February 14, 2014 — Audio and story by Managing Editor Jacob Seelman for Speed77 Radio and Race Chaser Online — Photos courtesy Karen Grala — BOSTON, MA — Whenever a young driver starts out in a new series, the doubters are going to make themselves heard.
When that young driver proceeds to silence the doubters, then teams are put on notice that something special is afoot.
To start the 2014 season, Boston native Kaz Grala has done exactly that.
Grala, 15, has risen out of the UARA and NASCAR Late Model ranks to rapidly climb the motorsports ladder over a very short period of time. The young driver, who scored his first Late Model win at the Banjo Matthews Memorial last June at the Hickory Motor Speedway, will take on a hugely diverse slate of competition in 2014. Grala will race the full NASCAR K&N Pro Series East (KNPSE) schedule for Turner Scott Motorsports as well as a partial Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge (CTSCC) slate after competing in the season-opening CTSCC event at Daytona for defending champions Rum Bum Racing.
“I’m truly honored and could not be more excited about what 2014 has in store for me,” Grala expressed of his newest opportunities. “To be a part of championship-caliber organizations like Turner Scott and Rum Bum is an amazing privilege for me and I hope to make it happen behind the wheel this season.”
Grala began his career early and showed a need for speed that only motorsports would satisfy. At age four, Kaz received his first CRG Bambino kart for Christmas, which he raced at the F1-Outdoors road course in Massachusetts. That one event sparked a competitive fire that would fuel the young racer’s career. For the next six years, Grala competed regularly on road courses across the northeast, compiling an astounding record of more than 100 wins and notching two championships along the way.
Grala advanced through both the Bandolero and Legend car classes following his early road racing career, gaining valuable experience on oval tracks and racking up even more accolades along the way. The Massachusetts driver won the prestigious Charlotte Motor Speedway (CMS) Summer Shootout championship in 2011 in the Bandolero Outlaws class, and in 2012, won 15 of 58 races he competed in in the Legends car ranks, capping the run off with the Pro division Winter Heat Series championship, again at CMS.
In 2013, he set the record as the youngest NASCAR driver ever to compete at Daytona International Speedway, taking the green flag in the Late Model Stock Car portion of the UNOH Battle at the Beach on the Superstretch at 14 years and 51 days old. Grala also broke the United Auto Racing Association (UARA) record for youngest series winner when he won the before-mentioned Banjo Matthews Memorial at Hickory driving for Falcon Racing.
In all, Grala notched eight top ten finishes in nine UARA starts and added a near-victory to his resume in a NASCAR-sanctioned late model race late last season, the legendary Myrtle Beach 400. Grala finished runner-up and became the youngest driver in history to lead laps at the competitive event.
“We just got on such a roll towards the end of last season,” Grala said of his final few races in 2013. “It felt like every race we went out we had a chance, and it would just be little things that got us, or mechanical issues, things that were out of our control. Myrtle Beach was where it all came together though and we were so close, we just couldn’t quite get there.”
With all his late season success, Grala took a massive leap, signing in the offseason to race the full 2014 K&N Pro Series East schedule for co-owners Steve Turner and Harry Scott Jr. Shortly after, Grala also announced his intentions to race in the season-opening Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge event, with the possibility of competing on a part-time basis in 2014.
At that point, the doubters began whispering.
‘He’s not ready, he’s only got one Late Model win; they’re throwing him to the wolves,’ were just a few of the lines Grala heard before his 2014 season officially got underway.
“Oh, there were a few people that said we couldn’t do it; that I wasn’t ready,” the young man admits. “But that just drove me to go out and prove them wrong.”
Keep in mind, it’s not that he didn’t have a family history to back his case up. Young Kaz is the son of former Daytona Prototype ace Darius Grala, who scored a win in his first-ever Grand-AM Rolex Sports Car Series start at Watkins Glen in 2002.
Having a winning pedigree always helps the confidence.
“I had no doubts in my mind that I could go out and perform in the sports car,” Grala said of his mindset going into the Roar Before the Rolex 24, the preseason test for IMSA-sanctioned classes in 2014. “It was just a matter of getting comfortable in it and then going out and turning laps.”
The young pilot didn’t simply turn laps though, he proved he belonged in an instant. Grala was up to speed with his teammate and co-driver Hugh Plumb within ten test laps, and come race day, made a solid case for why he was tapped to become the youngest-ever starter of an IMSA-sanctioned sports car race (at 15 years and 26 days old). Grala set the fastest lap of the race in his stint, and between he and co-driver Plumb, the duo finished fourth overall, despite a late race rear gear issue that cost the Rum Bum entry some speed in the closing laps.
“It was a blast, I had a lot of fun driving the car,” said an enthused Grala of his first experience in the sports car. “The most difficult thing for me was maneuvering in the traffic. I wasn’t used to it at first, but I kept learning as the race went on. It was a great weekend and I learned a lot from Rum Bum Racing.”
With a hugely successful opening race of his 2014 season in the books, Grala now turns his attention to the oval-track portion of his schedule, and the opposite end of the racing spectrum. Grala will compete on Sunday and Tuesday in the opening two K&N East points events of the season, the JEGS 150 at New Smyrna Speedway and the UNOH Battle at the Beach at Daytona International Speedway.
Grala is hoping this year’s experience at Daytona ends much better than his Late Model experience there did in 2013. After being caught up in several caution flags, Grala ultimately finished 18th, and thinks with the support of TSM behind him, he can contend for a top result in this year’s event.
“I’m really excited to be back for this year’s Battle at the Beach. I’m one of the guys who was there last year, so I know a little bit about how the track is going to drive; I know NASCAR said they’re going to change the layout a little bit from what it was a year ago, but I think we should be strong, right there with our teammates.”
While Grala admits that a championship is likely out of reach for 2014, he says his focus has not shifted from trying to give the best possible result he can every single race and contending for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in 2014.
“It’s my first year driving these K&N cars, so I don’t expect to go out there and win the title this year. My focus is going to be learning the tracks and trying to gain experience from my teammates who have run these cars before, Cameron (Hayley), Ben (Rhodes), Scott (Heckert) and Brandon (Jones).”
“Our goal is to finish all the laps, and if we do that, hopefully we can get a few top tens along the way.”
But if the right scenario were to come about in the last five laps on Sunday or Tuesday night?
“Hey, if something crazy happened and we’re in contention in the final laps — it’s Speedweeks. I’ll take a chance if we have one to take.”
The NASCAR K&N Pro Series season officially gets underway with the running of the New Smyrna 150 powered by JEGS at New Smyrna Speedway on Sunday, February 16th, and continues with the 2nd Running of the UNOH Battle at the Beach on Tuesday, February 18th on the Superstretch of the famed Daytona International Speedway.
For more on Kaz Grala, visit kazgrala.com to keep track of all of Grala’s latest racing activities. You can also follow him on Twitter @kazgrala, Instagram at www.instagram.com/kazgrala, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kazgralaracing.
Listen in to our full interview with Kaz Grala as he talks sports car racing, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, and his outlook on a diverse 2014 racing season: