Thursday, June 13, 2024

A Carefully Executed Plan Helped Produce Kyle Rizzoli’s First World Championship

2023 Stock world champ Kyle Rizzoli knew ahead of the 2023 season that he was going to need a plan to find a balance between being present for his family and somehow still racing for trophies and championships.

Kyle Rizzoli knew ahead of the 2023 season that he was going to need a plan. Wife Julia was pregnant with their first child, and with the due date landing mid-summer, Rizzoli had to find balance between being present for his family and somehow still racing for trophies and championships.

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“Emmett was going to be born in mid- to late-July, so I couldn’t run Sonoma and Seattle – two of my favorite races, and two where I’m most comfortable,” said Rizzoli, a five-time division champion who had yet to claim a national title until this season. “That meant strategic planning for the beginning of the year, and if I was in it for the championship, I’d continue to race after he was born. If not, I was just going to be Dad.”

Rizzoli was in the game immediately with a runner-up at the Pacific Division doubleheader in Phoenix, and he followed up with a power punch in April with wins at the national events in Pomona and Las Vegas, then claimed a runner-up finish at the Division 7 event at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

After racing to a final at the Phoenix double-divisional, Rizzoli, near lane, defeated Brian McClanahan at the NHRA Winternationals for his first win of a great year in Dave Bridgewater’s classic Camaro.

“It was a dream start, and then we made the strategic call to go to the Dallas double-divisional,” said Division 7 stalwart Rizzoli. “We looked at the calendar, and it was like, ‘I’m hot; we need to do this.’ I remember rolling into Dallas, halfway across the country, and people were like, ‘What the heck are you doing here?’ ”

Rizzoli knew exactly what he was doing, and his hot streak continued in Dave Bridgewater’s recognizable ’69 A/SA Chevrolet Camaro with a pair of final-round finishes to plump his score. Rizzoli left Texas Motorplex in mid-May with a massive 666 points on his scorecard and with plenty of time to ensure Julia was settled and baby Emmett would arrive with Dad in his line of vision.

Rizzoli’s final score included six total final rounds, including a win over John Gray at the Las Vegas NHRA Four-Wide Nationals. 

“People knew we were doing good, but at that point, you’re almost racing with anonymity – most people are in their own world and don’t notice what you’re doing,” said Rizzoli. “It was still the beginning of the season, and we knew where we were and the scope of things, but a lot of people didn’t yet. I left Dallas like, ‘Holy crap, I think we might have done it.’ That was a pretty wild feeling.” 

The trip to Texas Motorplex was his last before the pre-planned four-month respite, and although the race for the championship was on hold, those months were packed with life and emotion. 

“It was wild, balancing my emotions through the birth of my son,” he shared. “It was something I’ll cherish forever, to be able to be present for him and my wife those first couple of months and not have to focus on the race car. You can’t replace that, but balancing the nerves when I came back in October was challenging.”

It was a long journey to get there, but the decision to race the doubleheader at Texas Motorplex was pivotal. Rizzoli reached the final round on both days, falling one win light short to old pal Brad Plourd (pictured) in the first event and Jeff Lopez in the second. 

Rizzoli made his return at the double-divisional in Bakersfield, but he didn’t exactly pick up where he left off – at least not in the Stocker. Painfully early exits on both days left him with big question marks as to how the season was actually going to end. While he was putting the Camaro away for the weekend, Rizzoli was watching his challengers make up ground in St. Louis. Jeff Strickland and Tyler Bohannon each fared well there, and Rizzoli also had his eye on Parker Theobald, Justin Lamb, and others as potential threats.

“That was the most nervous I’ve been at a race in a really long time,” he said. “One, being at the racetrack with my infant son for the first time, and two, wanting to win the championship. I knew that if I had one more good race, it was legitimately locked up, but you can’t ‘try’ to win a race. It just doesn’t work that way, and I had a terrible weekend. I did not drive well, I did not handle myself well, and I felt very defeated. 

