Raphaël Lessard has had a wild ride in his NASCAR career, from winning for Kyle Busch Motorsports at Talladega in the Truck Series in his rookie season to losing his ride at GMS due to funding issues. Lessard is a resilient driver with an amazing skill set. When we originally first started talking about doing an interview, Lessard was still driving at GMS. The interview took on a different direction after his release from GMS. Read on to learn about Lessard’s background, his release from GMS and what he has done since then, what he does in his spare time, as well as what he would do if he was the President of NASCAR.
Q: Where are you originally from, and how did you first get involved in racing?
A: So I’m from St-Joseph-de-Beauce, Quebec, Canada, the French part of Canada, and I started racing at 11 years old in the Mini Stock Class with an old Honda Civic that we bought from one of my friends that was supposed to race it. And my dad said that we’ll go practice and we’ll see if we can put you with everybody else and go racing, and my first time practicing went really well. And my first race ever was on my 12th birthday, and I won my first race. It was all against the adults and people that have been doing it for 10 years, so it was a lot of fun and that’s how it all started. And because of my dad. I’ve always loved racing because my dad was racing, and he was doing it as a hobby, but he was a really good racecar driver. I was always following him around and I wanted to be like him and race. And that’s what I wanted to do, just drive a racecar.
Q: You’ve raced in several different series in your career now. Walk me through the different series and what the major differences are between them.
A: So I started with the Super Late Model and raced a bunch in the U.S. growing up. I would say those cars are a lot of fun, one of my favorites to drive. They weigh 2,800 pounds, and they got 650 horsepower. They just feel like a go-kart, and they’re made to turn left. It’s crazy how fast these things are. And then, I moved up to the Truck Series. The trucks are just way heavier, they don’t turn as well. They’re not as fast in the corners, but they got the same amount of horsepower as a super late model, which is 650 horsepower, but they weigh 3,300 pounds, which makes it a lot. You’ve got to slow down a lot more, and they won’t turn the center as fast, and even the power, it doesn’t seem like there is that much power in the truck because of how heavy it is compared to Super Late Models. But they’re both a lot of fun. Plus in the Truck Series, you’ve got the bigger racetrack. You’ve got to learn the aerodynamic part of racing. And then if you go to ARCA, ARCA is really similar to a truck. Just a little bit less power. Probably pretty similar suspension. Aerodynamics is different, but still you get a good feel of it in the big racetrack. And then what I’ve raced also was ACT Late Models back home. They raced those locally. My home track at Autodrome Chaudière is close to my house and Autodrome Montmagny Speedway in Quebec. Those are kind of like a super late model, but the tires are not as wide, they’re not as good. They’ve got less power instead of 650. They’re down to 380, and they’re a lot of fun. That’s what I’ve been racing a lot down here this year in Quebec, getting some seat time in those because that’s what they race locally. And I also race in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series, which these cars are a lot of fun. But for the power they’ve got—they’ve got a lot of torque, a good amount of power—but they don’t have that good of a brake. The suspension is pretty basic. So these cars are kind of sliding around a lot, but they’re a lot of fun to drive because of it.
Q: You’ve raced in several different series, including ARCA. Who did you race for there and for how long were you in that series?
A: I did three races with Venturini Motorsports and I did the three races with KBR, they were from Michigan. They were running Super Late and Pro Late and they raced a little bit of ARCA too. But I didn’t do much of ARCA. I think I did five races maximum in that series. I mostly ran Super Late and in the Truck Series.
Q: You’ve had quite an eventful Truck Series career. You first began racing in the trucks for Kyle Busch Motorsports. How long were you with Kyle Busch for?
A: One year. Well, I was with them for three years because I raced Super Late Models full time with them in 2018, then in 2019 I did five truck races for them, and by 2020 I was full time in the Trucks with them.
Q: 2020 was obviously an up and down year because of the whole COVID situation. So what was it like trying to race your first full-time season with all of that going on? What was the preparation like? What sort of impact did COVID have on your preparation time, like for race prep for instance?
A: Well I would say it was a pretty—it was not fun at all if you compared it to the normal season. You have no practice, no qualifying—I was always racing a new racetrack that I’ve never been at, and without practice it kind of put us behind all those veterans. And then it was hard to learn. You had to prepare as well as we could, and we can play as much as you want in the simulator, but it’s never the same as in real life. So it was a crazy year, and just for me being from Canada. Nobody could come see me and visit me—my family my sponsors—because they couldn’t come at all in the United States. So it wasn’t good for that or for my family, they would have liked to enjoy the races and all that. But mostly for sponsors because all the sponsors want to be at the racetrack, they want to see it with their own eyes, but they couldn’t with all that COVID. So it kind of put us a step back with all that sponsorship and all that stuff.
