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Speed racer; 11-year-old finds niche in the fast lane.

Byline: Valerie Franchi

WESTBORO - Most parents of an 11-year-old boy worry about when he'll get his driver's license. Darius and Karen Grala of Westboro, however, just hope their son Kaz keeps it under 80 mph.

The Mill Pond Elementary School student is a champion go-kart and bandolero race car driver. Since he began racing at 7 years old, he has won a host of trophies and titles, including his debut race at the Waterford Speedbowl in Connecticut in May.

His love of driving started much earlier, though. His father, who jokingly calls himself a "washed-up professional race car driver," says Kaz has been around racing since he was 3 months old.

"He started driving go-karts at 4 years old," Mr. Grala said. "He loved it, but wasn't interested in competition at all."

Like most parents, Mr. and Mrs. Grala introduced Kaz to many different sports, but nothing clicked like driving.

At age 7, Mrs. Grala said, "all of a sudden he wanted to compete."

He started racing go-karts at a track in Braintree and is now a two-time New England go-kart champion. Last fall, Kaz started racing mini race cars, also called bandolero cars. He said he was "nervous for the first couple of races," but not anymore.

According to Kaz, the biggest difference between the two types of racing is that go-karts are open, while bandolero cars are closed like traditional race cars. "If you're claustrophobic, it's probably not something you'll like," he said.

The bandolero cars are similar to those used in NASCAR races, except smaller and with less engine power. NASCAR vehicles are about 16 feet long and can reach speeds up to 200 mph. Bandelero cars measure about 10 feet long and travel up to 80 mph.

Most important for Kaz's parents, the safety features in bandolero cars are nearly identical to those in the larger version. They have a built-in safety neck brace and harnesses.

"That was the biggest draw for us as parents," said Mr. Grala. "These cars are actually safer in a crash than go-karts."

What may appeal less to parents are the costs and the travel involved. Mr. Grala said that the cars can cost about $6,000 to $7,000, and racers like Kaz travel to speedways across the country to compete.

Mr. Grala said maintenance for the cars is fairly inexpensive.

During the school year, Kaz travels to speedways such as the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina and the Atlanta Motor Speedway to compete. The day before the Indy 500, he raced at the Indianapolis Speedrome, then stayed to watch the main event.

It was a first for the entire family, who luckily had seats in the shade. "It was the hottest race in history," Kaz said. "People were leaving because it was so hot. But it was awesome."

The races are on weekends during the school year, and Kaz said he missed a lot of Fridays at school. For some students it might be a problem keeping up with schoolwork, but Kaz's parents aren't worried.

"He's the equivalent of a straight-A student," Mr. Grala said. "He does his homework and reads while traveling. His teachers are very supportive."

When asked what his friends think about his sport of choice, Kaz said they're not really impressed. "A lot of kids don't know what bandolero racing is," he said, adding that he knows only a couple of other young racers in the area.

The Gralas, who moved to Westboro five years ago from Boston, are hoping to encourage more young people to try racing.

"It's a stick and ball town, like most towns in our area," said Mr. Grala, "but racing is gaining popularity."

In places like Charlotte, N.C., "racing is like baseball - everyone does it," he said. "It's a big deal down there."

With the Waterford Speedbowl in Connecticut and a new track in Concord, N.H., Mr. Grala hopes racing fever is moving northward.

Kaz is not sure if he will become a professional racer like his dad. In addition to racing, he loves math and playing electric guitar, a hobby he started at age 9.

"He said he wants to be a rock star software engineer who races cars," said Mrs. Grala.



CUTLINE: (1) Kaz Grala of Westboro shows off his bandolero race car. (2) Eleven-year-old Kaz Grala races both go-karts and bandolero cars.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 15, 2010
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