Kaz Grala grew up in Westboro and now resides in North Carolina, but he’s made himself right at home at Daytona International Speedway in Florida.
Although long considered one of the toughest tracks to navigate on the NASCAR circuit, Grala has had a series of strong showings on the 2.5-mile, tri-oval layout with its steep, 31-degree banked turns.
(written by Rich Garven Telegram & Gazette, photo from article / Associated Press)
The 22-year-old Worcester Academy graduate is hoping that string of success continues as he attempts to earn a spot in the famed Daytona 500, when qualifying begins Wednesday and continues Thursday leading up to Sunday’s 63rd running of the “Great American Race.”
“Daytona, for some reason, has been a good place for me,” Grala said last week via phone from his home in Morrisville, North Carolina, the hub of the stock car racing world.
“It’s been good to me, and I’ve had some great luck there. Something about that place seems to treat me well,” he added. “So I’m hoping whatever that luck is for me there can hang on at least another weekend for me.”
Both days of qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series opener will be broadcast live beginning at 7 p.m. on FS1, with Grala driving the No. 16 Camaro ZLI ILE for Kaulig Racing.
Racing cars, rather than playing baseball or soccer, was Grala’s sport of choice while growing up in Westboro, where he and his family moved to from the Boston area when he was around 6 years old.
At that point, Grala already had been racing for a couple of years, having followed in the foot pedals of his dad, Darius, an endurance sports car racing driver and owner of a NASCAR Xfinity Series team (a step below the Cup Series).
“I started racing when I was 4 years old and never stopped,” Grala said.
Grala instantly took to the sport, consistently winning races and championships. By the time he was 10, he was primarily racing in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
That resulted in many missed days of school — 19 total as a fifth-grader at Mill Pond School in Westboro by Grala’s recollection — leading to the possibility he might be held back. So he ended up transferring to Worcester Academy the following year.
Grala went on get straight A’s at WA, from which he graduated in 2017 as a member of the Headmaster’s List.
“Worcester Academy really did an unbelievable job of working with me and allowing me the freedom to miss some days when I needed to be on the road for racing, just under the one condition that I made up all my work and stayed on top of everything like I needed to,” Grala said. “And I absolutely did that. So they were a huge part in really allowing me to chase my dream and get to where I am today.”
Grala turned pro in 2016, and started racing full time in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (a step below the Xfinity Series) as a high school senior. It was a school year that included a couple of very memorable moments.
The first came in February 2017, when Grala won the season opener at Daytona. Having turned 18 two months earlier, that made him the youngest NASCAR winner ever at the speedway, which opened in 1959.
The other came in June, when Grala, on the day of his graduation, found himself in Dover, Delaware, where he finished a close second after being acknowledged for his academic achievements before the race.
“Michael Waltrip presented me with my high school diploma on stage during driver introductions before the race that day,” Grala said of the two-time Daytona 500 champion. “So that was my little makeshift graduation.”
Grala had moved to North Carolina a month earlier after his classes at Worcester Academy ended and was soon joined by his mom, Karen, and dad, who live about 10 minutes away from him.
After making his Xfinity Series debut in 2018 and joining Richard Childress Racing a year later, Grala has gone on to record four top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 32 races.
He made his first start in the Cup Series in August, filling in for an ill Austin Dillon and driving the renowned No. 3 car to seventh place in the inaugural Daytona road course event.
Last month, Grala joined Kaulig Racing, which has a technical alliance with RCR, and will compete in select Cup Series races this year with a focus on superspeedway events. The team has made rapid strides since being formed six years ago.
“I know they have their sights set in the long run on being a competitive, powerhouse Cup organization someday,” Grala said. “It’s a place I would love to grow at and continue working with, so hopefully this is the start of something great for all of us.”
And it all starts with Daytona 500 qualifying.
Including Kaulig Racing, there are eight non-chartered teams vying for four available spots in the 40-car field. (The other 36 spots are guaranteed for NASCAR chartered teams. Think of them the way you would NFL franchises.)
Two spots are guaranteed to the cars with the first- and second-fastest times at a single-lap time trial Wednesday. The other two will go to the car that finishes the highest among the six remaining teams at a pair of 60-lap races Thursday.
“It’s a challenge,” Grala said. “It allows two people in on speed and two people in on racing. … We’ve looked at who is going to be there and what the teams are and how the cars are going to be and, based on our expectations, we think we’re going to be right up in that fight around the top two on speed.”
—Contact Rich Garven at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @RichGarvenTG