Associated Press /John Raoux

Kyle Busch gives sports cars a spin: ‘You can drive the snot out of them’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Kyle Busch climbed from his new ride Friday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway with a wide smile and a few shrugs at his AIM Vasser Sullivan Racing teammates.

How was the prep work going for his Rolex 24 at Daytona debut?

“I was able to run some pretty decent times,” Busch said at a news conference between practice sessions during the opening day of the Roar Before the Rolex test. “That’s what the guys said anyway. I don’t know.”

Rarely does Busch, quite possibly the most demanding and exacting driver in NASCAR’s premier series, find himself at a loss for explaining all of the nuances that make a race car handle at optimum speed.

Which made Friday’s indoctrination at Daytona a sometimes disorienting mix of confusion alleviated by maximum camaraderie for the two-time Cup champion, who constantly was surrounded by helpful faces.

“Everyone has done a great job of welcoming me in and making me feel part of the team, getting me up to speed, getting me accustomed and used to what this form of racing is and what it entails,” said Busch, who is only six weeks removed from his second title. “But certainly a lot to improve on still. I’ve got my NASCAR driving techniques just embedded in my brain. I’ve got to get rid of those a little bit more.

“Getting more accustomed to what this car can take and what the driving techniques are that are different between the two vehicles take is certainly a lot.”

The team’s two cars had 90 minutes over two practices to break in the most famous of its eight drivers for the 24-hour endurance classic, which will take place Jan 25-26.

Busch did two stints Friday over the course of about 35 minutes in the No. 14 Lexus during the opening session. After Jack Hawksworth shook down the car for about 20 minutes, Busch climbed in at 11:25 a.m. and was within 3 seconds of his teammate during a 10-lap stint.

After an 8-minute pit stop for adjustments, Busch shaved off another second over a 14-minute run in the car in which he posted lap times the team felt was respectable.

“He’s right where he should be,” said Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson, one of several executives in the AIM Vasser Sullivan pit to observe Busch at the test. “So much of endurance racing is about confidence and being comfortable.”

Traffic and technology also will be the two major hurdles for Busch getting acclimated to sports cars. AIM Vasser Sullivan races in the GTD division, which is about 10 seconds slower around the 3.56-mile road course than the premier DPi prototype class.

That means Busch (who had one other IMSA start at Daytona nearly 12 years ago in a prototype) will be getting lapped much more often than which he is accustomed in Cup. In a role reversal of sorts, NASCAR veteran Cody Ware will be competing against Busch in the faster LMP2 division for the Rolex 24.

Especially when racing at night, Busch will rely on spotter Tony Hirschman to keep him abreast of the divergent speeds (which he also can distinguish through the varying colors of the cars’ lights).

He will be navigating the field while also adapting to cars that stop on a dime because of sophisticated antilock braking systems that are much different than his No. 18 Toyota in Cup.

Kyle Busch climbs into the No. 14 Lexus during Rolex 24 testing at Daytona International Speedway (AP Photo/John Raoux).

“The braking is certainly the biggest adjustment,” Busch said. “I’m used to our big heavy stock cars, where you have to start the slowdown process way early, and the braking zone is forever. By the time you turn in, you have to be off the brakes because otherwise the inside wheels lock up, and you’ll skid the tires. So you also have to take care of our brakes on the Cup cars because they’re so heavy and steel and you can really overheat them.

“Completely different techniques that you have to work with on these cars. You can drive the snot out of them. You can throw it off into the corner as far as you feel you can get in there. And stomp the pedal as hard as your leg will allow you to do it.”

Busch spent some of Friday finding those limits, once driving 50 feet deeper into a chicane than teammate Jack Hawksworth. “That was too far,” Busch chuckled. “Noted.”

He had many places to look for advice. Townsend Bell, the NBC Sports analyst who also drives for the team, offered encouragement and pointers for several minutes Friday as the first to greet Busch after his first stint.

Hawksworth, a veteran of sports cars and IndyCar who scored two class wins for AIM Vasser Sullivan last year, flew to North Carolina recently to tutor Busch through a five-hour session in the driving simulator at TRD’s Salisbury facility.

“That was very useful and a great learning tool,” he said. “Definitely learned a lot. Came out of that with a good baseline for being able to come here and have a better understanding of what to expect.

“Without that, I’d be completely lost. It was good to do that. Jack’s been my biggest help and supporter. Townsend as well, too. I’ve talked to him a few times on the phone. Having Jack hands on with us at the test and being my teammate here has been big.”

But yet Busch also sheepishly confessed to at least one instance in which “I’m already trying to set up the car.

“It’s got understeer here, oversteer there or whatever. I suggested us going softer (on the setup), and they’re like, ‘We’re as soft as we can get,’ and I said “Well, that ain’t soft enough!’

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard that we’re as soft as we can go. You always think of different ways of being able to engineer something. Obviously, there’s a rulebook as well, too, and I have no familiarity with any of that. So I could be totally off base to what my team already knows and I don’t.”

The Rolex 24 has been unfamiliar territory for many NASCAR interlopers before Busch. Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Larson and Busch’s older brother, Kurt, are among many who have crossed over with some success.