“Somehow, though, we won Super Stock, and it was the best thing that could have happened. I didn’t deserve to win, but it was like, ‘Oh, shoot. I still got it. I can do this.’ I had to get punched in the face with nerves and anxiety because that’s part of racing for a championship, but the Super Stock car saved me. We left straight from Bakersfield to go to Dallas [for the national], and I had a calm about me. I knew I could do it, and I was back to my normal racing self.” 

A critical second-round victory over Bohannon in Texas, along with a semifinal finish, all but locked it up for second-generation racer Rizzoli. 

“The second round against Bohannon was huge,” he reflected. “He’s one of the best racers in the nation in any car you put him in. If he would have won that one, he would have been a serious threat – so to execute that round and really the whole weekend, to drive well, and for the car to be just phenomenal, it was huge. There weren’t really any nerves after that moment. It was more about enjoying the rest of the season.”

Rizzoli’s first world title was tied up at the NHRA Nevada Nationals in Las Vegas when Jeremy Romero, the lone remaining racer with a shot at catching him, bowed out early. Rizzoli was in the staging lanes waiting to run a round in his Super Stock entry, a well-equipped car graciously on loan from the Gaynor family, when he got the news that he was officially the 2023 NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series Stock world champion. 

Rizzoli and his crew hugged in celebration, and Bill Grubbs, husband and crew chief for Stock and Super Stock standout Brenda Grubbs, soon approached with congratulations. Bill also came with a message.

“He told us to go win another, and I hadn’t even thought about it, but at that moment, it clicked in my head – we could win two championships,” said Rizzoli. “I just locked in after that, but it wasn’t like, ‘I gotta do this.’ It was like I was playing with house money, we could go out there and have some fun. After so many years, here we were at such a big moment, and it was, ‘Let’s make it happen.’ ”

The Gaynor family’s GT/CA Cobalt flew and brought Rizzoli to his fourth Super Stock final of the season, and there, he claimed a critical win over fellow championship contender Brad Burton to keep hope alive. Young Wyatt Wagner ultimately earned the Super Stock title, but Rizzoli reached the final on Sunday to finish third in the national points. It was an extraordinary run, and most importantly, he was going home to his family and with a championship trophy in the most unforgettable of years.

“I have to thank my wife, Julia, for understanding me, understanding our family’s passion for racing, and for allowing me to chase a dream; my parents, Jim and Kay – I couldn’t ask for anything better than what they do to help me every single race; Tory Lea, our newest addition to the team, for driving the rig and helping me with everything; my car owner Dave Bridgewater, who took a chance on me 10 years ago and has treated me like a son ever since. I get to drive this really cool blue Camaro, and here we are, the championship and five division championships later. I also have to thank Hal Sorenson and all the guys at Lesco Industries machine shop – Stephan Kennedy, Craig Gerfen, Chris Barker, Mark, and Lil Chris. To race at the level we do means you need the best engines and machinists, and the guys are the best in the nation.”

Rizzoli thanked Hoosier Race Tire, including Faron Lubbers and Robert on the truck; J.B. Dewar; Pacific Pride; Rizzoli’s Automotive and the employees who support his endeavors; as well as Tommy, Megan, John, and Ty Gaynor for trusting him to race the Super Stock Cobalt formerly driven by family patriarch Tom Gaynor. 

Rizzoli also thanked longtime racing friends Brad Plourd, Ryan Mangus, Shawn Langdon, Daniel Fiello, Matt Woodard, and Nick Cobb. 

2023 TRACK RECORD 699 points
Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park (Div. 7)THIRD ROUND
Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park (Div. 7)RUNNER-UP
Lucas Oil NHRA WinternationalsWON EVENT
NHRA Four-Wide NationalsWON EVENT
The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Div. 7)RUNNER-UP
Texas Motorplex (Div. 4)RUNNER-UP
Texas Motorplex (Div. 4)RUNNER-UP
Texas NHRA FallNationalsSEMIFINALS

This article originally appeared in the Year in Review issue of National Dragster.

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