Q: I want to talk about your first career win. You won at Talladega in 2020. What’s it like, not just trying to get your first win in general, but trying to win on a track like Talladega, where anything could happen at any given moment?
A: It was awesome. I mean, I had no expectations. Because you look at those races and sometimes you can be leading in one lap or you can be dead last riding in the fence, so I had no expectations, but I wanted to win. We did a great strategy, and I think that’s what brought us the win there at the end. And when it was time to push really hard, I did, and that’s how we made it. I kept the truck straight in one piece and we got the win. But it was a lot of fun. Now that was a dream come true to get a win in the Truck Series.
Q: That brings us up into this year. You started the season in Trucks racing for GMS and then came into some funding issues. Walk me through the situation; what exactly happened?
A: Well, we just ran out of money, ran out of sponsors. We just, we added it up, sponsors died down because of COVID, and that hurt us and it put us behind on all that, that sponsorship stuff. But we all know the sport is very, very expensive and you have to have good funding behind you, and I had good sponsors, but it’s just that some of them got hurt because of COVID, so they had to back down. It’s kind of all that and I’m not one of those guys that can have a family that can pay for it all. My family helped me and my racing career, but they don’t have the money to support all that so they just—I couldn’t—we couldn’t do it anymore and we had to stop our season. Which sucks because I love the team I was in with GMS, the crew chief, and we’re just, we’re getting better and better and I think the chemistry was really good. But it’s just part of it. We’ve just got to stay positive and focus on the opportunity I’m having down here in Canada and everything I can get my hands on.
Q: You certainly have a good outlook on the situation.
A: Yeah, I mean, it was tough, I would say it was very hard. Coming back down here, and stopping a season that I thought we could go for a championship and be in the playoffs, for sure, it was very hard. It’s tough, mentally, when you see all your other teammates and other drivers that have a lot of money and can do it all. And you’ve got to stop, and you’re, you’re working as hard as they are, if not harder. So it was very tough for a couple months, but now I’ve got to stay positive and you’ve got to tell yourself that everything happens for a reason and we’re racing back home in Canada and we’re winning and we’re doing everything we can to stay in the racecar as long as we can.
Q: Now, you’re talking about sponsors, about how some backed out. Would you like to give a shoutout to any of the sponsors who have been with you for a long time and have really been helpful to you?
A: Yeah, I would say, FRL Express and CANAC have been supporting me a lot, definitely. Richelieu Hardware that was on the truck at Atlanta. They gave me great support, and there’s a lot more, but I would say those are mostly the main sponsors that have helped me through my career. Down here right now, there’s Larue Snowblower. There’s a lot more too that are very good to us, so now I’m racing a bunch in Canada every weekend. It doesn’t cost me anything. They called me and they said we need a driver and if you want to, we want it to be you. So it’s awesome to get those offers on the table and just be able to go race down here for not costing any money.
Q: So you’ve raced in the Truck Series and now you’re racing in Canada for most of the year. What style racing have you been doing this year, and how many races have you done so far?
A: So far this year I’m not sure how many races I’ve done, but I would say, at least 10 to 15 races would probably be a good number right now. It’s hard to tell, I don’t remember how many races I’ve done but the type of racing is mostly—well I did Truck Series at the beginning of this year. Then I came back down to Quebec and I’ve been racing Late Models a bunch, and something that is new that I’ve never done is I’ve been racing Dirt Modifieds, and tonight I’m going to do another one in Green Bay for my third Dirt Modified race. So it’s been really cool to try to improve my dirt skills because I always wanted to race dirt, but I never really did. I did one truck race in the dirt and it went really well. And those Modifieds, it’s so different. And I’ve been loving it. Also racing the Pinty’s Series this weekend, which I wasn’t supposed to do, but Donald Theetge from Theetge Chevrolet called me. He hurt his hands and he usually drives the car, and he needed someone to replace him. I went and we won both races, so it’s been cool. I won two races in the NASCAR Pinty’s and out of four races total in that series, I got three wins, so it’s a good percentage.
Q: So you’re racing in Late Model and Dirt Modifieds. What’s your race prep like? How do you prepare for racing, starting with the start of the week leading up to the day of the race, what’s the prep like?
A: Right now it’s kind of hard because usually I will prep as much as I can, but I know I’m so busy. I’ve been working for my dad’s company in the office and just trying to work as much as I can during the week and during the weekend I go race and sometimes at night I go test. But I usually watch some videos for a little bit. For example, Sunset Speedway in Ontario, that’s where I won two Pinty’s races. It was my first time going there last weekend, never seeing the place before Saturday, and we had 45 minutes of practice to learn the racetrack and then qualifying and two races. And what I do is mostly watch some videos of the year before, of the Pinty’s Series there. And then I just keep it in my mind, think about it, and ask some good questions about the racetrack to the right people that I know are going to tell me the truth. And just listen to their advice, you’ve got to want to learn and even if you know, I knew I was probably going to figure it out by myself, but I was asking as much as I could to the people that knew the racetrack and knew those cars. And I think listening to all that and taking it in place and putting it together in the race in the racecar, I think it helped me a bunch, but I also workout every day. I run a lot. I go the gym, so I’m always ready physically, and I never get tired during a race. So that’s what I always wanted, to be in good shape and to wear out the car before I’m wore out.
