Column By: HOLLY CAIN / IMSA – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – News and notes from around Daytona International Speedway on the Saturday of the Roar Before the Rolex 24.
Hailie Deegan ready to gain road course experience at Roar and Rolex 24
No, Hailie Deegan conceded with a wide grin, she never expected that her competitive debut on the famous Daytona International Speedway high banks would come in a sportscar.
But judging by the smiles and ease she showed Saturday afternoon speaking with reporters at Daytona between Roar Before the Rolex 24 practice sessions, she’s eager and mentally-prepared for her IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race debut at the grand track on Jan. 24. The in-car skills and sports car initiation is coming together too, she said.
“I never thought I’d race a road course especially at Daytona, that was new for me,’’ Deegan said. “I always thought my first time at Daytona would be in an ARCA car but I’m happy to be here on the road course.’’
Deegan‘s ARCA Menards Series season debut at Daytona will follow the Rolex 24 race weekend and comes only weeks after the 18-year old Californian was formally introduced as a Ford Performance development driver. She will co-drive a Ford Mustang GT4 with NASCAR Xfinity Series frontrunner Chase Briscoe in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race at Daytona later this month. Austin Cindric, another young Ford talent in the Xfinity Series, will be driving a Multimatic Motorsports Inc. team car as well, teaming with Sebastian Priaulx in the No. 15 Mustang.
In February, Deegan will compete in the season-opening ARCA Menards Series race that essentially opens Daytona Speedweeks – the green flag to a much-anticipated full season of stock car racing. All three of these young NASCAR stars say they are grateful for the chance to begin their season early, confident that the extra laps will only help their skillset.
“I’m really excited just to gain experience in these new cars,’’ Deegan said. “Just everything’s new. A fresh start. It’s waiting to get planned out, meeting new people, new faces, new relationships. I’m excited to grow the relationships in the Ford family and everyone that’s a part of it.
“One thing I haven’t really touched on in my career is road courses, pavement road course type stuff. Coming here and filling that base of what I’m missing as a driver as a hole is definitely going to help me be all around as a driver.
“I feel what makes a good driver is a driver that’s not just good at ovals or road courses they are good at everything and have that skill set. I think if I can just keep getting better skill sets to bring to my career, it will help even more.’’
Deegan and Briscoe certainly gave proof of their talent and ability to learn the new car and course. They were 14th fastest overall in the opening practice, ninth quickest in the second session and finally fifth best in the latest round.
Cindric and Priaulx were fourth fastest in the second session – tops among the two Multimatic team cars.
Kyle Busch making strides at Daytona
Kyle Busch rolled into a Rolex 24 fan question-and-answer session Saturday afternoon between practice sessions sounding every bit as confident and optimistic as one would expect of the most recently crowned NASCAR Cup Series champion.
The room had many kiddos and fans dressed in Busch’s NASCAR colors and sponsors. And he entered into the room joking and smiling, immediately instigating a fun give-and-take between his teammates on the two AIM Vasser Sullivan Lexus RC GTD-class teams.
Busch teased New Zealand teammate Shane van Gisbergan, a former Austalian V8 Supercar champion, about translating speed from kilometers to miles per hour. And Busch joked about the slim chance that he would drive at night in his first Rolex 24. His teammates teased that the reigning NASCAR champ was already slated for the treacherous midnight to 6 am driving shift on the 3.56-mile Daytona road course.
“My eyes will be shut – sleeping or driving,’’ he said smiling.
Busch certainly looked comfortable. And his team clearly was. Busch’s teammate Jack Hawksworth turned in the fastest lap of the class on Friday, giving the team reason to feel good about its chances in the crowded 18-car GTD class.
Hawksworth, a British IndyCar and sports car star, said he had complete confidence in his teammate.
“It’s been good fun,’’ Hawksworth said. “We just got to work and Kyle got in the car and was straightaway competitive.
“I don’t need to help him drive,’’ Hawksworth assured the audience, “just help transition his skills.’’
It will be Busch’s first Rolex 24 start, but not his first IMSA race at Daytona. In 2008 he teamed with Scott Speed in a Chip Ganassi-prepared prototype. And Busch said he’s done several go-kart endurance races, including a 24-hour event. Additionally, he said he was encouraged to hear his teammates this weekend expressing similar technical ideas regarding the Lexus race car as he had.
“You’ve certainly got to pay attention to your rearview mirror and know what’s going on around you and coming up behind you, the faster cars and a closing rate that’s certainly greater than you’re used to ever, even if you’re a slow guy on a (NASCAR) Sunday – it’s a big deal,’’ said Busch, who noted his NASCAR Cup Series spotter will be working the Rolex 24 with him.
The biggest adjustment he says is, “the sharing of the seat is interesting because you want to be in the car as much as possible so you can continue to evolve and make yourself better. For me, not being as experienced in these cars, they gave me the most seat time yesterday [in practice] which was good and beneficial. The other guys need their seat time too, however, so that’s certainly a big compromise.’’
Even the veteran Busch conceded he was excited to suit up and take on this next challenge – as were the many fans already on hand at Daytona International Speedway even for a practice session.
“There’s a ton of people here and we’re at a test,’’ Busch said. “I can’t even imagine what’s going to happen when we come back to the Rolex. It’s certainly awesome to see the crowd count and the interest people have in IMSA.’’
“I know I can’t wait,’’ said race fan Suzy Brake, 70, of The Villages, Florida, leaning forward to show off her green M&Ms adorned hat – Busch’s NASCAR Cup Series No. 18 large and center.