Ryan: Was the story of Martinsville the tame, the typical, or the tires?

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It was a “typical Martinsville race” that also seemed “tame,” according to one driver who knows the track as well as anyone.

Passing was only achievable for the third-place car during the first five laps after a restart … but was much easier after the first five laps for the fifth-place car.

There were the fewest lead changes (three) in more than 51 years at the 0.526-mile oval, yet the battles for first place between Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott still were compelling.

The STP 500 proved again that the difficulty of evaluating the 2019 rules package is as much about the eye of the beholder as the eye test.

Was Sunday’s race among the greatest held at Martinsville Speedway?

No.

Was it better than last year’s snow-delayed race in which drivers headed for off-week vacations seemed more preoccupied with logging laps than banging fenders?

Yes, from this corner.

But there were, as usual, some firm takeaways, too. So here they are.

–Aerodynamics mattered more than ever at Martinsville: Crew chief Paul Wolfe was “caught off guard” the minute Keselowski’s winning Ford hit the track for practice Saturday morning at Martinsville, a place “you don’t feel like it’s much of an aero track.”

Until this past weekend.

“We weren’t as good as I thought we would be (to start practice),” Wolfe said. “We felt the effects of the aero changes even though this is one of the slower tracks we race at. So, we scrambled a little bit. … We had to work on our setup quite a bit from what had worked for us in the past.  And we knew there would be a little difference, but it was probably more than I expected.”

It was a common refrain throughout two days from Martinsville from drivers who pointed at aerodynamic dependence on a flat track. Denny Hamlin pointed to the turbulent wake from the lead car as the reason “you can’t really run directly behind somebody. Other than that, typical Martinsville race. The spoiler is just so big, it takes so much air off the car behind. You have to run a different line. The bottom is the fastest, so it’s very difficult once you get behind to pass someone (on the outside).”

Kyle Busch said if he didn’t pass a car in the first five laps of a run, it took about 60 more for tire degradation to allow for significant advancement. “There’s so much downforce; we’re going through the corners so fast,” he said. “There’s no way to go around the outside of somebody.”

Keselowski led 445 laps, but even he didn’t believe his No. 2 Ford necessarily was better than Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet. After getting passed under green by Elliott on Lap 325, Keselowski figured he’d lost the race until his pit crew gave him back the lead for good with 126 laps remaining.

That underscored the advantage of having a clean track, and it also suggests that aerodynamics will be a larger factor at every oval this season. The next instance in which it’ll be more noticeable than ever likely will be the April 7 race at Bristol Motor Speedway, which is expected to produce lightning-fast laps.

Chase Elliott was the only driver to pass Brad Keselowski under green Sunday (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images).

“The higher the speeds, the more these aerodynamics take effect and the harder it will be to pass,” Hamlin said. “If any track is where the aero package really isn’t going to matter, it would be (Martinsville). So anywhere that gets a little faster in speed, it’ll be that much harder. The speeds definitely will be high (at Bristol), but you’ll have to make your car work where somebody else’s isn’t. You definitely won’t be able to run directly behind them.”

Said Wolfe: “For sure going to Bristol, I think we’re going to notice the effects of it, and all the short tracks as we move forward. It’s changed things for sure and keeps you on your toes.”

–While tire wear mattered much less, but …: Hardly any teams took advantage on jumping spots with two-tire stops.

That was one of many curious developments in a race that somehow featured all significant pit stops happening under caution. A 500-lap race at Martinsville typically has at least one green-flag pit cycle, yet Sunday’s race had none despite only seven cautions (excluding stage yellows, it would have marked only the third time in 30 years that a Martinsville race had five or fewer cautions).

The dearth of multicar wrecks (Sunday’s race had one) furthered a perplexing 2019 trend that again raises questions of whether the cars are too stuck to the track.

But in the short term, NASCAR hopefully will be leaning on Goodyear to construct a Martinsville tire that has more wear.

“We’ll look at everything, particularly tires and tire wear,” NASCAR senior vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said Monday on SiriusXM’s NASCAR channel. “There didn’t seem to be a lot of that in either (the truck or Cup) race, so we’ve got to go back and look at what’s happening, particularly at Martinsville. That’s a big component of that race and something we need to have going forward.”

Of course, the Oct. 27 race might unfold completely differently (like last year) solely because there will be so much on the line in the playoffs (and even more so in 2020 when it becomes a cutoff race).

“Yeah, it seems like it’s always the fall that everyone goes crazy,” Hamlin said. “It just seemed like a tame race (Sunday). Even when I got to the back, it wasn’t huge log-jam packups like you’ve seen in the past. Everyone just kind of kept it in control, and these cars are really stuck to the ground so much, you really don’t get out of control that much. You’ve got what you’ve got.”

–That’s it, what’s next? In the past five races, the 2019 rules package has been used on ovals with lengths of 1.5 miles, 2 miles, 1 mile and a half-mile. Aside from road courses, it’s now undergone real-world testing at virtually every type of track in NASCAR’s premier series.

It would be fair to begin evaluating its efficacy and considering possible changes – with some parameters.

Any significant alterations to the horsepower and tapered spacer are a virtual nonstarter. Engine builders set their inventories months ahead, and adjustments would take massive effort and money (engines already are being sealed in Cup to reduce on both of those things).

If NASCAR wanted to tweak aero by reducing the height of its enormous spoilers, it would have an impact on reducing corner speeds with the 750-horsepower engines used at smaller tracks such as Martinsville.

