By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
For this week’s edition of Climbing the Ladder, Seth Eggert sat down with Kaz Grala. Grala is an 18-year-old NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver, driving the No. 33 Kiklos Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil Chevrolet Silverado for GMS Racing and is also contending for the 2017 Rookie of the Year award in the Truck Series.
Seth Eggert: How did you become interested in Motorsports?
Kaz Grala: Motorsports itself is really what interested me. Once you try it, it’s hard to lose that feeling. My Dad used to race sports cars in the Rolex Series. When I was four, the same time I got into Little League, Soccer, all of the regular kinds of sports, he put me in a go-kart too, just to see what I liked and what I was good at. It didn’t take me too long for me to decide to stop wasting my time with these other sports and really put some more effort into racing because it’s just so much fun.
SE: Where and when was your first race? What was the result?
KG: My first race period was up in Massachusetts at this little go-karting place. My very first oval race ever was on the fifth-mile behind Charlotte Motor Speedway. That was the first oval I ever turned laps on, actually it was in one of Austin Cindric’s bandoleros. It’s a really small world because now we’re racing together here in Trucks.
It was the Halloween race, I think they called it the ‘Spooktacular.’ It was a hundred-lapper, and I finished 12th out of 36 cars, one lap down. And I felt like I nailed it.
SE: Who would you consider your mentor?
KG: As far as people I have looked up to that I don’t know in this sport, Jimmie Johnson for sure. You can look up to him in every aspect of racing.
People that I know, my Dad taught me pretty much everything I know as far as road course racing and how you race and how you make decisions during a race. That’s a big part of it. He helped teach me all of that, but when I got on the ovals, he doesn’t really know much about ovals, so I’ve kind of been winging it myself.
SE: What inspires you to compete?
KG: I’m just a very competitive person. It doesn’t matter if we’re sitting at a stoplight and I’m looking at the guy next to me and I’m trying to get a jump on him off the line, or in a NASCAR truck. It doesn’t make a difference to me, I’m always trying to win. I think for me this is the most challenging place that I have been able to find in my life to try to win. It’s just addicting.
SE: You won the season opening race at Daytona International Speedway, what does that mean to you?
KG: That was pretty cool. That’s definitely an experience that you’re not going to forget ever, that’ll stick with you. Anywhere you get your first win in NASCAR is gonna be special and is gonna be amazing, but to have it at Daytona, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than that. It was pretty surreal.
SE: What was the reception like at your High School when you went back for the first time after winning Daytona?
KG: They were pretty excited. Not a whole lot of people are into racing at my high school, but everybody saw Daytona, and everyone knew about it. They were very, very excited about it. Apparently a bunch of kids saw them playing my interview on SportsCenter that night, which is how they found out about it. Up in Massachusetts it’s all about football, basketball, baseball, so everyone was watching SportsCenter. I guess that’s when they figured out, “Oh wait a second, this might have been a big deal.”
SE: How were you able to balance your classes while competing?
KG: Luckily as of a few weeks ago, I’m not having to balance it quite as much for now. I just finished up my classes. That was pretty difficult. I went to a private high school, not an online school or anything like that. So, it’s just regular school work that I was doing and going into school. I missed 50 percent of classes this year, so I had to do a lot of independent learning, figuring topics out on my own.
I’ve got the next challenge in my life starting up in January as I’m going to Georgia Tech to study Mechanical Engineering. We’ll see how I can balance racing with college.
SE: You have announced you are taking a “gap year” before you attend Georgia Tech, how do you plan to spend the year? Are you looking to gain more time and experience with your team/seat time?
KG: It’s to focus on the playoffs and to get some more seat time in my rookie season in the Truck Series. I’m really trying to make it in this sport. It’s what I love to do and if I can make a career in it, that would be my dream come true. I just want to give it my all and see what I can do.
SE: Your teammate, Johnny Sauter is the defending NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Champion, how much of a benefit is that for you as a rookie? Is it intimidating being his teammate?
KG: It’s huge and he’s leading the points this year too. So, he clearly still has it. He’s got a lot to teach me about every track. I lean pretty heavily on him between practices, before qualifying, before the race, the whole deal. He gives me advice as far how do you want your truck to handle, what the aero is going to feel like, and all that good stuff. And I’m just trying to figure it out as a rookie. It’s been huge to me to be able to have him otherwise my learning curve would have been much, much longer.
SE: NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series drivers Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott were your teammates at Atlanta and Martinsville; how much of a help was he for you and your team? Were you able to get advice from Chase?
KG: Having drivers like them as your teammate is a huge bonus. Of course, you know that they’re going to be good, going to be fast, they know what their trucks need to do. Getting to talk to them about how their trucks are handling and what they’re looking to do with them really gives you a direction to go with practice yourself.
SE: Your father, Darius, raced in the Rolex Series, what would it mean to you if you won the 24 Hours of Daytona, let alone compete in it?
KG: Well that’s the next step. I got the NASCAR win out of the way, now I have got to get the IMSA win. That would be really cool because that was a race that my Dad tried to win for quite a few years. He came close a couple of times but never did get it. That would be cool to follow in his footsteps and try to get it for him. I would definitely let him wear the watch for a long time.
SE: Drivers such as Joey Logano, Ricky Craven, Mike Stefanik, and the late Pete Hamilton also came from New England. Does their legacy in the sport intimidate you or make you strive even harder to exceed their careers?
KG: I actually feel like my duty is to try to get more New England fans into the sport, into NASCAR. NASCAR is huge down here in the South and in the Midwest. The fans that are in New England are some of the most diehard and strong fans of NASCAR, but there just needs to be more of them. Hopefully by being the hometown kid per se I can try to rope some more fans in. I feel that’s my duty and my legacy, so that is actually what I am trying to live up to. I think that Joey Logano and others from New England have done their part certainly, and now I have to give it a shot.
SE: What does the future hold for you? Where will you be in a year from now?
KG: I have no idea. I hope back in a Truck Series ride or something like that. I’m really hoping to stay in the National Series, that would be huge for my career. Right now I don’t have any plans, we’re working on sponsorship, we’re working on figuring out what we want to do. Hopefully we’ll have some good news at some point about next year, but right now we have no idea.