By Steve Williams
California, Here I Come!
That’s the feeling around Dylan Kiser’s family these days.
Kiser’s outstanding career as a junior drag racer ended quietly in the National Hot Rod Association Division 2 Bracket Finals October 3-6 in Atlanta, but before that weekend was over the 16-year-old Knoxvillian made more than just some noise competing against adults in the Pro ET Class.
Driving his black 1974 Plymouth Duster, the Gibbs High School junior, in fact, became the youngest driver ever to win the Southeast event and qualify for the NHRA Summit Racing Series National Championship in Pomona, Calif., November 8-10.
“At first, we didn’t think he was going to get to go, because you have to be 18 years old,” said Chester Lay, Dylan’s grandfather.
But good news came October 8 from Red Whitmore of Bristol Dragway, where Dylan won the juniors’ season championship for the third straight time this year.
“He phoned and said, ‘You’re in!,’ recalled Lay.
Whitmore acknowledged Kiser got a waiver from the NHRA main office in Glendora, Calif., and will be in a field of seven, with the other drivers’ average age range in the late 20s to early 30s.
“I was worried about getting in. Now I’m worried about getting there,” said Lay, laughing.
It’ll be about a two-week trip for Dylan and grandparents Mary and Chester and their first time going to California. They’ll be doing some sightseeing, too. They’ve already made plans to stop and see the Grand Canyon on the way there.
“I raced all over the Southeast as a drag racer, but never out West,” said Lay, who introduced his grandsons, Dylan and Devin, to the sport when they were youngsters.
Many view southern California as the birthplace of drag racing, and Pomona, which is located in Los Angeles County, as an integral part of the sport’s rich past.
Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, where Dylan will be competing, was formerly known as Pomona Raceway and is one of the most famous dragstrips in North America.
One might say Pomona is drag racing’s Daytona or Indy 500.
Whitmore, owner of the bracket series at Thunder Valley, is very high on Kiser, who will be Bristol’s lone representative at Pomona this year.
“He’s a heck of a drag racer,” said Whitmore, who was on hand to see Dylan win in Atlanta and plans to attend the Pomona finals, along with his daughter Lyndsay. “He understands all aspects of the sport, which is very important.
“If he keeps going like he is, he has the potential to be one of the best bracket racers in the country.”
Winning at Pomona won’t be easy, but Whitmore believes Kiser is up to the challenge.
“There’ll be a lot of pressure,” he said. “Dylan will be racing in front of thousands of people. He’ll be going up against new drivers. It’ll be a different ball game for him.
“It wouldn’t surprise me at all if he wins this thing, because he’s that good of a racer. I think he can handle everything that Pomona throws at him.”
Representing Bristol Dragway in Atlanta, Kiser was one of 10 junior drivers (ages 13-17) in the prestigious Race of Champions but lost in the first round. He didn’t fare much better in bracket racing the next day, either, bowing out in the second round.
Dylan bounced back in the Pro ET, winning eight rounds to come out on top in a field that included 150 cars. He beat Tim Griffith, the Bristol Pro ET champion, in the finals.
“I really wasn’t surprised he won,” said Lay, who helps on the starting line in Dylan’s races by making sure the burnout area is clean and free of excess water. “He’s as good as I’ve seen. I don’t care if he is 16. He’s really good.”
Dylan tied for second in footbrake racing and also competed in the Sportsman Class with veterans this past season at Bristol, so he had some experience competing against adult drivers.
Lay said his grandson was excited about the Atlanta victory and going to Pomona. “He doesn’t show it. I think that’s what makes him a good driver. He kind of keeps his head.”
Kiser could race one more year in his junior dragster, but “he’s strictly going to concentrate on the big car,” said Lay.
The Plymouth Duster has sentimental value. Kiser bought it from Norman Chesney, who befriended his grandfather and taught him how to race years ago.
Chesney, who lived in East Knox County off Asheville Highway, won multiple championships in drag racing, and also drove the Duster to victory in the Street Car Class.
“He passed away this past spring before he ever got to see Dylan race in his car,” said Lay.
Kiser started racing when he was 9 years old and has had a dream career. He won the NHRA Race of Champions for juniors at Emerald Coast Dragway in Florida in 2011. He also was the International Hot Rod Association Division 2 (Southeast) champion the past two years, winning in Montgomery, Ala., in 2011 and in Memphis last year.
With the win at Memphis, Dylan was one of only 16 juniors in the nation to qualify for the IHRA Summit Super Series. He made it to the final four but lost in the semifinal round on a red light.
In his career, Kiser has 78 wins in 111 final rounds. About 70 of those wins were in the junior division.
The young drag racer is now off to a winning start against veteran drivers in the sport.