Austin Dillon hoping his Rolex 24 debut on Daytona road course will raise NASCAR game

Rolex 24 Austin Dillon
IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Seeking to add some new accents to his NASCAR road-course game, Austin Dillon already felt accomplished before hitting the track for his Rolex 24 at Daytona debut.

In his first videoconference to meet the members of the RWR Eurasia team that will field the No. 51 ORECA he will be racing this weekend at Daytona International Speedway, Dillon, 30, got a major taste of the international flavor of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Series.

“The cool part about it, you’re working with guys from all over different countries,” Dillon told NBC Sports. “I’ve got one guy from England, one guy’s from New Zealand, or maybe Australia. There are a bunch of people from the Philippines that are working on the car.

“Just that aspect of bringing a whole diverse group together to try to win a 24-hour race is cool.”

‘STEEP LEARNING CURVE’: Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson make sports car transition

HOW TO WATCH THE ROLEX 24Full broadcast schedule on NBC Sports

There will be more than just a class victory on the line for the 2018 Daytona 500 winner, who will be teamed with NASCAR veteran Cody Ware, Porsche factory driver Sven Mueller of Germany and Salih Yoluc of Turkey.

Dillon missed the NASCAR Cup Series race at the Daytona International Speedway road course last August because of a positive COVID-19 test.

After NASCAR replaced the Fontana, California, race with Daytona on the 2021 schedule (bringing the number of road course races to seven, plus the exhibition Clash at Daytona next month), Dillon began lobbying his team “to figure out as many road-course races as we can, as many cars as we can get in” to prepare. His grandfather and NASCAR team owner Richard Childress helped broker the deal to put him Rick Ware’s car.

DIllon’s best finish on a road course in 15 Cup starts is 16th in 2018 at Sonoma Raceway, and he has an average finish of 19.0 at Sonoma, 27.0 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval and 27.8 at Watkins Glen International.

“Road course racing is not anything I have a lot of experience in, so I’m doing my best to get better at it because NASCAR is going to more and more road courses, and it’s starting to get more comfortable,” Dillon said. “I think I can make strides there. It’s somewhere I’ve got to make strides, and I feel like it’s there if I get more experience.

Austin Dillon talked with fellow NASCAR driver AJ Allmendinger while in the Daytona International Speedway garage for the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test session last Saturday (IMSA).

“I’m pumped. I ran that simulator last week in the LMP2 car, and it was just totally different. We drive race cars, but those are race cars. Everything is built to go fast. Total downforce, maximum amount of breaking, power and paddle shifters. It’s a whole other level of into the future compared to where our Cup cars are. And it’s just nice to drive something like that. Non-stock.

Dillon and Cody Ware recently tested on a Dallara simulator in Indianapolis, and Dillon also got some sports-car experience in December by racing a Camaro (with Kaz Grala and Tyler Reddick) in a club-level race at Circuit of the Americas (which also will play host to the NASCAR Cup Series this year).

There were 90 cars in that race, which helped acclimate Dillon to dodging slower cars (spec Miatas in that instance). In the LMP2 at Daytona, Dillon will be in the second fastest of five classes and will be lapping GT cars often on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile layout.

Dillon slowly was getting up to speed, running several seconds off the top pace while making eight laps in practice last Friday and Saturday. The sports car “teaches a new thought process on braking” that involves a varying application of the brake pedal and timing of the turn that is much different than the Cup Series (an adjustment that Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson also are making).

CROSSING OVERA look at the NASCAR and IndyCar drivers in the 59th Rolex 24

“I think the ultimate goal is to be as fast and competitive as the other guys in the group,” Dillon said. “But they got me by a ton of experience. I’m going to work hard. In the simulator test, my speed was there pretty good, but I’ve got to back it up at track. My sim times were strong, but when you’re driving a car that’s worth a lot of money, you might creep up on that speed threshold for a little while.

“Those things are just impressive cars. So I don’t want to ruin it for everybody just trying to catch those guys when it comes to just a lap time.”

Dillon also will be running the Clash ahead of the Daytona 500 and has rented a house in the Daytona Beach because of a nearly monthlong residency in Central Florida.

“I’m going to be in a car a lot the next couple of weeks,” he said. “It’ll be wild.”

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Jared C. Tilton / Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.