When Derek Kraus’ hauler arrived at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway in February, it’s not like he was the biggest named driver in the pits.
It was his debut in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, he was a young teen and his name probably wasn’t the one everyone expected to see in third place when the race ended.
But it was.
“That felt really good, to finish third,” Kraus said. “(My spotter) helps me a lot, staying calm and patient, and telling where everyone else’s weaknesses are on the track and where I’m better than them all.”
Kraus says that as calm and collected as could be, as if his spotter is still in his ear and he hasn’t recently pulled off a feat that most can’t say they have.
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Leading to that podium finish was a career that started at age 7. Kraus’ father did a lot of local racing on both dirt and asphalt, and he eventually asked Kraus, now 15 years old, if he wanted to get into a car himself. Kraus’ father knew the kind of financial commitment it would be, but gave him the opportunity anyway.
“He asked me multiple times, like, this is your choice and if you’re going to do this, you’ve got to want to do it,” said Kraus, a Wisconsin native. “He said, ‘If you don’t want to do it, just let me know and I’ve got nothing wrong with you saying no.’”
Kraus said yes, so his parents bought him a go-kart. He moved from a kart into a Bandolero while racing in the Wisconsin and Illinois areas as a youngster, and then from a Bandolero into a local truck division. He’s since moved into super late models and the K&N Pro Series, where he says he’ll run the full K&N West schedule and select races in K&N East this year.
Last season, Kraus was one of seven drivers chosen for the 2016 Chip Ganassi Racing Gen G development and mentorship program.
As normal as his career trajectory seems, Kraus didn’t have the most conventional way of deciding when to move to the next level during his early racing career.
“My dad did this deal where once I won the championship, I got to move up,” Kraus said. “So I won the championship in go-karts, then I got to move up to the Bandolero car. I won the Bandolero championship two times and then I moved into the truck. The first year in the trucks, I won the championship and now I’m in super late models and the K&N car.”
As if to continue on that path, Kraus almost won his K&N East debut in February at a track he’d never raced on before. Heading into that debut, Kraus learned the track on his iRacing simulator.
“The first time I went out there, it felt like I had been there already,” Kraus said. “It helps a lot to practice on iRacing, with getting my reaction time and getting used to different tracks.”