Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Rajah Caruth: iRacing, Social Media Haters, Bubba, 2021 Expectations, and Shakira

Photo Credit : Daylon Barr / Barr Visuals

The traditional way for an aspiring NASCAR driver to discover their path into a full-time career is pretty straightforward. Buy a go-kart, work on it with family, and see how your car runs against fellow competitors all with the same goal as you.

Rajah Caruth had only one shot to get into NASCAR, and it wasn’t through any real-life driving.

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With the emergence of iRacing over the last ten years, very few drivers have been able to skip the previous step and kick off their career on the virtual side of things. Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron is the first truly successful iRacer to emerge from the platform, to become a champion at the NASCAR level. Caruth began his racing career on iRacing through the eNASCAR Ignite Series, a short-lived series designed around the ages 13-16 bracket to help young drivers take the first steps into a real-life career in motorsports.

His talent on the simulation platform caught the eye of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program, which is designed to help train and develop an ethnically diverse set of rising drivers. The program has produced proven winners including Daniel Suarez, Kyle Larson, and Bubba Wallace, the only full-time African American driver in NASCAR across all three national touring series.

Being a member of the Drive for Diversity Program, the Concord driver doesn’t feel it as pressure, but more as motivation.  The program itself does more than teach on-track ability. It teaches budding drivers about the cars they race, how to speak to NASCAR media members, as well as physical and mental strength training.

In the age of social media, the training of how new drivers handle themselves is crucial, more so for Caruth. The 2021 Drive for Diversity class is made up of eight drivers, three of which are African American, with Caruth being the oldest at 18 years old, as well as a returning member of the class.

“It’s an elephant in the room a lot of the time obviously, but I don’t necessarily pay any mind to it,” he said. “Especially for the negative stuff.”

With anyone who has access to a mobile device or a keyboard likely on social media, it took a toll at first for younger Caruth, who admitted that many of the comments were taken directly to heart during his first year as a member of the Drive for Diversity Program.

“I didn’t know how to deal with it,” he said. “I’m going to be completely honest, I just haven’t cared. Why am I going to worry about someone else’s opinion? I know I’m doing my best, I know that I’m doing good,  there’s no point in reading into it. With the negative stuff, I truly do not care.”

The stereotype of NASCAR being a southern sport can have a wide web of other stereotypes and images tied to the belief, with racism and the confederate flag being just a few of those. NASCAR attacked the issue head-on in 2020 following the death of George Floyd, an African American man who was killed after a white police officer placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for an extended period of time. Bubba, being the only full-time African American driver, took the lead on racial injustice, and helping to change the image of the sport in a multitude of ways. He called on NASCAR to ban the confederate flag from race tracks and to clean the image from the fan base. NASCAR agreed and set forth to initiate policies to ban the flag from the tracks.

As an African American in a predominately white sport, the action brought a belief to Caruth that NASCAR made the right move, and had his support in helping to change the longstanding, stereotypical image of NASCAR.

“To see the sport take a stance like that and to be supportive and there for us was very good to feel,” he explained. “Seeing what Bubba did last year was great, it was cool to see him decide to make that decision. Obviously, it went really well for him, but it could have also went negative. It was great to see how he made that decision and didn’t care if it went good or bad. It makes me look up to him even more.”

On-track last season, Caruth was zeroing in on getting that first W in his win column for 2020. The month of September would become memorable for him, both good, and bad. A great second-place run at Florence in early September halted thanks to an engine failure. But the moment brought a realization to the young driver.

“Personally for me, that was the moment where I  that we have the potential to go out and win races, and I’m getting there personally as a driver, my experience is going up, and I’m learning what I need to as a driver to be there at the end,” he said.

The best way to silence your haters? Prove you can win. Caruth did just that, when he piloted his No. 6 Sunoco-sponsored Rev Racing late model to his first career win at historic Greenville-Pickens Speedway. The moment caught attention from many in the NASCAR community, none other than Bubba Wallace. A vocal support of Caruth’s career, the duo have talked on many occasions about Caruth’s career, aspirations, and even topics completely out of the racing bubble.

“It’s great to have Bubba as a supporter of me, just because it personally assures me that I don’t totally suck,” Caruth joked.

Bubba even attends events of Caruth’s, including some time in a Legend Car in January, as well as a visit to New Smyrna Speedway.

“If I’m being completely honest, that meant the world to me,” said Caruth. “It makes me want to go out and win races so much more than I already do.”

When asked of Bubba’s greatest piece of advice, it wasn’t anything life motivating, or a cliche quote. From race car driver to race car driver, it’s practically the number one rule on-track.

“Don’t be scared of the wall,” Bubba told Caruth. “Hit it, so you know your limits.”

The advice became a reality for Caruth during his 2021 ARCA debut. Having never stepped foot into an ARCA car before, Caruth was heading in blind and without real, physical knowledge of how the car handles, and the dimensions of the car compared to a late model.  Using telemetry data, the young driver was able to visually see for himself how far off the wall he was, and where he could make improvements. Sure, the best way to learn from your mistakes is to actually commit one (i.e. hitting the wall), but the technology with race shops and garages today also provides a valuable learning tool for budding and veteran drivers alike.

