Hayden Cardwell stands watch over his uncle Jason's Dirt late Model before it hits the track
Hayden Cardwell stands watch over his uncle Jason’s Dirt late Model before it hits the track

Nestled deep in the rolling hills and valleys throughout East Tennessee, you can find the Cardwell family. The name is well known in the region, especially when it comes to dirt late model racing. Jason Cardwell, who pilots the real life 07 late model around tracks in the region, is a 5-time track champion in East Tennessee. One of the keys to making sure the #07 is ready to hit the track is none other than Jason’s 16-year old nephew, Hayden Cardwell.

While the Cardwell name is well known around the East Tennessee racing scene, Hayden Cardwell was not one of the names that came to mind for most people. Despite having a love for racing from a very young age, the funding to go racing wasn’t as readily available on his side of the Cardwell tree.

In order to get his racing fix, Hayden Cardwell did what many teenagers do, and turned to video games. An inexpensive and simpler way to get started competing against real drivers on a virtual platform, Cardwell quickly found himself spending several hours per week racing on rFactor. Rfactor is a computer racing simulator where fans of dirt track racing created various “mods” including dirt late models and hundreds of virtual dirt tracks around the country.

Once Cardwell discovered he could race his favorite cars in a virtual setting without spending hundreds of dollars to go real racing every weekend, he was hooked. At just twelve years old, Cardwell was racing online against the top sim racers in rFactor, many of whom were twice his age or older. Cardwell could often be seen driving the familiar 07 car, recreated in the game just like the one his uncle Jason races weekly around the numerous dirt tracks in East Tennessee.

In April 2016, another gaming simulator, iRacing, announced they would be adding dirt tracks and cars to their immensly popular service, which already had an enormous following for its asphalt based platform. Real life drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr, Martin Truex Jr, Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell and many others often lauded the realism of iRacing, and how it helped them prepare and become better racers in real life.

Once dirt racing was finally released for iRacing in March of 2017, Cardwell knew he had to try it. Now 14, Cardwell quickly found himself in racing sessions competing against the best real and virtual drivers in the world, many of whom he had competed against in rFactor with limited success. However, iRacing was touted for its realism, even much more so than rFactor, and Cardwell was determined to prove he belonged. “I knew I had to get iRacing just to see what I could do. I didn’t have a lot of success running in leagues in rFactor, but I was only 11 or 12 years old at the time. Once iRacing added dirt, I started putting in time to get better and after a couple of months I knew I could keep up with some of the fast guys but I never got an opportunity to run against the top level of competition in leagues,” said Cardwell.

That would change in early 2019 when Cardwell heard that Team VLR was starting up a new dirt late model series on iRacing. Team VLR is a long established name in the dirt sim racing community, having started way back in 2004 in the game Dirt Track Racing 2. Hayden Cardwell was just one year old at that time. Flash forward 15 years later, and VLR is known for having some of the toughest competition in the entire sim racing world.

Cardwell knew he had to sign up for the series. This was his chance to prove that a 16-year old kid could hang with the “big boys” of sim racing. Names like Bergeron, Weaver, Wilson, Edens, Leonhardi and others were becoming household names in sim dirt racing and even outside of that, with live broadcasts of the races often popping up online across Facebook and YouTube. This was a new age of racing, where competitors who didn’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars at their disposal could compete for real money and prizes without ever leaving the house, with racing fans being able to watch from the comfort of their living rooms.

One name that wasn’t yet well-known in sim racing was Hayden Cardwell. That would all change in a hurry, January 29, 2019 to be exact. That was the night of the first race of VLR’s new Super Late Model Series, touted as the toughest yet on iRacing. It was also Hayden Cardwell’s first ever VLR start, taking place at the virtual Dirt Track at Charlotte.

While scouting the names of the competition in the series, many drivers may have overlooked the words “Hayden Cardwell.” Who could blame them, the majority of the names for the series already read like a who’s who of sim racing, and Cardwell was easily overlooked in a stacked list of drivers.

“I did a lot of preparation with my team leading up to the first race at Charlotte. At the time I was just hoping to make it into the show and go from there,” Cardwell said, reflecting on the opening race.

Making the show was no easy task, but Cardwell made it look that way. Not only did the then 15-year old make the show, he started in fourth place and went on to earn a dominating win in the series opener. This wasn’t just any field of drivers either, all of the names mentioned earlier were competing in this race, and Cardwell still made it look easy.

Hundreds of viewers tuned in to watch the race live, with many of them having never heard of this kid from Tennessee, despite the fans who watched the races religiously in the past. When the dust had settled and Cardwell was on top, even he couldn’t put the words together on what it meant in his interview. “This is by far the best win of my sim-racing career. I never thought I would be able to accomplish this, so I’m kind of speechless right now.”

Suddenly Cardwell’s name and pictures of his sim race car was plastered over sim racing websites and social media pages. Despite it being a popular win for an “underdog”, rumblings of cheating were being mentioned among his competitors. Some felt there was no way a young kid could come out and upset the top sim racers in the world in his first attempt in the series. It was the sim-racing equivalent of David vs Goliath, except there were about twenty Goliath’s, and 15-year old Hayden Cardwell was trying to topple them.

The next week, Cardwell was determined to prove he wasn’t a one hit wonder, and once again went out and dominated the race, beating an equally strong crowd for the second time in a row in the process. Cardwell had transferred from underdog to top dog in just two races.

“Coming into week one and seeing the names of the drivers in the race, I thought I was in trouble. I just knew I had to keep my head on straight and no over think things and do what I know to do.”

This mantra seemed to work for Cardwell as he suddenly went from unknown, to sweeping the first two races in the toughest dirt series on iRacing. Fans and drivers still had their doubts, thinking Cardwell’s luck would run out at some point. However, after five races in the eight week series, Cardwell still has the points lead and after going winless the next two races, fired back with a dominating victory on Tuesday night at the Limaland Motorsports Park for his third win in five races in the South Texas Speedway Winter Super Series presented by VLR.

Cardwell is already in line to earn several hundred dollars from this series alone. His next major sim-racing goal is to be victorious in the $3,000 to win Schaeffer’s Oil Spring Fling, a dirt late model race which is set to be highest paying race in iRacing history.

While the landscape of racing is continuously changing, young Hayden Cardwell has shown that even without racing a real late model like his well-known uncle, he can still make a name for himself in the racing world, even with a steering wheel and pedals and cheap computer.

Not many people would’ve guessed ten or fifteen years ago that the next well-known racing Cardwell family member may have never stepped foot in a real racecar, but Hayden Cardwell just may be it.