It’s a typical night at the speedway, or so it seems. The air is hot, tinged with the fragrance of spent racing fuel mixed with grilled meats that seems exclusive to an evening at the track.
The town’s top young racecar driver is checking air pressure in his tires before curling into a little car that seems a replica of a 1934 Ford Coupe. As always, his mom and dad, equal parts anxious and superstitious, are there. In what has become a karmic ritual for the couple, they don’t sit together as he competes. Dad melts into the grandstand. Mom doesn’t even sit. She stands behind the tall fence on Turn 2, pacing, shouting to her son as if he can hear her over the roar of 25 competing racecars.
Later, a family friend will make his way to the event to see how the kid fared. His is a race with the clock -- he’s supposed to be to the track by 8 p.m., about the time the checkered flag drops.
As we say, not an uncommon scene, a version of which plays out at outpost racetracks all over the country -- longtime Las Vegans remember the roar emanating each week from weekend warriors rumbling around old Craig Road Speedway. This night at the races is a special Thursday program at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Bullring, the 1,500-acre racing complex’s 3/8-mile asphalt oval, and this is not a typical kid. It’s not exactly a typical family, either. And that friend, too, is uncommon in the sense that he is one of the baddest men in the pits, and also on the planet.
The kid behind the wheel is Dylan Kwasniewski, a 10-year veteran of competitive driving though he’s just 14 years old. If that surname gives pause, it should because Dylan’s father, Randy, is president and CEO of the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas. The friend is Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, who (to lift a line from the late George Carlin) makes a living by beating people up as one of the top UFC competitors in the world. To use motorsports terms, this is horsepower. Dylan’s mom, Jennifer, keeps track of all on- and off-track issues, such as scheduling and keeping the Dylan Kwasniewski Web site in running order.
What of this kid? Family affiliation aside, he’s hell on wheels. Dylan Kwasniewski is already a multiple-points champion at LVMS and about a lock to win another title this year. The Legends class is made up of drivers of assorted ages and skill levels, the commonality being the style of car, which is capable of speeds up to 150 mph on a road course and almost 100 mph on a circle track like The Bullring. There are subsets in Legends racing, and last year Kwasniewski won the Legends Semi-Pro Class season points title. Jennifer is certain he’s the youngest champion of that class ever at LVMS, but that fact has not been verified -- but he was 13 at the time, and drivers must be at least 12 years old to compete. He was also named the LVMS Rookie of the Year, in part because he competed for more than a month with a fractured right arm, his most serious injury to date. This year he has built a more than 100-point lead in the Legends Pro division (for drivers who are ages 14 and older), and could simply sit out three or four races and still win the series.
In a race on June 20, Kwasniewski qualified for the pole but opted to start from the back. He won the race anyway. The young man just loves to race. Buckle him in and turn him loose.
“I’ll race anything on two wheels, four wheels, anything,” Kwasniewski says as he preps for his main event appearance, where he earned the pole (and will keep it this time). “When I’m driving, I’m the happiest kid ever.” As he talks, cars whiz by on Las Vegas Boulevard, which abuts the track to the east, and it seems comical that a 14-year-old who can pilot a racecar up to 100 miles an hour over 30 laps is not allowed to drive legally on our own death-defying roadways. That he can use a turn indicator and dodge toppled-over pylons would put him in the upper 10th percentile of drivers in Las Vegas.
Kwasniewski's first competitive driving experience, when he was 4, was in a go-kart when the family lived in Norwalk, Conn. They moved to Phoenix a year later, in 2000, and he began winning championships in various kart classes. The family moved to Las Vegas in 2007, soon after Morgans Hotel Group bought the Hard Rock Hotel from Peter Morton. The racing accelerated here, as Dylan won a track title in the Bandolero youth division before moving to the karts.
