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.”

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing

To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

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“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.

Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”