Wed. Feb 21st, 2024

Getting in a sports car at Daytona International Speedway was as simple as asking for Bubba Wallace.

“I just texted that I needed some massive help after my road course career in the Cup Series,” Wallace said Thursday while on a break from practicing the No. 23 Toyota GR Supra GT4 EVO that he will drive in the 2024 season opener of the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge. “So I texted Toyota leadership to say whatever it takes to get more seat time, whatever we have to do.”

Toyota Racing Development brokered a deal over the offseason to put him in the Rolex 24 at Daytona support race, which will be start at 1:45 p.m. ET Friday and be streamed on Peacock.

ROLEX 24 VIEWER’S GUIDE: Five things to watch at Daytona

The co-drivers for Wallace, who made the Cup Series playoffs last yer with 23XI Racing, also are from NASCAR. John Hunter Nemechek will drive the No. 42 Toyota in Cup this season for Legacy Motor Club, and Corey Heim will be a reserve driver for 23XI and LMC in Cup while returning full time to the truck series after making the championship round last year.

The trio will be sharing a seat Friday afternoon during the four-hour BMW M Endurance Challenge, which has become a popular option for NASCAR prospects and rising stars. Harrison Burton and Zane Smith won the race last year in a Ford, which also has fielded Hailie Deegan and Chase Briscoe in the event.

Wallace, Heim and Nemechek will drive a car prepared by Smooge Racing, which also competes in the GR Cup started last year by Toyota. That single-make series also might provide moonlighting opportunities for Cup drivers trying to hone their right turns as the schedule has shifted to nearly 20 percent road courses.

Though the sports car is lighter and has many features (anti-lock braking, traction control) unavailable in NASCAR (and which allow them to enter the corners much deeper), Nemechek and Wallace said it helps improve their racecraft.

IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge

#23: Smooge Racing, Toyota GR Supra GT4 EVO, GS: John Hunter Nemechek

John Hunter Nemechek (IMSA/Michael L. Levitt/LAT Images)

“What we’re used to in NASCAR don’t necessarily apply to what we’re doing this weekend,” Nemechek said. “I’ve always been told to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and this has definitely made me out of my comfort zone, so I’ve enjoyed it, but overall, it’s difficult. We’re having to fine-tune and look at data and figure out where we can make speed in different corners. So a lot of adaptation but a lot of fun.”

Wallace qualified 20th of 28 on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course that incorporates a large swath of the 2.5-mile oval. He actively has sought advice for road course improvement, including a conversation with six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon last year that he credited after a 12th at Watkins Glen International.

“For road courses, (you) can lay down a decent lap by yourself, but it’s when you put the rest of the cars out there and figure out how to pass,” Wallace said. “We’re all at the same braking zone, and so it’s like, ‘Oh, I need to send it how far without crashing.’ So that’s been my biggest weakness so I’m looking forward to just the racecraft and figuring out how to pass so I’m sorry in advance if I run you over, but I’m figuring it out.”

IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge

#23: Smooge Racing, Toyota GR Supra GT4 EVO, GS: Bubba Wallace, Corey Heim, John Hunter Nemechek

The No. 23 Toyota GR Supra GT4 EVO being driven by three NASCAR drivers (IMSA/Jake Galstad/LAT Images).

But the real eye-opener for Wallace has been the sports car atmosphere. Joking that NASCAR needed to adopt allowing golf karts in the garage, there were many other elements of IMSA that appealed to him.

“I think the culture is actually really cool,” Wallace said. “It feels like a massive car meet, and there just so happens to be a 24-hour race. But there’s so much to do for the fans, and I think the accessibility that the fans have makes them feel a part of the sport.”

Unlike NASCAR, an IMSA ticket allows fans access to the Daytona garage, where 18 manufacturers are competing across four categories in the Rolex 24 (the Cup Series has three automakers).

“For us on the NASCAR side of things, we can learn a lot,” Wallace said. “Which is mind-boggling, because NASCAR owns IMSA, so we won’t get into that. But it’s just really, really cool. You have people that are car people, and they have dream cars, and they get to purchase tickets and come see those cars in person and see them race, see how they perform and give them that feel. And then they get to meet some of their favorite drivers and just get to ask questions about it and just get to free roam the garage freely and have fun.”

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