Q: You mentioned the physical side of the sport, now how do you get yourself mentally prepared? How do you get yourself into the zone when you’re shifting into race mode?
A: For now, when I put my helmet on, I get in my zone, and I think about nothing else. It’s just the racecar, think about the racecar, think about the race, and I think about what I can do to make it better, to improve, and it’s all on me. I’ve just got to be focused. Mentally, you’ve just got to want to learn and be prepared and give it all, like everything I do, it’s always 100% and I try to leave it all on the table. And that’s what you’ve got to do. You can’t be scared of taking your place and being there and showing them what you can do, you’ve just got to go for it and try to do your best and you’ve got to try and make mistakes so you can learn from them. It’s the sport of mistake, you always get to every lap and you make a mistake and you try to improve from it after.
Q: This is a hypothetical question I always like to ask people just to see what they say. So, let’s say you were named the President of NASCAR. You can change any rules, do anything you want. What sort of changes would you make if you were in charge of the whole operation?
A: I don’t know how they could do it, but I would try to make the sport not as expensive as it is now, and just try to bring out the talent more than the money because it’s so much about the money these days with NASCAR. It’s not very fun at this point because you’re always competing against someone that’s got more money than you. I don’t know how it would even be possible, but it would be awesome to find a way so they can look at the driver, even if they don’t have the funding to back them, but if they had the talent they could bring them to the top even without all that funding because—you look at some of the drivers in NASCAR and all three series. Most of them, it’s pretty rare that they don’t have funding behind them. Usually they bring a lot of funding to the team and it’s just kind of hurting the sport a little bit. And that’s what I would change for sure. I would just find a way to make it more about the talent in the racecar. Because, don’t get me wrong, there’s some people that have funding and have a lot of talent, and it’s good for them because I’m happy that they got the funding and they got the talent.
Q: With the recent variety of new tracks in several different series, what are your favorite tracks to race at and what are your least favorite?
A: I would say it’s hard to tell. I usually say my favorite racetrack is the next one I go to, but it all depends. I like them all, but I grew up racing short track, so I love it. But the bigger racetrack like the mile-and-a-half, two miles, two mile-and-a-half—they’re just so different and you get to learn all different types of racing. The aerodynamics are a lot different and that’s what kind of makes it hard because you’ve got to learn, and you’re always against veterans that know all the tricks. So I wouldn’t say they’re my least favorite, but it’s just something that I was getting better at, and this year I was getting good at, but then that stopped.
Q: What are your thoughts on the changes to the schedules across the three major series this year? Do you like seeing the new variety being added to the schedule?
A: I think it’s awesome because it brings out the—if you want to win a Cup Championship or a Truck Championship, I think they’re going to have to be good at dirt racing, road course, ovals, you have to be good in everything to win a championship. That’s another fun thing. It’s not all about the oval right now, because you can’t throw away the road course. If you want to win the championship, you’ve got to be good at all of these. So I think it’s good and the road courses are usually really exciting, and it brings something new to the table for the fans. And I think it’s going to bring more fans to the racetrack.
Q: Are there any tracks that you’d like to see added to the schedule or any that you’d like to see taken off the schedule?
A: No, I wouldn’t say taking off the schedule, but adding to the schedule would be Montreal. Xfinity used to go to Montreal and it was always a heck of a show. So yeah, the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. That would be awesome.
Q: NASCAR used to run races outside of the United States and the sport has been trying to increase its diversity in recent years. How do you think NASCAR can grow the sport to make it more diverse, to bring in more international competition, or to reach a wider fan base?
A: I’m not sure, honestly. It’s hard, it’s so delicate, because I think they’ve done a lot, a lot of that stuff, especially in the last year with Black Lives Matter. I think it was good for the sport. I don’t know, you’ve got to bring in drivers from other countries maybe. So, every country’s got someone to cheer on. I think that would be a good way to start. If you look at Formula One, they race in every single country almost. And it’s not only Americans that drive the racecars. People are from everywhere, so I think that would bring some more fans from every country.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Next Gen car coming into the sport next year? Do you think it’s going to promote closer competition, going to disrupt things? What do you see happening?
