Kaz Grala may be exactly what NASCAR needs.
In the past few years, television ratings and gate attendance at the stock-car racing organization’s highest level of competition — the Sprint Cup Series — have gradually declined.
Meanwhile, Grala, a naturally gifted driver with an engaging personality at just 14 years old, has steadily ascended the ranks of auto racing’s minor leagues while racking up win after win along the way.
The Westborough resident and Worcester Academy eighth-grader recently reached the midway point on his path to the Sprint Cup Series.
He was promoted to the Legends Car Pro class, where he drives replicas of 1930s and 1940s cars that travel up to 120 miles per hour and have manual transmissions. In the INEX Winter Heat, a series of eight races held on weekends throughout December and January, Grala turned heads by winning its first four races.
Grala was disqualified from the fourth race for a broken engine seal, a preventative measure to ensure that no competitor makes illegal improvements to gain an unfair advantage. But his car’s engine has since been inspected and returned with a clean bill of health.
If the disqualification holds after an as-yet-to-be scheduled hearing, Grala would finish third. But if, as expected, it is overturned, Grala would take first place, and his 676 total points would be more than 30 points ahead of his closest competitor, Ryan Shattuck. He would also beat 19-year-old Darrell Wallace Jr., regarded by many as a NASCAR rising star.
His accomplishments have been startling for someone so young and new to the circuit.
“I never expected him to win a Pro race, no less the first four,” said his mother, Karen. “I really thought it would come this summer.”
In Grala’s previous six stops — a succession of divisions with increasingly larger cars, more powerful engines, and more complex driving instructions — he has captured five championships and repeatedly proved, regardless of age, that he is a burgeoning force.
Asked about his responsibilities when racing, Grala responded: “You need to think about passing, keeping a car behind you, and driving fast. You need to think about your tire wear and your fuel consumption. There’s just so much you need to do at once.
“I struggle [doing] too many things at once,’’ he said, “but racing comes naturally. Doing all those things takes no effort. It’s sort of something you’re born with.
“But if I am trying to do math and listen to music,” he added, “I can’t multitask in that sense.”
Racing requires deep concentration, spatial awareness, split-second decision-making and a feel for cars.
“You use your senses so much,” Grala said. “Sight for obvious reasons; you need to be able to see where you are and where other cars are. But senses like hearing’’ are also important, he said.
“It definitely helps to have a musical ear. Say you’re on an oval and you want to be consistent and get the same lap time, every time. Hearing the motor is a good way. If you can count it out in your head and know how long you’re on the throttle down the straightaway, you can match that every time.’’
Because instruments — like a speedometer — that appear on a regular car’s dashboard are often missing from a race car, the importance of senses is further accentuated.
“You sort of become one with the car’’ using all five senses, said Grala. “And you know exactly what is going on with the car at all times.”
While some of these abilities are teachable, others are innate; these, according to his mother, come from Grala’s father.
Born in Poland in the mid-1960s, Darius Grala is a successful endurance race car driver, competing in races as long as 24 hours. In 2005, he was recognized as the Grand-Am Daytona Prototype Sportsman of the Year.
Kaz “is hundred percent a carbon copy of his father,” said Karen Grala. “I always make a joke to them and say, ‘Nothing’s easy.’ Like the simplest project requires extra thought, concentration, planning, and strategy.”
Racing industry professionals have noticed Kaz Grala’s combination of natural competencies and an ability to quickly retain information, and they have become believers.
When Grala was recently taught the double-clutch, heel-and-toe technique — a racing procedure akin to shifting in a standard car, but with many more steps — he picked it up immediately.
“You have to execute a series of motions with your feet, you’re braking and pressing the gas simultaneously with the same foot, you’re clutching with the other foot, the car is bouncing over curbs, you’re checking the mirrors, steering and shifting all while the car is sliding,” said Nick Longhi, last year’s Grand-Am champion and a well-respected driving coach.
“You have to process this stuff quickly. It’s just not something that people take up fast. He’s really, really smart at what he’s doing. You say, ‘Do it this way.’ That’s it. Done. Forever. Never have to repeat it,’’ Longhi said of Kaz’s learning curve, and noted it’s “kind of spooky in that it’s one of those qualities that starts to get you thinking, ‘Hmm, there really is — apart from the basic level of talent — something else here. There is something more.’ ”
Grala’s mental approach draws similar reactions.
Emotions can run high during races as drivers jockey for position and cut each other off. A calm manner and ability to avoid “road rage” confrontations can be critical to a racer’s success, as can the ability to rally a crew.
“He’s poised,” said R.J. Valentine, an accomplished Grand-Am driver and the owner of F1 Boston, where Grala started racing go-karts at age 7. “He’s got a great general demeanor. I’ve been to races. I’ve watched him around a crew. He’s inquisitive, he’s smart, he asks the right questions. A lot of times drivers think they’re smarter than the crew,’’ Valentine said, while the drivers are actually “dependent on them and how they set the car up. It’s a team effort. He’s done extremely well at that.”
Grala is still four years away from meeting the Sprint Cup Series age minimum, and, with five levels to climb before he reaches the series, there is still much work ahead.
Races will last longer, which will increasingly push Grala’s physical limits. And pit stops will be introduced.
He has already begun frequenting the gym to build the lower- and upper-body strength necessary to handle more powerful cars, without power steering, that travel in excess of 200 miles per hour. This regimen, along with an increased emphasis on hydrating, will be critical as summer races stretch past four hours. But Grala said he welcomes the challenges.
What will not change, however, is what happens after the first car crosses the finish line. It will still be declared the victor, a position with which Grala has become quite familiar.
“He’s winning races,” said Valentine. “Most guys maybe get a second or third and maybe every once in a while might have a win. He’s been consistently winning.”
“I think the kid is better right now than I was at my best,” said Darius Grala. “And he’s accomplishing more at his age than anyone significantly older. There is no one in this country doing what he is doing.”Paul Lazdowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.