Craig Murto: Teen driver Diaz has talent

Mason Diaz will probably always find something to race, especially if he continues to win.

The 16-year-old high school junior from Manassas just won his first NASCAR Late Model Stock Car feature at North Carolina’s Southern National Motorsports Park.

But it’s not the first time he’s been in a Late Model. In December he drove a Mike Darne Racing Pro Late Model at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida in the Snowflake 100.

“I love this sport; I wouldn’t do anything else,” he said following practice at Five Flags.

He’s been racing since he was 5, following the common path of Go-Karts to Bandoleros (bandos) to Legends and eventually Late Models. He won a few championships along the way before moving into Late Model Stock Cars at North Carolina’s Southern National Motorsports Park. Southern National’s his favorite track, but he insists it’s because the track is fun to drive, and not because his father owns it.

Prior to the trip to Pensacola, 2016 did have some bright moments. He had impressive Late Model Stock Car and Pro Late Model runs at Southern National, and in his Legends Car grabbed the first ever feature win at Virginia’s Dominion Raceway.

“That was a fun time; my crew was excited about that race,” Diaz said, noting that his father, Michael, also competed in that event. “It’s fun, but sometimes he’s not always up there with us.”

But Diaz has been up there with the leaders a lot in Late Model competition, and appears to have adjusted well to the heavier cars.

“There’s always a difference in car control and how it turns and everything like that (when you change divisions), but it’s nothing you can’t get used to,” Diaz explained.

And that includes the difference between a Late Model Stock Car and a Pro Late Model.

“I would explain it like a bando; in a bando you have to keep your momentum going,” Diaz observed. “It’s the same with a Late Model Stock, the better you turn and the quicker you get to the gas the better you are because it’s so heavy.”

But the Pro Late Model “you drive it in, somewhat brake in the corner and get on the gas and it doesn’t matter.”

The hardest thing for him to learn driving a car with a bigger carburetor was car control, Diaz noted, how to play with the throttle.

And he was quick in practice for the Snowflake, so it seemed he had the car controlled.

“I like a driver’s race,” he said, noting that he prefers competition that depends on driving skill. “Like here, there are 60 drivers — the best in the nation — going for 30 starting spots. You need to have a great team put together for this race.”

That team is North Carolina-based Mike Darne Racing.

“Mike Darne Racing is a great experience for me,” Diaz said. “The guys all care about the car and all want to go fast, and they do what they need to do to get it done.”

Mike Darne has the same confidence in his young driver.

“His biggest progression is that he’s started to be able to tell me what he needs in the car,” Darne stated. “When we first started out I had to more or less watch the car and figure it out from there. But now I’m starting to get feedback and that’s helping us get faster because we’re making the right changes.”

Darne had his own history of race wins and track championships before he got into the driver-development business.

Following the interview, Diaz qualified about mid-pack for the Snowflake and finished 10th after an impressive run. A month later in early January he ran at New Smyrna in Florida and finished fourth in the Pro Late Model Zack Donatti Memorial and fifth in the Super Late Model Red-Eye 100, so don’t count out the possibility of more Pro or Super races added to his schedule.

He’s running for NASCAR Whelen All-American rookie of the year in 2017. And he’s also going to race on the road course in the Legends Car with his dad.

“If you’re not enjoying it, what’s the point in doing it?”

And that’s partly what makes Mason Diaz such a rare find. He’s got the talent. He has the drive. But he’s grounded, and realizes that he may not be the next Jeff Gordon. Mason Diaz doesn’t have to have a career in racing to be satisfied and keep competing.

“Racing might not work out for me, but in the end I’m still going to run no matter what.”

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.