Every time Dylan Kwasniewski drove onto a racetrack, his father was there to flash him a supportive thumbs-up.
On Saturday night, in an annual Father’s Day weekend race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the accomplished 15-year-old driver had to look into his heart to see it.
On March 10, Randy Kwasniewski died of a self-inflicted gunshot. He was 56 and president/chief operating officer of the Hard Rock Hotel. The desperate act has left grieving family and friends asking why.
Until a few weeks ago, Dylan didn’t intend to race in the Father’s Day weekend event at the 3/8-mile Bullring, regarding it as an inappropriate way to honor his dad’s memory.
But as race day drew nearer, Kwasniewski reconsidered participating in the annual event that commemorates the father-son relationship of the late Chris Trickle, a top regional racer in the 1990s, and Chuck Trickle, his dad and a popular track champion.
Finally last week, Kwasniewski’s change of heart was complete, and he decided to race on Father’s Day weekend without his dad for the first time since moving to Las Vegas in 2007.
“I was apprehensive about it, but I know my dad wouldn’t want me to stop racing,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do for him.”
This weekend is another step in a permanent adjustment for the Faith Lutheran High School sophomore, 18-year-old sister Taylor and their mother, Jennifer.
They do what they believe Randy would want.
Jennifer, who manages Dylan’s racing career, borrowed a Camaro racecar from James Wingard so Dylan could race in the Chargers stock-car division Saturday. He won his feature races in lower divisions in two of the past three Trickle events.
Kwasniewski finished third Saturday in a 30-lap race won by Phil Goodwin, who has combined with teammate and race runner-up Mario Opipari to win five of this year’s six Chargers features.
During practice Friday night at the Bullring and before racing Saturday, Kwasniewski optimistically imagined his father’s pre-race thumbs-up.
“I always try to think about the good stuff,” Kwasniewski said. “(Dad) wouldn’t want us to be moping around. He’d want us to remember the fun we had, all the jokes he’d tell.”
This year’s plan was for Kwasniewski to advance from entry-level racing categories at the Bullring to open-wheel Modifieds to the regional ASA Speed Truck series where most drivers are at least twice his age. Many have been racing longer than Dylan has been alive.
Randy’s death occurred less than a month before Kwasniewski was to make the jump to bigger, faster cars in out-of-state races.
Kwasniewski stayed out of school for a week after his father’s funeral and away from a racetrack for another week.
“I was really apprehensive about getting back in a racecar because I was scared that if I got hurt, I’d leave my mom and sister without a man in the family,” he said. “It took me a few hours after (I got to the Bullring) to get on the track the first night. But once I got out there, I could feel my dad watching me.”
Over the next four weeks, Kwasniewski won two Speed Truck races in which, unlike NASCAR, drivers can be younger than 16.
“My dad taught me to always try to win, to do your best at whatever you do. You have to strive to win every race, because that’s how you’ll get better,” he said. “He would push me to win, but always let me know he was proud of me wherever I finished.”
Although Friday and Saturday nights were the busiest at the Hard Rock, that’s also when Kwasniewski raced. But his father always found time to slip away to the Bullring for a couple of hours.
Hard Rock’s executive offices and a home in Summerlin could not be farther from where Randy grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Calumet City, Ill., according to Jennifer.
In a roundabout way, Randy’s poor childhood led to Kwasniewski getting his first go-kart at age 4½.
Randy’s father was unable to fulfill a promise to buy Randy a go-kart because he could not afford it, Jennifer said. After Randy progressed through hotel management, one of the first expensive gifts he bought Dylan was a go-kart when the family lived in Connecticut.
The investment paid off quickly. Racing became a passion for father and son, and the son showed a knack for racing.
Kwasniewski amassed four age-group go-kart championships before he was 11 while living near Phoenix. After moving to Las Vegas at age 12, he switched to oval-track racing and won LVMS and Nevada championships in Bandoleros, which are mini stock cars with motorcycle engines for drivers 8 and older. The next year, Kwasniewski graduated to Legends Cars, which are 100 mph 5/8-scale replicas of 1940s sedans, and won divisional titles the past two years.
Kwasniewski directs compliments for his maturity to lessons learned from his parents and observations of how his father interacted with others.
“I watched how my dad talked to everybody the same,” Kwasniewski said.
“Now that my racing career is getting really serious, I’ve had to stop being a 14-, 15-year-old and start being a mature adult.”
Life has changed for the Kwasniewskis. Adjustments are still being made.
“I’ve had to toughen up and realize what the reality is,” Kwasniewski said.
Reality means continuing on the path he set with his father to compete in one of NASCAR’s top three divisions when he turns 18.
“When I get in the car, I just have to block everything out and focus on winning,” Kwasniewski said. “But I know my dad’s always there with me.”
Contact reporter Jeff Wolf at email@example.com or 702-383-0247.