It’s already an impressive on-paper, on-the-track resume. But you can sense that Dylan comes from a family of achievers -- he’s hardly been interviewed by an actual journalist (and that still might be the case), but is crisp and articulate in his responses that feel more, shall we say, grown-up than a common 14-year-old. “I like circle-track racing, but I’m happy anywhere. I like the competition. … It’s fun -- but competitive,” he says, grinning. “I’d like to drive the dirt track (the ½-mile dirt oval at LVMS, where open-wheeled sprint cars compete). I was talking to Robby, who is an awesome driver, and he says to drive as much as I can, wherever I can. He says to go as hard and as fast as I can.”
“Robby” is Robby Gordon, by the way, another Kwasniewski family friend and one of the more versatile drivers in the world. Dylan’s reference to Gordon brings the event full circle. It was during the Joint-opening Paul McCartney show that I actually met, for the second time, Robby Gordon (I’d interviewed him the week LVMS opened with an IRL race in 1996). This time, we were in a suite at The Joint. He asked why I was taking so many notes during the concert, wondering if I was part of the McCartney touring staff, and I told him I was taking notes for this blog. I didn’t quite recognize Gordon initially, but finally I put the name to the face. I introduced myself to him again, then turned to Randy Kwasniewski, who was moving from location to location and stopped by for “Hey Jude,” and told him that this person was Robby Gordon. Kwasniewski knew this, as he invited Gordon to the show -- some connections are not always so obvious to the Johnny -- and mentioned his son was a driver. Months later, last week in fact, I met Hard Rock Hotel Senior Director of Customer Development Richard Wilk, and during that session, I mentioned that particular moment at the McCartney show. Wilk’s eyes flashed, as he realized Dylan was to race Thursday night, and almost instantly Rampage Jackson -- himself a race fan -- was being called by Wilk, who asked if he wanted to hit the track for Dylan’s race.
I don’t know what else to make of this turn of events, but God I love Vegas.
Anyhow, Jackson and Wilk did make it to the track, along with mixed martial arts fighter “Tiki” Ghosn, about 8 p.m. -- just as the credential trailer was closing for the night. When the trio walked in, they were told it was too late to access the track. Not exactly. Wilk introduced Jackson to the staff and, after the giddiness subsided, wristbands were distributed, and the crew marched in, wearing black UFC T-shirts. Jackson, who could probably hoist a Legends car over his head, says he’s a budding race fan. “I’m getting into it because I have a 3-year-old son (Elijah) who loves it. I’ve taken him before. He doesn’t like the noise so much, but if you have kids racing at 4 years old, I should get him into a car.” (I had an interesting non-racing conversation with Jackson, which I’ll blog about before UFC 100.)
Everyone made a big to-do of Jackson, the most distinctive figure in the pits, and he went off to watch some of the Super Late Model feature race. That’s one of the rungs up the ladder for any aspiring driver hoping to race in the Nextel Cup, which is Dylan’s stated goal. It would not be the first time LVMS has helped launch a Cup career -- both Kurt and Kyle Busch competed at The Bullring before ascending to fame (and infamy) on the Cup tour. Randy Kwasniewski, who has balanced his ample support of his son with a keen desire to remain in the background and let the kid have his space, says he’ll back whatever direction Dylan takes.
“It’s up to him. I’ll support him as mach as it takes, but it’s his choice,” says Kwasniewski, who is nervous every lap of every one of his son’s races. “He’s tried a number of sports, but he likes to race, and it’s up to him how far to take it.”
As for last night’s results, Kwasniewski was involved in a dustup on the first green flag of the event, being pinched as he accelerated to start the race, and the field had to restart. He led up until a yellow flag waved over the 28th lap -- two to go. At that restart, he held off a hard-pressing Brecken Snow in the No. 6 car, who tried to duck inside at the restart and wrest the lead from Kwasniewski, and through Turns 1 and 2, it seemed Snow might pull off a thrilling comeback victory. But he ran out of track, as they say, and the checked flag waved for the No. 3 car.
At that moment, I got a text from Wilk, asking, “How we looking? We’re almost there!” I had to tell him that, by a hair, the kid beat him, too. Welcome to the track.