Boston-area native Kaz Grala gives NHMS Bay State flair

Chase Elliot lead Christopher Bell and the rest of the field through the first turn at the start of the USA Today 301 in Loudon.

Chase Elliot lead Christopher Bell and the rest of the field through the first turn at the start of the USA Today 301 in Loudon. Rich Miyara—nhsportsphotography.com

NASCAR Cup Series driver Kaz Grala sitting in his team’s pit road stand during a weather delay during Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. Grala is a Boston-area native who is trying to get a foothold in NASCAR’s top circuit.

NASCAR Cup Series driver Kaz Grala sitting in his team’s pit road stand during a weather delay during Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon. Grala is a Boston-area native who is trying to get a foothold in NASCAR’s top circuit. Rich Miyara / NHsportsphotography.com 

Kaz Grala driving through turn 1 early in the race.

Kaz Grala driving through turn 1 early in the race. Rich Miyara / NHsportsphotography.com

The pit crew for NASCAR Cup Series driver Kaz Grala gets to work during a mid-race pit stop on Sunday.

The pit crew for NASCAR Cup Series driver Kaz Grala gets to work during a mid-race pit stop on Sunday. Rich Miyara / NHsportsphotography.com

Kaz Grala driving through turn 1 early in the race.

Kaz Grala driving through turn 1 early in the race. Rich Miyara / NHsportsphotography.com

By SOPHIE LEVENSON

Monitor staff

Published: 06-23-2024 9:36 PM

Modified: 06-24-2024 9:01 AM


“Three, two, one,” and the No. 15 Ford skidded to a halt in front of Rick Ware Racing’s control center.

Four men dressed to drive, in black helmets and fire-resistant suits, ambushed the car with gold-spoked tires and a container of gasoline. In fewer than 20 seconds, Kaz Grala slammed the gas pedal and drove back to the racetrack.

Rick Ware Racing wants to be something great. Grala wants a team to hold him up for longer than a few years. Maybe this will be what both sides are looking for.

A member of the new racing generation, Grala wears his hair and beard carefully trimmed. He went to Worcester Academy in Massachusetts, and he gets a lot of Snapchat notifications.

Six years ago, he turned down an education in engineering from Georgia Tech to compete in NASCAR. Meat N’ Bone, an expensive online butcher shop, sponsors his stock car, which he is not afraid to crash.

He speaks with manners and a smile. Grala drives fast, but he has patience when it comes to the big picture. Like most racers, he describes a car as an extension of the driver.

“We’re operating autonomously, completely free of any thought,” he said. “You’re in your rhythm, carrying out the motions, connected with the car. The car is just part of us.”

The rookie took off on his first NASCAR Cup Series start at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend. The Loudon track, of all NASCAR sites, sits closest to where the 25-year-old grew up, in Boston.

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Saturday rain took away the qualifying round for the Cup Series race, putting Grala at the back of the starting order thanks to technical difficulties last weekend that kept his season points low. But the rookie stayed calm behind the wheel — according to him, one of his greatest strengths — and turned a disadvantaged start into a 22nd-place finish that meant overtaking Denny Hamlin and skidding past the finish line just a few places behind Chase Elliott, who started at the pole for the Magic Mile.

Starting in second-to-last place didn’t exactly brighten Grala’s spirits heading into the race.

“It’s disappointing. It’s gonna make the swings bigger,” he said Saturday.

But he’s is not unused to starting at the back.

“It’s kind of a comfort zone, actually, with the underdog teams,” he said Friday.

Not that he wants to stay in his comfort zone forever — Grala has ambition, goals of winning Cup Series races around the nation. But for now, he keeps balanced expectations. He wants simple things, as much as a modern NASCAR driver can want simple things.

He knew, for example, that he would not win this race, or even place in the top few spots. So his goal was smaller. More attainable.

“As a rookie, what you really want to have is one of those performances where you just truly went out and did it,” he said.

Fearlessness clashes with Grala’s patience.

Seventy laps in, the rookie’s team told him to pit while all the other cars were doing it. But the driver pushed back; he wanted to make up for his spot at the back. The cost would be weighed later, but at that moment, Grala moved up past seven cars.

The cost paid off, if it happened in a way Grala and his fellow drivers would not have chosen. At lap 219 of the scheduled 301-lap race, NASCAR called the Magic Mile to a stop for rain. A few minutes later, thunder rumbled, lightning flashed and the stands at the speedway began to clear.

But before he pulled his car to the pit, Grala had climbed from the bottom of the pack to the edge of the middle group, the Rick Ware team in his ears all the way.

“Let’s make quick work of this 31 … quicker, quicker, quicker, all the way…”

Grala sped past Daniel Hemric and his orange car.

“Just keep pace, you’re doing a good job. Heading to lap 135.”

Grala steadily climbed the rankings. Last place, 32nd, 29th, 27th.

“I think there’s potential that I have that’s been untapped so far,” Grala said. “I’ve spent the last five, six years of my career bouncing around to different series and different teams, because I’ve not gotten the one anchor sponsor yet that keeps me in one place.”

Having Rick Ware Racing as that anchor wouldn’t be a bad idea for Grala.

He was in 26th place at the time of the weather delay and still running, nine spots ahead of where he began. He skidded the passenger side of his car against the wall — collateral damage from Kyle Busch’s accident — and even that didn’t break his momentum. He “just truly went out and did it.”

Before Grala got into his car, he took off his sunglasses and pushed in earplugs. He combed his thick brown hair with his hands, tugged on a fabric cap and slid into his N29 red and white helmet. Then he climbed inside and attached his steering wheel.

Five team members had hands on the No. 15 Ford, wiping its windows, checking under the hood, tightening Grala’s seat belt. When they were done, the rookie took off with a roar.

Grala will take the long run slowly. But he’ll hit the track like lightning.