Dustin Hayden helping building a community around Alaska Raceway Park

·6 min read

There are many race teams at Alaska Raceway Park, but presumably, only one of them has a shark mascot.

Dustin Hayden competes in Alaska Raceway Park’s Baby Grand class, and his team is keeping their spirits up, lifting the spirits of race fans at the track, and bringing new fans to the 0.333-mile NASCAR-sanctioned track in Palmer, Alaska.

In 2021, Hayden‘s Great White Racing team won Alaska Raceway Park’s Best Appearing Team Award. The team takes their Baby Grand, and shark mascot, to car shows and trade shows for their sponsors, do giveaways for kids on race nights and do as many promotional visits as they can.

In Hayden‘s mind, it‘s all about building a community around the racetrack, and bringing in new fans.

“We show out when we go,” Hayden said. “We do a little bit more than your average grassroots racer would. We‘ve pulled in some amazing sponsors and we want to make sure everyone knows how proud we are of our sponsors and show our appreciation.

“It still baffles me to this day, I talk to people every now and again who are like, ‘I had no idea we had a racetrack up here.‘ So that‘s one of our big goals is to show people, yeah, we have a racetrack and this is how we do it. We get involved with our community. All of our sponsors are small businesses in Alaska, so we‘ll go to their events and introduce ourselves and just try to promote ourselves as best we can, and our sponsors too.”

Dustin Hayden with his race team\
Dustin Hayden with his race team\

This is Hayden‘s fourth season racing at Alaska Raceway Park, and his first experience racing full-sized cars on a circle track. When he was growing up in Alaska, he and his dad would watch NASCAR events on television together.

When Hayden was “finally old enough, or tall enough, to start racing,” he said, he got in a go-kart.

“Not anything competitively, it was just fun little road runner courses that are in the cities and stuff like that,” he said.

After high school, Hayden joined the military. When he got back, he did some wheel-to-wheel road racing on an air field in Alaska.

About four years ago, a friend of a friend raced at Alaska Raceway Park and decided to move up a class, and still had his Baby Grand.

“My buddy was like, ‘Well, don‘t let it just sit there, you should have it out on the track. My buddy Dustin races and he‘d be into it,‘” Hayden said. “He was like, ‘Get a crew together and you can race the car and sustain it and everything. And I was like, OK, cool. And halfway through the season I was like, this is fun, and I ended up buying the car and that‘s kind of how our team started.

“I ended up finding my way into the circle track racing, and I fell in love with it, and that‘s what I‘ve been doing ever since.”

The first person Hayden wanted to join his team was his dad, who now serves as his crew chief.

“I hadn‘t told my dad I was going to go racing,” he said. “I invited him over one night and before he walked in I said, ‘We‘re going to go racing.‘ And I showed him the car. He was so excited.”

Going from road racing to a circle track was a “huge adjustment,” Hayden said.

“Coming from road courses, when you are adjusting your car on the suspension you‘re doing essentially everything you do on the left side you‘re doing on the right side because you want it to be essentially the same because you‘re turning both left and right,” Hayden said. “Getting into the circle track racing, every single corner of the car is set up differently. And realizing that was a huge adjustment. Just being able to determine how the tires were reacting and how I was reacting as a driver, it was a huge adjustment.

“But we got into it and we had a ton of fun, and it‘s been a huge learning experience overall. We‘ve all learned a massive amount about these cars and just circle track racing overall.”

Thankfully for Hayden, having a tight-knit team behind him helped make the adjustment much easier. His spotter is one of his best friends, and lives across the street from Hayden, making working on the car more often possible.

“Just having that camaraderie and knowing what we‘re all doing really helps out just because we kind of have a flow for most of it,” Hayden said.

It‘s all about more than just racing for the Great White Race Team. They get together to work on the car during the week, and on race day it‘s time to celebrate. The team brings campers to the track, other friends cook food and they have a full family get-together in the pits.

“Really racing is a bonus to everything else,” Hayden said.

The rest of the racing community at Alaska Raceway Park is just as close-knit as Hayden‘s team. The Baby Grand class gets together often and has discussions about what‘s going on at the track.

Hayden considers his class the cleanest group of racers at Alaska Raceway Park.

Dustin Hayden drives for the Great White Racing Team in the Baby Grand class at Alaska Raceway Park. (Photo: Courtesy of Dustin Hayden)
Dustin Hayden drives for the Great White Racing Team in the Baby Grand class at Alaska Raceway Park. (Photo: Courtesy of Dustin Hayden)

“The racing community up here, I don‘t really have experience elsewhere, but I feel like it‘s unlike any other place,” Hayden said.

“I try to take pride in our class specifically … We don‘t go out there and try to tear each other‘s car up or anything like that. We race clean, have fun, we‘re always helping each other out and trying to keep the pack tight. We want to have that competitiveness out there and still maintain safety and have fun. It‘s unreal, actually.”

While Hayden said he can‘t imagine racing anywhere else, his goal is to one day get the chance to try out other circle tracks across the country.

This season has seen its ups and down for the Great White Racing Team. Hayden has two top-fives and three top-10s in three races, but he‘s had to sit out twice. The first was because the car started having engine issues that he called “very peculiar.”

Getting parts to Alaska can sometimes be a lengthy process, and the team was unable to get the car on the track in time.

No long after, Hayden caught COVID-19, and had to sit out another race.

He‘s healthy now and has plans to finally be back on track for Alaska Raceway Park’s two-day event on Aug. 6-7.

The team‘s goals the rest of the season is to get on the podium a few more times, and hopefully take home the Best Appearing Team Award for a second-straight season.

No matter what happens on the track the rest of the summer, the Great White Racing Team will be still be having fun.

“Racing is the bonus to all of this. Being able to spend time with friends and family and get together with the community is a lot of fun,” Hayden said.

“It‘s been all thanks to awesome family, friends, and our amazing sponsor support that we have.”

NASCAR racing will return to Alaska Raceway Park on Aug. 6-7 for the NASCAR/INEX Shootout, featuring GCI Late Models, Baby Grands, The Legends of Classic Country 100.9, Pruhs Construction Thunder Stocks, Bomber Stock and Extreme Fun Center Bandoleros.