Lightning McTeens: NASCAR drivers are younger than ever

Pro Series West field in Roseville could include eight teenagers
By: Bill Poindexter/Roseville Press Tribune Sports Editor
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Jessica Brunelli and Andrew Murray had their stock cars on the one-third-mile oval at All American Speedway on Thursday with two-time Late Model track champion Matt Scott, learning the grooves, mashing the pedal coming out of the turns, locking the brakes, going high, diving low and gaining valuable seat time.

Their combined age: 52.

Cameron Hayley later joined them for more laps.

The total age of the four: 67.

“Man, I’m old,” quipped Brunelli, who’s all of 18.

As NASCAR has lowered the minimum age requirement for drivers, the sport has seen an increase in teenagers taking the fast track — literally — from one series to the next.

“Fortunately, these kids got a little backing behind them and people to help them out to get there. That’s what it takes,” said three-time NASCAR K&N Pro Series West series champion Eric Holmes, who spent time with Hayley, 15, and Dylan Lupton, 17, in the pits Thursday. “When I was younger, you needed to be older to make it. Now, you gotta be younger. And they’re good drivers.”

Hayley was 14 and Murray 13 when Antelope car owner Bill McAnally put them in Late Model cars for a 75-lap Open Showdown in September 2010.

In April, Dylan Kwasniewski, 15 years and 10 months old, became the youngest driver to start a race in Pro Series West. He finished fourth.

When the series returns to Roseville next Saturday for the Toyota/NAPA Auto Parts 150, the field could include eight teenagers. If Murray qualifies, he’ll break Hayley’s record as the youngest driver to start a Pro Series West race. He turned 15 on Monday.

Kwasniewski held the record for all of four months before Hayley broke it by starting the Toyota/TTC 150 at Montana Raceway Park in August. Kwasniewski won the race for his second checkered flag in a row. Hayley finished second.

“It’s awesome,” said Kwasniewski, who has locked up the Rookie of the Year award. “We’re going to have the Jeff Gordons. We’re going to have the Jimmie Johnsons, but sooner or later, they’re going to have to be replaced by some up-and-coming star.”

Bill Brunelli remembers holding his six-month-old daughter, Jessica, at All American Speedway during his Late Model racing days. Two years ago, he recalls Jessica’s mom wanting “to kill me several times for letting her daughter move out at 16.”

They allowed Jessica to move from their home in Hayward to North Carolina to join the Drive for Diversity program. Jessica, a former Modified Rookie of the Year at All American, since has won rookie awards driving Late Models at Hickory and Tri-County in North Carolina.

She missed a test in a University of North Carolina Charlotte classroom on Thursday so she could test behind the wheel at All American.

“It’s wonderful teenagers are getting the opportunity,” said Brunelli, who will drive the Mike Naake car that Roseville’s Eric Schmidt finished fifth in at the April race.

Some referred to NASCAR’s lowering of the minimum age from 16 to 15 as the Chase Elliott Rule. The son of popular NASCAR driver Bill Elliott, Chase signed with Hendrick Motorsports and finished fourth in his Pro Series East debut April 2.

Scott understands there are some in the racing circle who don’t like being whipped by young leadfoots, but he also noted these young hotshoes aren’t new behind the wheel.

“Kids like Dylan Hutchison started when he was 5, so we have 10 years of experience already in racing, so we’re already up there,” Scott said.

Hutchison finished fifth in Late Model points at All American. For about a month bridging August and September, he spent his time at the speedway and on the football field. Hutchison is a starting linebacker at Del Campo High School. He’ll race a Jack Sellers car in his Pro Series West debut.

“That just goes to show you what the development group is doing with the race cars now,” said his dad, Glenn Hutchison. “Dylan started at 6 in a quarter midget and then did Mini Cups out here, then the Baby Grands. Now we’re back in the K&N Series. It’s definitely history. There are a lot more young kids getting it now.”