Growing Up Fast

Though he’s only 15, racer Dylan Kwasniewski has been beating the old guys for years

Dylan Kwasniewski already has the car picked out: a silver 2008 BMW 335i coupe with a six-speed manual transmission. He recently sold his go-karts and dirt bike to help pay for his new ride, which he plans to deck out with a flat-silver wrap, blacked-out windows and new tires and rims. With his 16th birthday less than three months away, Kwasniewski is practically counting the days until he gets his driver’s license—even though he’s already a veteran behind the wheel.

The Faith Lutheran High School sophomore is a rising star on the stock-car scene, competing in the K&N Pro Series West, a regional division of NASCAR. He began racing when he was 4½ years old and his father set up a go-kart track in the driveway. He’s been winning at each successive level, despite needing his mom, Jennifer, to drive him to races.

“I’ve always been the youngest driver out there,” he says. “I’ve always been the younger guy that kicks all the old guys’ butts.”

He won his first race at 5, and by the age of 8 he was racing against 12-year-olds. In 2007, Kwasniewski moved from go-karts to bandoleros—miniature stock cars that can exceed 70 mph—before progressing the next year, at 12, to Legend cars, which are powered by Yamaha 1,250cc motorcycle engines and can reach 150 mph.

It was in Legends where Kwasniewski really started to gain notice. In the Pro Legend division in 2009, he won both the track championship at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s Bullring and the Nevada state championship, breaking the Bullring record for qualifying time in a Legend car.

It was around that time that Jennifer Kwasniewski began to recognize her son’s potential on the racetrack.

“People have said that at every step, every time he moves up in every class and every division,” she says. “They always were able to see something that I didn’t see, and it wasn’t really until he got into the Legend cars, I guess, when you could see him really doing things differently than other kids.”

Now racing in the K&N Pro Series, Kwasniewski is competing against drivers more than twice his age, many of whom give the teenager little respect until they finish behind him. It doesn’t help when they see mom driving him to the track.

“They just think I’m a little kid who can’t drive,” says Kwasniewski, who kind of looks like former teen idol Corey Haim. “But that’s how it’s always been, so I’m used to it. I’m not scared whenever I get on the track with older people. I’m not scared going into the K&N Pro Series. It’s going to be intimidating because they’re bigger cars and a lot more expensive, but I believe I can run at the top.”

The K&N Series is the top series in which Kwasniewski can compete until he turns 18, when he will be eligible to compete in NASCAR’s top three series—Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Craftsman Trucks.

Kwasniewski was aided by NASCAR’s decision on Feb. 12 to lower the age limit from 16 to 15 for drivers competing in regional touring series. The move is designed to increase opportunities for drivers to gain experience and prepare for NASCAR’s premier series. That youth movement got another boost when 20-year-old Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 last month.

Veteran driver Robby Gordon, who has competed in off-road, open-wheel and stock-car racing, has become friends with Kwasniewski, even hosting the teen at his home in Charlotte, N.C. He says that Kwasniewski will be successful as a professional driver if he remains passionate about racing. “He can probably do about whatever he wants to do because he’s a good driver and he’s a good-looking young man,” Gordon says. “I would say that at 18 years old, I see Dylan climbing behind the wheel of a [NASCAR] truck.”

Kwasniewski has been receiving off-the-track tuition from some of motorsports’ biggest names. He met with team owners Joe and J.D. Gibbs, Rick Hendrick and Ray Evernham during a trip to North Carolina in October, and has also spent time with racing legends Jeff Gordon, Michael Schumacher and Mario Andretti. While Kwasniewski’s favorite driver is Schumacher, who has dominated Formula One, the teen has set his sights on competing in the Sprint Cup Series.

“When I first started in Legend Car racing and I saw that you could bump and stuff, I was hooked on it,” he says. “I love doing road courses because that’s what I grew up doing, but there’s nothing like racing in NASCAR.

“I can have a best bud, but if he’s in first place and I’m in second, if I have to bump him out of the way to get to the front then that’s what I’m going to do.”

Kwasniewski’s life took a tragic turn last March when his father, Randy, the president and COO of the Hard Rock Hotel, committed suicide. The loss led Kwasniewski, who has his father’s initials tattooed on the inside of his left wrist, to rethink his career path.

“When he first passed away, I didn’t even want to get into a car after that,” the teen says. “I was scared to go back racing because I didn’t know what was going to happen. But once I got into the car I realized that this is what I’ve been working on for 10 years … and I can’t stop just because of my dad passing away. He would not want me to stop, hands down. He would want me to succeed at the highest levels.

“He was the one who made me so passionate about [racing]. If it wasn’t for him, I would definitely not be where I am right now.”

Kwasniewski seems destined for national prominence. He is sponsored by Rockstar energy drink, and recently signed with management company Wasserman Media Group. But even if he never makes it to NASCAR, Kwasniewski will always be racing in some capacity.

“If I don’t make it in NASCAR, if I race a car, any type of car—if it’s off-road, if it’s asphalt, if it’s drift—I mean, I just love racing cars,” he says. “And obviously NASCAR is my ideal, and I think with the people that surround me and with my opportunity, I think I can make it into NASCAR. But as long as I have something to do with motor sports, then that’s my goal.”

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