Home is where the heart is. And it’s where Derek Kraus finds structure and support during his first season on the NASCAR circuit.
At only 16 years of age, the Wisconsin native has had a lot to learn from in 2017, tackling his rookie season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West. For a driver too young to drive on the street, that’s a weighty assignment. Adding to those expectations, he pilots one of the three most dominant cars in the series for Bill McAnally Racing.
However, for the weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kraus got an opportunity to ease the pressure and try something different, racing in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour in Friday night’s non-points Southern Slam 150. He ran a solid sixth in a race won by the series champion, Doug Coby.
“It’s really fun to be in a modified for the first time,” Kraus told Frontstretch. “It’s definitely different, a lot more tire on it, so it’s fun to drive.”
Despite the distance from Wisconsin to Charlotte, one connection has followed Kraus along the way in his racing career. Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Paul Menard, a Wisconsin native, helped Kraus get into the No. 77 he ran Friday night.
“Paul contacted us with Menards,” Kraus said. “That’s when it really came together.”
The support from the 2011 Brickyard 400 winner spans back to his birth. Paul’s father John Menard helped Kraus’ father Mark return home shortly following Derek’s birth on September 1, 2001.
“My dad and Paul used to race all over the country,” he said. “The Menards actually let my dad use his private jet to fly him back to Wisconsin.”
Mark Kraus, who raced Paul in late models in the early 2000s, remembers the help from the Menards after having some trouble traveling to a race after his son was born.
“Right before we left [to go race], his mother had Derek,” father Mark said. “I left right away, everything was OK. But when we got [to the track], we broke down in a truck and would’ve stayed there for days with this truck. Paul found that out, so his dad John said, ‘Your crew can come fly home with us.'”
Fast-forwarding nearly 16 years, Paul Menard remembered the Kraus name when he tuned into the K&N West Series race at Sonoma Raceway this June. From there, they came back together.
“We saw Paul at Sonoma and he came and talked to Derek,” Mark Kraus said. “They talked about the story, so Paul started following his racing. It all came together. Paul called and said that he may have an opportunity for Derek to run this modified.
“He turned on the K&N race [at Iowa] and he said ‘… Derek Kraus…’ And he put it all together and realized that was Mark’s kid. He googled it quick and sure enough, [it was.] He just started following him from there.”
After 16 years and a growing racing career for Kraus, the support of 37-year-old Menard has kept Kraus looking upward toward 2018.
“It’s really good to have him on my side,” he said. “Hopefully, we can keep working [toward] the future.”
Despite the unique connection in the NASCAR garage, Kraus has more than one set of shoulders to lean on.
Driving for BMR in the West Series, Kraus has scored seven top-five and eight top-10 finishes after 12 races and sits third in the championship with two races left to run. The two in front? Teammates Todd Gilliland and Chris Eggleston, the men who have combined for 10 of the 12 race wins in 2017.
“They’ve been helping me on and off the track with everything I want,” Kraus said of his successful teammates. “They’ll tell me the honest truth. Going into all these different tracks I’ve never raced at before, it’s tough. But with those guys there, it helps me a lot. I learned a lot driving on all these tracks, especially driving a different car.”
— Bill McAnally Racing (@BMR_NASCAR) July 5, 2017
Despite solid numbers on the West Coast, a first career victory has eluded the young driver. Perhaps his best shot at win No. 1 came last weekend at Meridian Speedway, when Kraus led a career-high 58 laps. He was out front with two laps to go by more than four seconds until a caution fell. On the ensuing restart, the win slipped through his fingers.
“It was looking to be really good there with about five to go, there was no yellow yet. But I knew when we were having a restart that would be very big for me,” Kraus said. “You wanted to control the restart and that didn’t really happen.”
Though teammate Eggleston was penalized for jumping the restart, Kraus fell back and only managed a fifth-place result. It was a disappointing ending, considering his dominance up front but still a big night in his young career to date.
“That was huge for confidence and momentum going into Roseville,” he said. “I just have more confidence showing that I can do it and now knowing in my head that I can do it. That was really big for me and hopefully, we can have a really good run at Roseville.”
With his future still up in the air for 2018, Kraus hopes to end 2017 on a high note. He’s looking to return to BMR for next season although nothing has been officially signed.
Whatever happens next, it’s been an experience of a lifetime for a young driver whose racing career took a big step forward in 2017.
“This year, the cars have been really well but ours have fallen off a bit in the longer run,” he said. “It has seemed like we’ve shown how our car was good on the long run. It’s really different traveling out to California and Oregon, wherever it is every weekend. We still get to race a lot back at home, it’s really fun to go back and race. But it’s always fun to travel around and see all these new tracks and new people.”