From practice to qualifying, Caruth tested his own limits and was able to gain a few tenths of a second thanks to moving up the race track slightly closer to the wall. However moving from late models to an ARCA car, there were more factors to get adjusted to including a different steering box, a different tire compound, and a heavier machine to learn.

But that isn’t going to hinder his own expectations for what is to come for 2021. Fitting, that Caruth sets his expectations to the highest standard as a driven individual.

“I want to go win the ARCA East Championship,” he explained. “I know that’s a pretty big goal, but I want that really badly. And I feel like that’s in the realm of possibility. With some good fortune, I feel like we can be a contender. I want to run races, and contend for the championship.”

In his debut race at New Smyrna, Caruth finished 11th but was ten laps down due to damage early in his race. With a start like that, a driver could easily have his confidence bruised, and give up. Caruth is simply built differently, but one key factor stands out when it comes to his on-track motivation.

A driver has one job – drive the car. But so many other sets of hands are putting together the driver’s racecar. Many drivers today will wheel the car, but not build or help put the car together as many drivers did back in NASCAR’s early days. The closest modern example of a young driver is NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Ryan Vargas, as the California native served as a crew member for JD Motorsports last year while driving the car as well. Caruth made it a point to actually study the racecar’s progress, from building the chassis to getting the car rolling, to what fans see on the track.

Starting in October, he acknowledged that he “was sticking out like a sore thumb” by not doing anything at the race shop. He made the effort to ask questions, to start to learn more about the car he drives on race day. He began making and fitting the aluminum fillers that are placed between body panels. He also took on some painting duties, as well as crafting templates for crush panels. During the offseason, Caruth attended all but two weeks in the shop to expand his own knowledge and skillset outside the driver’s seat.

“You can’t give up, especially knowing the work that you and your guys have put in. That’s the thing that’ll keep me going. I’m only 18-years-old, but now I understand these race cars. ”

This study of how a car comes together, and the hands that piece it, offer a newfound appreciation of the car itself. It’s why Caruth wouldn’t take his frustration out on another driver on-track, such as putting another driver into the wall.

“Just throw hands after the race or something,” he explained. “I don’t like seeing people tear cars up because I understand what it takes to put them all together and the money, the time, the hours into doing stuff.”

Of course, the first “anything” in the motorsports realm is significant, from the first design someone puts on track, to Caruth’s case of the first car he helped build.  Naming race cars are commonplace within race shops today. Fans may recall Dale Jr’s “Amelia”, a bad-fast superspeedway chassis that drove Dale Jr. to a handful of superspeedway wins in 2015. The car was retired after a crash at Talladega in 2016 to Dale’s own race car graveyard.

Caruth actually named his own race car with the help of his crew chief Glenn Parker. But the name and source are.. unique to say the least.

“We couldn’t figure out anything good or anything we all liked,” he said. “Then, we were listening to music and Whenever, Whenever came on by Shakira. We were like ‘Sharika is a very beautiful woman,” and then boom. The race car right now is white, with black numbers.. exquisite.”

Yes, worldwide recording artist, Shakira was the inspiration of Caruth’s first ARCA Menards Series race car. For a man who also has a soft spot for Ariana Grande, he mentioned that whatever happens next year, that could be the next name for a car.

It sounds like the  18-year-old driver has a rather busy season ahead of him. That’s not all he is participating in either. Caruth also started his college education this year, as a freshman at Winston-Salem State University, studying Motorsports Management. In the current conditions of the global pandemic, schooling online is now easier since everything is being done online and via video services such as Zoom. But it still has its challenges as a race car driver.

While racing at New Smyrna earlier this year, he missed a full day of classes for racing. Nevertheless, it’s a race on-track, but also to get caught up on his school work.

“In reality, it’s not really that hard, I’ve just got to really manage my time, and make sure I’m really on top of my stuff,” he said. “It’s just fanning out my time, and follow through with the plans I set forth.”

Even if a driver puts his entire life’s work into becoming a successful champion, there is never a guarantee that the life path you want, is the one you’ll always follow. The addition of education is not only something that he wanted to do, it’s a core value to his family.

“The way I was brought up, education is a priority, especially with being a black kid, you’re at a deficit already growing up in the inner city,” he explained. “That’s how I was brought up, to value your grades, and your schoolwork.”

With his parents offering full support of his endeavors, his mother offered a deal. The family will support his racing career, but he needs to get his college education. But his future beyond racing was already on his mind. After his racing career comes to a close, the young gun is already eyeing a future in racing operations – from managing a race team to even owning one.

But that is years, possibly decades away. For now, Rajah is lasered focus on what is coming in the future. In 2031, he sees himself as a Cup Series driver, contending for wins and championships every season. Whether it’s with Chevrolet, Toyota, Ford, or even a new manufacturer, the next generation of racers are on their way.

Caruth represents a rare breed when it comes to NASCAR driver development. From his roots on iRacing to helping to build his own race cars, the 18-year-old is developing a newfound appreciation for the sport he hopes to leave his mark in for generations to come.

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