A: I can’t wait to see it in person and see how the racing is. But I would say it’s a lot different and it’s hard to tell right now, but I’m sure it’s going to be—if they are doing it, it’s because they think it’s better. So we’ll see if it is, but hopefully it’s still a NASCAR stock car and not like a street car or something. That’s why we’re racing. It’s exciting that they’re changing stuff and then trying to make it better. We’ll see. I’ve never driven it, never seen it in person, so it’s going to be new for me too.
Q: I know NASCAR mentioned off and on that they have thought about going to race on a street course like they did with the iRacing at the Chicago street course. Do you think something like that would actually get added to the schedule? Do you think that would be an exciting race?
A: I wouldn’t be surprised because you look at the NASCAR Pinty’s and they race on the streets. But they race in Trois-Rivières in two weeks and it’s a street course and it puts on a great show every year. I’m going to get to race in it, so I wouldn’t be surprised if NASCAR wanted to bring something new to the table. So I would say it’s probably one of the next steps coming up.
Q: What are your thoughts on e-NASCAR, like how they started televising iRacing during the pandemic? Do you think they should do more of that moving forward?
A: Yeah, it was pretty cool when the COVID was happening and all. But I think it’s hard to do a bunch during the race season because these guys race every week and they’re pretty busy during the week and with what we do to get ready for the weekend. So I don’t think they could do a whole lot, but it’s for sure a lot of fun when they do it. It brings all the drivers together and they get the fans to watch another type of racing. It’s fun, but it also takes good equipment to run up front in one of these races.
Q: What do you do like when you’re not racing? What sort of hobbies do you have, and how do you like to unwind when you’re away from the track?
A: I’m always super busy and all I do is work and race, so I’m always at the racetrack if I’m not working. In the winter, I used to play hockey a lot, I used to be a hockey player growing up. And I stopped because racing was taking too much time. I love racing and I love hockey. That’s a sport that I usually play in the winter all the time when I’m back home. Also, I love trucks. My dad owns a trucking company, and I was driving the truck in my yard at nine years old. Driving the big trucks around, and moving the hauler and all that stuff, so that’s always been part of me. And that’s something I love, just spending some time playing hockey, snowmobiling, driving trucks. I’m trying to get my license so I can drive them on the road, but also spending some quality time with my family because I was always in the United States. So when I’m back in Quebec, I just spend as much time with the family as I can.
Q: What hockey position do you play?
Q: Very nice, you get to be a little aggressive, put people into the wall.
A: Yeah, yeah, it was fun. I love to. That’s something that I missed. Nobody touched the goalie.
Q: Who is your favorite hockey team?
A: A lot of people ask me that. I don’t really care for only one team. People think I’m a Montreal Canadians fan because I’m close to Montreal, but I wasn’t. I was cheering them on for sure this year because they went to the Stanley Cup Finals. I’ve always—I’m the guy that wants the Nordiques back in the league. Quebec used to have a team which was called the Nordiques, and I’d love for them to be back. It would be so cool.
Q: Hey, you never know. I mean, the NHL just gave Seattle a team, so they’re definitely interested in expanding. I mean, maybe Quebec will be next on the radar.
A: Yes, I hope so.
Q: What plans do you have for 2022? Do you have anything set up? What are your goals moving forward?
A: I have nothing confirmed yet for 2022. I would like to be back in the Truck Series full time, but as of right now, it’s just too early to tell. I don’t have anything like 100% for sure, but we’re working on some stuff.
Q: So this next question is a ways down the road. Eventually, you’re going to retire from driving. If that time ever comes, what would you want to do to remain in the sport? Something on the broadcasting side? Crew chief side? Maybe even owning your own team?
A: I don’t know, it’s pretty far ahead. I would like to race as much as I can, and maybe have my own team at some point, and be the driver at the same time. That would be awesome. But if not, I would like to maybe be a coach and help the kids that are moving into the sport and give them a little bit of my tricks. That would be cool, just to teach them and help the younger kids that are going through what I went through.
Q: What sort of advice do you have for young racers? What sort of advice would you pass along to those that are new to racing?
A: Yeah, I would say just don’t be scared to ask questions and ask as much question as you can and listen to the best around you. Take advice and don’t think you’re better than everybody because there are people that know a lot more than you do and that are a lot better than you. There’s always, when you get down to it, you can always be fast in the racecar, and be as fast as someone that’s an excellent driver that’s got a lot experience; you can make a lap as fast as you can. But the people that get the most experience are the best that can put a race together and they know what they’re doing. So I’ve always been a guy that listens a lot and takes advice, and I think that that helps me a lot on improving my skills. So I would say just listening to advice and not being scared of trying new things.
Q: Now if there’s a company that would be interested in sponsoring you, how could they get in touch with you in order to do so?
A: They can write on my website, https://raphaellessard.ca/home. Or if they’re on social media, they can write directly to me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I always look at my messages and it’s a good place to get in touch with me. You can also send me an email and we can start talking for sure.