Memory of father keeps Kwasniewski on right track

The logo sits between the windows on each side of the No. 03 Ford, and it also adorns the right sleeve of Dylan Kwasniewski’s fire suit and his helmet.

Angelic wings sprout out from each side of the cross – which features the initials of his late dad, “RAK” – in the middle of the logo.

Kwasniewski makes sure his dad, Randy, the man responsible for getting him involved in motor sports, is always with him.

Randy Kwasniewski, president and CEO at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, committed suicide in March 2010.

“We’re a Christian family, so I always pray about him and every single race kind of ask for him to keep me safe and allow me to win,” Kwasniewski said. “He would always push me so hard for me to go win the race. Second wasn’t good enough. You had to win.

“I was always like, second place is all right. Now I’m like, second place sucks. I hate getting second.”

That determination has made Kwasniewski one of the nation’s top young drivers, someone expected to follow the Busch brothers out of the Las Vegas desert into NASCAR’s highest ranks.

Kwasniewski turned 17 on Thursday, meaning he is less than a year from becoming eligible to leave NASCAR’s regional series for the national level. He hopes next year to compete in the Nationwide Series, a notch below the major league Sprint Cup Series.

“I think he was born to do this,” said his mom, Jennifer Kwasniewski.

Kwasniewski, who attends Faith Lutheran High School, led the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West points standings entering Saturday night’s Star Nursery 200 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s Bullring.

He won May 5 in Stockton, Calif., and is coming off a second-place finish May 26 in Brainerd, Minn.

Kwasniewski was the series Rookie of the Year last season when he finished fifth in the standings. He won in back-to-back weekends in August – at Dacono, Colo., and Kalispell, Mont. – to become the youngest winner in the history of any of the NASCAR regional series.

The most recent success revealed his potential, even to himself.

“I got a lot more focused on my racing these past couple of years,” Kwasniewski said. “Before, it was a passion. I really liked to do it, but I didn’t really like going to practice, which is what you have to do to do good. Now I like going to practice. I like everything about racing.”

Randy Kwasniewski introduced his son to go-karts when he was 4½ and the family was living in Connecticut.

Kwasniewski immediately was drawn to the sport, invigorated by racing around the cones that were set up in the family’s long driveway.

It wouldn’t be long before he was racing against other go-kart competitors. Kwasniewski seemed to have a natural knack, quickly winning his first race on Thanksgiving weekend nearly 12 years ago and receiving a turkey as the trophy.

He routinely beat the other youngsters at various venues, showing promise at an early age.

“People would say to me when he was in karts that they noticed there was something different about him,” Jennifer Kwasniewski said. “He didn’t win everything, but he was always up front. I never paid too much attention. It was a bunch of kids going around on a racetrack.

“But when he was 12 and he was racing Legends out at the Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, you could really tell that he had a special talent for driving and passing and passing cleanly. He didn’t wreck a lot.”

Kwasniewski experienced so much success in the Legend cars, he looked for challenges and purposely would start in the back of the field to see how many drivers he could overtake and how long he would need to become the leader.

Having the Bullring nearby is what prompted the family to first give NASCAR a look. In 2007, Kwasniewski stopped racing go-karts throughout the West to focus on performing well on the three-eighths-mile oval at LVMS.

“He really took to circle-track racing, and I don’t know that everybody does that,” Jennifer Kwasniewski said. “It’s a different mentality than racing on a road course like he did in karts.”

Kwasniewski said the constant action in stock cars separates it.

“You’re constantly racing somebody,” he said. “You never get a break. In open wheel, you get by yourself … and do the same thing you were doing before. You’re not pressured every single lap. I like that you always have to be on your toes and you always have to adapt to different situations.”

As Kwasniewski’s motor sports career was blossoming, however, tragedy struck the family. Randy Kwasniewski fatally shot himself March 9, 2010. He was 56.

The family has sued the maker of the sleeping pill Ambien, alleging Randy Kwasniewski died “as a result of the side effects” of the drug, which the family said he took the previous night.

Kwasniewski channeled his grief into racing.

“It gave him something to look forward to,” Jennifer Kwasniewski said. “It was something he started with his dad and something he really wanted to carry on in memory of his dad.

“As a young teenage boy, he could’ve gone any direction. He could’ve gone down the wrong path after what happened, and he didn’t. The racing community really pulled together to support us as a family and him as a driver. That’s really what brought us through.”

Kwasniewski is like many teenagers, playful and full of possibilities. He and team owner Gene Price traded good-natured jabs at a meet-and-greet event Friday, and Kwasniewski even poured water down his boss’ back.

But there also is a seriousness to Kwasniewski, who provides thoughtful, cliche-free answers in interviews, making him sound like a seasoned veteran rather than a kid chasing his loftiest dreams.

That maturity probably runs in the family. Older sister Taylor is considering transferring from UNLV to Ivy League school Cornell.

Teammate Greg Pursley, who won the K&N West series last season and the race in Las Vegas, has become a sort of father figure, teaching Kwasniewski about how to handle different tracks, the importance of being patient and anything else that will help win races.

“I like helping him out due to the fact I’d like to see him make it,” Pursley said. “I think he has the talent to go far and get up in the big leagues.”

Maybe Kwasniewski will follow Kurt and Kyle Busch and experience success similar to what they have achieved at NASCAR’s various levels.

The brothers also honed their skills at the Bullring before moving on to succeed at such places as Daytona and Talladega and Darlington.

“I think (Kwasniewski) understands you can’t just jump into the big leagues in this sport,” LVMS president Chris Powell said. “You’ve got to be willing to pay your dues in the grass roots, and he’s done that.”

Kwasniewski spends some of his time trying to establish contacts in NASCAR, and he met renowned team owner Rick Hendrick two years ago.

Landing with the right team is crucial, because an underfunded operation almost certainly will derail the hopes of even the most talented drivers. But wind up on a competitive team, such as Hendrick’s or Joe Gibbs’, and Kwasniewski will be able to showcase his ability.

The Busch brothers proved kids from Las Vegas can succeed at the sport’s highest level. Maybe Kwasniewski will be next, remembering his dad’s influence along the way.

“He started all this, and I have to get to that point,” Kwasniewski said. “Otherwise, I’m going to fail what he started for me.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.

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