Kaz Grala was on his way to NASCAR superstardom in 2017, winning the Gander Outdoors Truck Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway and becoming the youngest winner in track history. Since then, it’s been a bit of a struggle — Grala is now fighting for his NASCAR career at Richard Childress Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
After winning Daytona, Grala went on to score 10 additional top-10 finishes in 2017, making the playoffs via the victory. He was leading on the final lap at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park until Austin Cindric dumped the New England native to win the race. Ultimately, Grala finished seventh in the championship battle.
Last year, Grala took the step to the Xfinity Series with JGL Racing, owned by James Whitener. But 10 races in, sponsorship dollars went away, leading to the demise of JGL Racing, which hasn’t competed in a race since. Grala, on the other hand, competed in the next six events for FURY Race Cars, owned by Darius Grala (father), Tony Eury Jr. and Jeff Fultz. But sponsorship dollars didn’t align for the team to run the whole season.
Fast forward to the 2018 offseason, and Grala had nothing. Again, no sponsorship was coming through despite sending out hundreds of inquiries. Ultimately, the 20-year-old landed on his feet at RCR in a partial schedule.
“It really all started back with FURY last year when we found some sponsorship to run for this year, not enough to run full-time with FURY or enough to keep our doors open, but just enough to bring it to an established team and run a few races,” Grala told Frontstretch of the opportunity with RCR. “There’s really no place out there as good as RCR to bring your partners and make your sponsors happy and go out and run well.
“RCR was already really good last year, and it looks like they’ve stepped their program up even more to that next notch for this year. That’s been really exciting to see and be a part of.”
As opposed to some drivers running a partial schedule with a big-time team, Grala actually spends his week on the RCR campus, whether it’s getting to know the employees or train in the weight room.
Ultimately, a powerhouse Xfinity team like RCR — albeit a limited opportunity — is what Grala believes he needed to elevate his racing career.
“I don’t know about last-ditch effort necessarily, but I believe it’s the next step in my career,” Grala added. “Like you’ve seen with Ross [Chastain] and [Ryan] Preece, eventually you need to take what sponsorship you have and kind of bet on yourself and say, ‘Well, I gained that experience last year. I’ve battled and clawed from 12th, 15th, 18th, grabbed some top 10s as well.’ Once you get that experience, you need to say, ‘All right, it’s time to go and showcase that.’”
In four starts this season in RCR’s No. 21 car, Grala has a trio of 14th-place finishes in his past three races (Richmond Raceway, Dover International Speedway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway). In his first outing at Texas Motor Speedway, Grala was third on the board in opening practice and ran throughout the top 10 much of the day. However, a late-race mishap relegated the team to an 18th-place finish.
Despite the finish, Grala knows the No. 21 was better than that at Texas. His confidence has been elevated since the move to RCR.
“To hop in the car at Texas and right out of the gates in first practice after being out of the car for a couple months, we were third on the board, that kind of showed me, ‘All right, I don’t need to do anything different from what I’ve been doing the past couple years, I just need the equipment,'” Grala mentioned. “I’m really grateful to be at RCR and have that equipment.”
Grala believes he’s fighting for his NASCAR career. On the track, he’s proven to be a contender, even running in lesser equipment. Last year, he had five top-10 finishes in 22 starts, 12 of which came with the start-up FURY team.
On the flip side, he’s not the only driver fighting for their career, knowing sponsorship will make or break him moving forward.
“I think all of us in the Xfinity Series are [fighting for our careers], and that’s part of the excitement of it,” Grala said. “Not everyone is going to make it, and ultimately, the difference between those that do and those that don’t comes down to sponsorship. You have to run well on the track to find that sponsorship, and at the end of the day, what you do during the week at the office to try and find that money is equally as important as what you do at the racetrack.
“I feel like I fight for my career every time I’m on the track, but when I get back to the shop on Monday and sending out emails and sponsorship proposals, I’m still fighting for my career. That’s what we do and that’s what we have to do to make it to the next level.
“It is frustrating, but at the end of the day, that’s our sport, and the business side of it is almost as big as the competition side of it. You see nowadays, it’s moving less from corporate sponsorship to family sponsorship, and that’s frustrating. I think any of us would say that makes our lives even more difficult.”
Grala has added HotScream, a company which combines dessert and spicy foods to form a product in the form of ice cream, as a sponsor this season.
In recent years, NASCAR has had some drivers retire early, including Justin Fontaine just last season, who had competed in just 26 Truck races. Grala said not to expect to see him get washed away.
“I’m definitely not going to stop pursuing the driving side of this as long as I possibly can,” Grala said. “It all comes down to sponsorship. I will not go down fighting for sponsorship, but at the end of the day, if we’re not able to come up with the sponsorship dollars, then that forces your hand.
“Sometimes, it’s not the worst thing to step away and go to college [Grala was accepted to Georgia Tech in 2017], see if you can come back or do something on your own. You can be a race engineer — there’s a lot of options at that point. But that’s not the dream. The dream is to drive, and so that’s what I’m fully focused on right now.”
Grala’s next race in the No. 21 Chevrolet isn’t until Road America (Aug. 24). He hopes to turn the results around and get more toward his preseason goals.
“On track, I would say top fives are goals,” Grala said. “But behind the scenes, there is a lot more as well.”
- The Xfinity Series heads to Iowa Speedway this weekend for the second of two trips in the past two months. Christopher Bell enters the race as the heavy favorite, having won the past two races at the venue where he led 290 of 507 total laps.
- Both Ryan Vargas and Will Rodgers will be making their series debuts this weekend. Vargas will be running the No. 15 for JD Motorsports, while Rodgers is in the No. 68 Chevrolet for Brandonbilt Motorsports. Vargas hasn’t competed in a NASCAR sanctioned race since the 2018 K&N Pro Series East finale, and Rodgers is an accomplished road racer, being highly touted by Kevin Harvick.
- Tommy Joe Martins announced at New Hampshire that he was leaving BJ McLeod Motorsports and joining MBM Motorsports for a six-race deal this season and likely half the schedule next year. One of the reasons Martins elected to switch teams was due to MBM having a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car.