Buch hopes to match that as the latest interloper.

“It would mean a lot” to win, he said. “Of course I want to have fun, but more importantly, I want to go out there and win for Lexus and AIM Vasser Sullivan and be able to put on a good show for the fans that show up but also the NASCAR community as well.

“Definitely a lot of guys have shown their taste of the Rolex 24, and this is my chance to be able to do that, so just hope we can keep it all on the racetrack for the whole race and have a shot at the end.”

Graham Rahal tries to get up to speed in IndyCar iRacing Challenge

Graham Rahal Photo
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Although he’s just 31 years old, Graham Rahal has been driving an Indy car since the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he still a teenager.

When it comes to the virtual world, however, Rahal is an admitted “newbie.”

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver hopes to get up to speed in time to be competitive in Saturday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama virtual race. It’s part of the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge and will be televised live by NBCSN at 2:30 p.m.

The six-time NTT IndyCar Series race winner got his virtual racing rig before last week’s American Red Cross Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International but was still learning the nuances of the iRacing platform. He started 12th and finished 14th out of 25 cars in the contest. The first 12 finishers were on the lead lap. Rahal was one lap down.

“I had never done it before,” Rahal said Friday. “At least it probably had been 10 years since I had driven any sort of sim. It’s addicting…rather addicting. Second of all, it’s bad for your marriage, but it’s a great way to kill a day of quarantine.

“But I think it’s been a big challenge just to get used to the way that you feel a car, the way that you drive a car in the sim, it’s all completely different than real life. To get used to that sensation, to get everything set up right is a huge part of it.”

Inside the cockpit of his No. 15 Honda at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Rahal feels at comfortable in his own element. It has taken him time to find that comfort level in the virtual world.

“For me it has been a challenge to just figure out the right settings, what to do from afar, too,” Rahal said. “Obviously you don’t have anybody here (at his home) that plays iRacing or anything to help you firsthand. It’s been a bit of a challenge; but I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Next up is Barber Motorsports Park, which in the real world is a very challenging course but it puts on some of the best road course racing on the real IndyCar schedule. Rahal believes it will also be quite a challenge on iRacing.

“I think Barber is going to be actually more difficult than Watkins Glen,” Rahal said. “The track has a little bit less grip than Watkins Glen did last week. Although everybody was still crashing at Watkins Glen, I think you can get away with more than what you can at Barber. In real life it’s that way, too.

“I’m looking forward to it. I think it will be fun.”

Rahal is married to former drag racing star Courtney Force. Both are playing it safe by staying home by statewide order from Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb. But Rahal still has to find the balance between husband and virtual race driver.

By contrast, some of the other IndyCar drivers are spending 10-12 hours a day practicing on iRacing.

“That’s the challenge,” Rahal said, responding to a question posed by NBCSports.com. “I could definitely spend way more time on it. My line to Courtney is, ‘Just give me two laps.’ Then, one hour and 45 minutes later I’m still sitting there. It’s frustrating.

“As Robbie Wickens said, the frustrating part is you go out, you put in a good lap, then it’s, ‘I need to go beat that.’ You spin and you spin, and you spin. Then you get mad. The competitiveness in you, two more laps, two more laps. You try to go and go and go.

“You sit there for hours and hours and hours.”

Rahal admits he can’t stay away from iRacing for long. He is genuinely curious and interested in seeing what the competition is doing.

“I go on pretty frequently to see what’s going on,” Rahal said. “A lot of guys are on all the time. Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais has been on a load, Tony Kanaan, Willie P (Will Power). I think everyone is enjoying it. But it’s a huge challenge.

“There are a couple of guys that are clearly quicker than everybody else, Will being one of those. I’m trying to figure out where and how to find the lap time. I’m telling you, it’s so different than reality in that way.

“But it’s been fun, man. I’ve enjoyed the challenge. It’s good for the exposure, good because people are paying attention. You can see it on our Instagram. If you look at the clicks or page views in the last seven days, they’ve been doubled since we started to do this stuff. While it’s great for that, it also does help kill a ton of time.”

These are unique times as the world has essential shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As more and more humans are testing positive of the potentially deadly virus, the threat becomes more real.

It has also created a tremendous void as people try to find something to do to pass the long times of isolation.

By giving race fans a few hours of entertainment, even if it is virtual instead of real, then Rahal believes it’s worth it.

“I think a lot of people are just dying for something to do, something to watch,” Rahal said. “The competitiveness in all of us wants to see some sort of sport.

“I know there are other buddies like hockey players that are watching it because they just want to watch something. They need something to do. So, I think that’s a big part of it.

“I think it’s great that NBC Sports is covering it this weekend other than just being online. I think it will be tremendous to see how that turns out.

“This is very realistic. When you see the cars on track, you watch a replay, see the photos, it’s eerily real looking. I did a race at St. Louis last weekend. It was extremely entertaining I think for the drivers that were participating. Other than 400 yellow flags, which happened early in the race, it was really, really entertaining to be a part of. People who watched that race would have loved the show that they had been seeing. I think there’s a lot of realism to it.

“I think it’s also people just want something right now. The desire and the demand is there to log in or tune in and see something competitive on TV.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500