of St.-Joseph de Beauce, Quebec, Lessard kicked off his new association with the 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion in impressive fashion at SpeedFest in January – running among the leaders all day and coming away with a solid fifth-place finish at Crisp Motorsports Park.
Now, Lessard hopes to build on that early-season momentum during this weekend’s 42nd annual Rattler 250 at South Alabama Speedway, the traditional opener for the Southern Super Series.
“We had a great start to the relationship between myself and Kyle Busch Motorsports at Cordele,” Lessard said on Friday. “Running one race together, I already feel like we’ve learned some things that will help us for this year. They’re great people and I’m proud to work with them.”
Though there was a bit of transition as he moved from one high-profile team to another, Lessard said he’s had an easy time getting adjusted to his new situation with Busch’s famed No. 51 team.
“It’s been really good. Those guys are really nice and Kyle (Busch) … everyone has really helped me a lot already and I can’t thank them enough for that,” said Lessard. “The car is always really good and we’re just trying to learn how to work together. With new people, that’s always what you’ve got to do and now, I think we’re getting a good sense of teamwork together.”
“My crew chief Cody (Glick) is really good and we’ve worked well together so far. Now we just have to keep working and keep getting better this year.”
Busch has also been a strong source of advice for the young Canadian, despite the fact that Lessard has only run one race so far with the KBM team this season.
“I’ve spoken to Kyle a lot already!” Lessard laughed. “He’s texted me and I’ve had a few chances to talk to him in person as well. He’s always looking at me and looking at what I’m doing and trying to make me better. It’s pretty cool when you get advice from a guy like Kyle, because you know you’re learning from one of the best.”
“It’s just an awesome situation for me. I know I have to listen to him and I’m just trying to learn as much as I can.”
Lessard first said over the holidays that signing with KBM was the best Christmas present he could have asked for.
That awe and excitement still hasn’t fully set in, with the French-Canadian actually bringing everything full-circle after an encounter with Busch at the very beginning of his racing career.
“Four years ago, when I first started racing, Kyle came to my home track in Quebec … and I watched him compete that night and took a picture with him while I was there. Now when I look at it, four years later I’m driving for him.”
“It’s unreal. It’s a dream come true. I never really thought that I would drive for him one day. Just to be part of it now is amazing.”
Among Lessard’s remaining 17 races this season will be all eight events on the CARS Super Late Model Tour schedule, as he pursues his second title in three years with the series.
He’ll also run selected events with the ARCA/CRA Super Series and Southern Super Series, hoping to add to KBM’s long and successful history in crown jewel super late model events.
But Lessard says he doesn’t feel any added weight on his shoulders, despite racing for what is arguably the premier short track team in the country.
“I’m kind of used to it at this point, I feel like. You always put a little bit of pressure on yourself, because you want to do well and you know you have great equipment. In this situation, you have to perform, but I feel like it’s a normal deal.”
“I’m just trying not to put too much pressure on myself, but I always put some there, because I want to win and the team wants to win. Last year, we had a bunch of bad luck, but I’ve learned from that and now when we’re doing well … I think I appreciate it a lot more.”
And if he visits victory lane on Sunday, Lessard admitted he’s prepared to deal with the rattlesnake that is presented to the winner of the Rattler 250 – perhaps even better than most.
“I’ll be okay with it!” he said of the snake. “As long as I win, then I’ll be fine. I’ll kiss it if I have to!”