DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Ben Rhodes smiled recounting his time on pit road Friday morning, picking up a cap he mistakenly left in his pit stall during the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge early practice at Daytona International Speedway.
“The next group of cars had already rolled down the track and a team was there and they were speaking a whole other language,‘‘ the 2021 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion said smiling. “I didn‘t know what they were talking about or what was being said. I just got my hat.
“Certainly, there‘s an international feel here. And I‘m always a fan of getting out of the comfort zone, We run trucks 23 times a year and whenever I can do something different I‘m going to jump at the opportunity.‘‘
That‘s certainly the vibe at Daytona this week for the ROAR Before the 24 practice and qualifying sessions on the 3.56-mile road course in preparation for next weekend‘s famous Rolex 24 race week.
By the time the ThorSport Racing driver got back to his Ford Motorsports team hauler a few minutes after his extra stop in the pits, there was already a small crowd of autograph seekers waiting, hoping for a signature from Rhodes and his three teammates for the next week — Hailie Deegan, reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith and Cup Series driver Harrison Burton.
It was the only transporter in the garage with eager fans hanging outside hoping for some interaction.
Rhodes and Deegan will drive the No. 41 PF Racing Ford Mustang GT4 and Smith and Burton will pilot the No. 42 Ford Mustang GT4 in the 31-car Grand Sport class of the four-hour IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race next Friday afternoon.
In opening practice Friday, Burton and Smith were fifth fastest overall. Rhodes and Deegan were 23rd quickest, opting to make some big changes to their Mustang before the second practice later in the day.
While all these young NASCAR stars concede there is work to be done before next weekend‘s race, they were clearly enjoying themselves. And there were absolutely motivated to win the race, despite their relative inexperience competing in this series. And there‘s even a little extra incentive with Ford CEO Jim Farley trackside. He‘s competing in the VP Challenge event as part of the Rolex race week too.
“I want to win, I‘m here to win,‘‘ the 25-year-old Rhodes said. “But we‘ve got to help each other out.‘‘
Next weekend‘s season-opening race will be the first IMSA competition for Smith, 23, who drives the No. 38 Ford F-150 for Front Row Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series. He knows there‘s a lot to learn, but he‘s enjoying the process.
“They put the offer out a few months ago and when you get an opportunity to race something different it‘s always a fun time, especially for anything Ford Performance is involved in,‘‘ said Smith, who won at the Circuit of The Americas road course in last year‘s Truck Series race there.
“It‘s been fun so far. The Ford Mustang was way different than anything I‘ve ever driven. It does pretty much whatever you want it to do. Once the grip started going away, it felt more like home for us,‘‘ he added with a grin. “And anytime you have the opportunity to race at Daytona, and on a road course especially, is a good time. “
Burton, 22, will be making his second consecutive Michelin Pilot Challenge start on the Daytona road course. He and fellow Cup Series driver Austin Cindric finished ninth overall last year. Cindric is competing in the LMP2 class of the Rolex 24 next week for NASCAR team owner Rick Ware Racing‘s team.
“I felt a lot more comfortable this time than I did last time,‘‘ said Burton, driver of the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford in the Cup Series. “Last time I had no information to go off of. I just kind of showed up and saw what happens. Going from that to this, where I ran a race and have notes to go over makes it a lot easier.
“You show up, you know your marks, you know what you have to do and then it‘s just about the car instead of finding the limits of each area. You find what you need to work on with the car, what you need to work on for yourself instead of just painting with a broad brush. You kind of fine-tune a lot quicker.”
Deegan, driver of the No. 13 ThorSpot Racing Ford in 2023, smiled at the suggestion she is the “veteran” of the group. This will be her third start in the Daytona Michelin Pilot Challenge race. She finished 24th last year co-driving with Cup Series driver Chase Briscoe.
“I feel like I have a little experience in these cars but also this type of racing is so new to me also,‘‘ Deegan, 21, said. “I feel like I‘m still learning a lot, learning constantly. Taking information in, trying to get better and every year the car is a little bit different and you have to feel the changes with that and how you can push the car and how you can‘t.
“But it‘s fun and I enjoy it and really love this stuff. I feel like you can drive the hell out of these cars and they react pretty good to it.”
This year gives Deegan a good chance to “bond” with Rhodes. She moves to Rhodes‘ ThorSport Racing team this year and will drive the No. 13 Ford in the Craftsman Truck Series.
“With any good driver, you have faith in them,‘‘ Deegan said. “Ben‘s very successful in the truck stuff. He knows what he‘s doing so I feel like I have a lot of faith in him. Definitely not worried about that.”
The quartet is getting driver advice from veteran sports car champion Joey Hand and by the final practice session later Friday afternoon, Burton and Smith topped the speed chart and the Rhodes and Deegan car was fifth fastest. There are three more practices over the weekend.
“It‘s definitely way different than what we‘re used to just with the amount of cars and how different they are,‘‘ Smith noted of his new experience. “I grew up watching the ROLEX races and all of this, so it‘s pretty cool to be a part of it this year.
“I never thought this day would come. I never saw it in my future, really, especially when I was just trying to make it in NASCAR. It‘s cool how the racing world is really all one at the end of the day.”