For Cameron Hayley, the smell of burning rubber conjures up a favourite childhood memory.
Whenever he catches a whiff of tire smoke, the Calgary teen remembers being in the stands of the now-closed Race City Motorsport Park watching acrid blue haze fill the air at the end of a stock car race.
“I was that kid who was standing right at the start-finish line after a race while the drivers were doing burnouts and just smelling the tire smoke and burning fuel – all that harmful toxic stuff parents don’t want their kids smelling,” Hayley, 16, recalled.
“I would just take it in and, ever since that, racing has been literally and figuratively been in my blood.”
Now the kid who began attending races as a toddler with his NASCAR-obsessed godfather, Jason Arams, and dad, Darrell, hopes to attract attention and sponsors during his sophomore year in a NASCAR ladder series called K&N West Pro.
After a successful rookie year in the development series where he finished seventh overall with five top-5 finishes in 15 starts driving the No. 24 Toyota for Bill McAnally Racing, Hayley signed to race the No. 3 Ford for the Gene Price Motorsports. He replaces 2012 K&N West champion Dylan Kwasniewski, who will race in the K&N East Series this year.
The first race of Hayley’s 16-stop 2013 K&N West Series season goes Feb. 19 at the famed Daytona International Speedway. The season-opening “UNOH Battle at the Beach” will run as part of the undercard of the Daytona 500 and take place on a new flat, half-mile oval built alongside the back straight of the speedway.
“We are going right into the first race looking for a win,” Hayley said. “It’s huge pressure for me but I just need to block it all out and focus on what I need to do. Going into cars that won the championship last year means there are huge expectations and I am ready for it.”
If history is any indication, Hayley should be able to cope nicely with expectations that he should be a front-runner in the series.
In 2011, a 15-year, 23-day-old Hayley became the youngest driver to compete in a NASCAR-sanctioned event by making his first career K&N West Pro Series start in Montana. He raised more than a few eyebrows by taking second place in that outing and lapping veteran NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Michael Waltrip along the way.
“When my dad told me about a month before that I was going to drive in a NASCAR race, it brought me to tears,” he said. “All I wanted to do was finish the race and instead I was sitting there being interviewed on Speed TV for a second-place finish. It was probably the best moment of my life.”
It was a long way from the makeshift oval on the family driveway Hayley spent hours circling in a toy tractor as soon as his feet could reach the pedals. His competitive spirit became apparent when the toddler asked his father to time his laps. A motorized go-kart arrived in the driveway when he was four, and Hayley has never looked back.
“We called it a Puffo – it was pink and blue and a bunch of other weird colours,” he said. “I started racing go-karts in the lowest division when I was seven and one thing led to another.”
When he turned 11, Hayley moved into Baby Grand cars, which are two-thirds scale NASCARs with 1500-cc motorcycle engines. He won a pair of national championships in Baby Grand before getting behind the wheel of a Super Late Model, which he piloted to the 2011 Dakota Dunes championship at Auto Clearing Motor Speedway in Saskatoon and finished second overall in a similar series at Montana Raceway Park. Halfway through his second season of Late Model racing, he made his maiden start in the K&N Series.
Along the way, his father’s Hayley Cabinets business has been on board for the ride, sponsoring the young driver as he climbed the ladder. His grandfather, Noel Hayley, who owns part of the cabinet business, has also chipped in to pay the bills.
With things getting serious, Hayley now needs to start looking for more sponsor backing to keep his career on the upswing.
“My dad has been the guy who has got me through everything,” Hayley said. “We are definitely looking for new corporate partners because it’s getting expensive.”
While the K&N Series is relatively affordable at about $1.5-million for a season, the next step from there – NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series – easily costs three times more per year.
While a full-time ride in the trucks isn’t within his grasp yet, Hayley does hope to be in the field when the Camping World Series makes its debut at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, Ont., later this year.
Besides money, Hayley also faces some challenges completing his high school education as he pursues a racing career. Simply put, travelling across the United States 16 times between February to November for races, as well as trips to K&N test days, doesn’t exactly make attending school easy. Rather than try to juggle classes and racing, Hayley took a different tack by enrolling in a self-directed program when he arrived at high school in 2011.
“There’s still a school that I physically go to but I am actually the one teaching myself,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be able to keep up in a normal high school. My friends miss three or four days and they spend two months catching up and I’m missing months at a time, so I went to this school to keep up with my school work and be able to go race.”
Essentially, Hayley takes his books and lessons on the road and does his homework during downtime as he travels. He’s even ahead in some of his studies, taking some Alberta exit exams that are above his Grade 11 level.
When he feels confident enough that he’s got a handle on the material, he can decide to take the final exam to complete the course.
The good news is that his travel schedule gives him plenty of time to get the work done.
“I don’t spend my flights like a normal 16-year-old just listening to music and playing games,” he said. “I spend mine doing homework and studying for tests.”
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