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

Rolex 24 Austin Dillon

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.”

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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.”

Ford unveils a new Mustang for 2024 Le Mans in motorsports ‘lifestyle brand’ retooling

Ford Mustang Le Mans
Ford Performance

LE MANS, France — Ford has planned a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with its iconic Mustang muscle car next year under a massive rebranding of Ford Performance aimed at bringing the automotive manufacturer “into the racing business.”

The Friday unveil of the new Mustang Dark Horse-based race car follows Ford’s announcement in February (and a ballyhooed test at Sebring in March) that it will return to Formula One in 2026 in partnership with reigning world champion Red Bull.

The Mustang will enter the GT3 category next year with at least two cars in both IMSA and the World Endurance Championship, and is hopeful to earn an invitation to next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. The IMSA entries will be a factory Ford Performance program run by Multimatic, and a customer program in WEC with Proton Competition.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, also an amateur sports car racer, told The Associated Press the Mustang will be available to compete in various GT3 series across the globe to customer teams. But more important, Farley said, is the overall rebranding of Ford Performance – done by renowned motorsports designer Troy Lee – that is aimed at making Ford a lifestyle brand with a sporting mindset.

“It’s kind of like the company finding its own, and rediscovering its icons, and doubling down on them,” Farley told the AP. “And then this motorsports activity is getting serious about connecting enthusiast customers with those rediscovered icons. It’s a big switch for the company – this is really about building strong, iconic vehicles with enthusiasts at the center of our marketing.”

Ford last competed in sports car racing in 2019 as part of a three-year program with Chip Ganassi Racing. The team scored the class win at Le Mans in 2016 in a targeted performance aimed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford snapping Ferrari’s six-year winning streak.

Ford on Friday displayed a Mustang with a Lee-designed livery that showcased the cleaner, simplified look that will soon be featured on all its racing vehicles. The traditional blue oval with Ford Performance in white lettering underneath will now be branded simply FP.

The new mark will be used across car liveries, merchandise and apparel, display assets, parts and accessories and in advertising.

Farley cited Porsche as an automaker that has successfully figured out how to sell cars to consumers and race cars in various series around the world while creating a culture of brand enthusiasts. He believes Ford’s new direction will help the company sell street cars, race cars, boost interest in driving schools, and create a merchandise line that convinces consumers that a stalwart of American automakers is a hip, cool brand.

“We’re going to build a global motorsports business off road and on road,” Farley told the AP, adding that the design of the Mustang is “unapologetically American.”

He lauded the work of Lee, who is considered the top helmet designer among race car drivers.

“We’re in the first inning of a nine inning game, and going to Le Mans is really important,” Farley said. “But for customer cars, getting the graphics right, designing race cars that win at all different levels, and then designing a racing brand for Ford Performance that gets rebranded and elevated is super important.”

He said he’s kept a close eye on how Porsche and Aston Martin have built their motorsports businesses and said Ford will be better.

“We’re going in the exact same direction. We just want to be better than them, that’s all,” Farley said. “Second is the first loser.”

Farley, an avid amateur racer himself, did not travel to Le Mans for the announcement. The race that begins Saturday features an entry from NASCAR, and Ford is the reigning Cup Series champion with Joey Logano and Team Penske.

The NASCAR “Garage 56” entry is a collaboration between Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and is being widely celebrated throughout the industry. Farley did feel left out of the party in France – a sentiment NASCAR tried to avoid by inviting many of its partners to attend the race so that it wouldn’t seem like a Chevrolet-only celebration.

“They’re going right and I’m going left – that NASCAR thing is a one-year deal, right? It’s Garage 56 and they can have their NASCAR party, but that’s a one-year party,” Farley said. “We won Le Mans outright four times, we won in the GT class, and we’re coming back with Mustang and it’s not a one-year deal.

“So they can get all excited about Garage 56. I almost see that as a marketing exercise for NASCAR, but for me, that’s a science project,” Farley continued. “I don’t live in a world of science projects. I live in the world of building a vital company that everyone is excited about. To do that, we’re not going to do a Garage 56 – I’ve got to beat Porsche and Aston Martin and Ferrari year after year after year.”

Ford’s announcement comes on the heels of General Motors changing its GT3 strategy next season and ending its factory Corvette program. GM, which unlike Ford competes in the IMSA Grand Touring Prototype division (with its Cadillac brand), will shift fully to a customer model for Corvettes in 2024 (with some factory support in the IMSA GTD Pro category).