But the challenge is that any such moves would need approval from team owners per the charter agreements. There was heavy pressure from teams to contain costs by consolidating the race package into two iterations this season, and any suggestion of in-season changes this year – which immediately would trigger more R&D spending – probably would draw pushback.

The last time NASCAR made major rules changes in season was when it experimented four years ago with the low-downforce and high-drag packages – both of which were the reaction to a lackluster start to 2015 that many blamed on high-corner speeds.

Those changes caused an unexpected seven-figure spike in the budgets for powerhouse teams, who probably would be open to considering tweaks if necessary but understandably wary of what it means for their wallets.


Another compelling reason to hold off on overhauling this year’s model is because it’s short-lived.

With an aggressive target date of the 2021 Daytona 500, there is furious work occurring behind the scenes on the Gen 7 car – its visual stylings, its features and parts (some of which are expected to be common) and its impact on helping keep team budgets in check.

It’s expected that on-track testing for the 2021 model will happen before the end of this season (and many believe it probably should have begun last season), and the goal is a fleet of five to seven cars per team (as opposed to roughly three times as many under the current model) with a budget far south of the $25-30 million that currently is estimated to be spent on championship entries.

Roger Penske recently was outspoken on the need to have the Gen 7 within two years to bring costs in line, and it was fittingly from an interview at the St. Petersburg Grand Prix season opener for IndyCar.

During the most recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, Front Row Motorsports general manager Jerry Freeze said Penske and Chip Ganassi have been forthright about the impact of the Dallara in IndyCar (which made the switch to a common chassis seven years ago).

“In team owner council meetings, we talk about areas to race in, and Mr. Penske and Mr. Ganassi are quite outspoken about what they’ve done in IndyCar,” Freeze said. “There’s one place you go to get your chassis. I don’t know all the parts and components very well with IndyCar racing, but I really think that’s the direction that’s being talked about with the Gen 7 car. Dictate the areas that you’re going to race in and areas you aren’t going to race in and try to drive some costs down.

“Listening to (Penske and Ganassi) have firsthand experience with that, it seems to have worked with viable IndyCar teams that are still very competitive, and their racing has been fantastic from the races I’ve watched. They still have a loyal, passionate fan base. We’re all observing how they do it, and I think some of those methods will be replicated across our sport.”

Penske estimated that IndyCar budgets top out at $10 million annually (across a 17-race schedule) for championship-caliber teams, which are limited on the amount that can be spent on research and development.

There are signs that it can work in NASCAR, too. The move to a common pit gun last year helped keep in check teams spending seven figures annually on pit stop equipment. “We don’t want to go to an all-spec series,” Freeze said. “That’s been done before, and I don’t think there’s a lot of enthusiasm for that. That’s the balance now. What areas do we need to not be racing in, and what areas can we race in without breaking the bank? If everybody agrees you can standardize the chassis and don’t have a speedway car vs. road course car.

“We’re taking some steps to refine our package that caused cost increases for us in specializing cars. With the new package, that’s one thing that could be addressed if you just lock it in that this is the chassis or body you’ve got, you shouldn’t need a whole lot of inventory.”

You can hear Freeze’s discussion of the Gen 7 car at around the 30:00 mark of the embedded audio player below, or listen and subscribe to the NASCAR on NBC Podcast via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get podcasts.


Ford was the first manufacturer to unveil its Gen 6 car, and Brad Keselowski was on record as far back as six months into its first season in 2013 that the hasty rollout was a marketing-driven misstep.

He took agency in ensuring it wouldn’t happen again with the development of the Mustang for its debut this season. The 2012 champion made several wind tunnel visits and peppered engineers with questions about the new model’s on-track viability.

Though he always is outspoken about the potential disparity between manufacturers, Keselowski also is well known within Ford’s NASCAR program for being a highly inquisitive driver who probes the R&D of his race cars with the exacting will of a world champion.

Keselowski provided a window into his hands-on style Sunday when asked about whether he was worried his team was peaking too early in the year.

“I think about that every day,” he said. “Every day I wake up in the morning and say, ‘Am I better today than I was yesterday?’ And if I’m not, and if we’re not, we’re going to lose. That’s the simple matter of this. The sport is very dynamic. Technology is changing every day.  Somewhere out there right now someone is working on the next advancement that’s going to be critical to winning the playoffs, and we don’t know about it. Might be another team, might be someone in our own group. If we stay stagnant, it’s guaranteed we will fall.

“So, I think about it every day. The only thing I know to do is just be super annoying.  That’s really all I know.  All I know is to go in and sit in on meetings and ask questions that make people squirm and watch them squirm and watch their face, and when they squirm, are they squirming because they should be squirming, or are they squirming because they just don’t want to work?

“And that’s all I know. I wish I was smarter than that.  I wish I was better than that.  But all I know how to do is read their body language and see if they’ve got more than I think they’ve got or if this is all we’ve got and push those people.”


Nearly as eye-opening as his sublime drive Sunday were Keselowski’s candid comments about getting more active in finding funding for Team Penske.

Opening his postrace interview in the media center by noting “we’re fighting so hard to keep sponsors,” Keselowski disclosed he has taken on more responsibility for ensuring his No. 2 Ford as a championship-caliber budget for 2020 (this season is set).

That certainly casts some doubt on the future of Miller Lite, which was the full-season primary sponsor of the No. 2 as recently as 2013. Amid branding and ownership changes at its parent company, the beer company has scaled back in recent seasons.

This was the second consecutive season Miller Lite wasn’t the primary hood sponsor for the Daytona 500, and it has yet to be the primary in any of Keselowski’s races this season.

Last year, Team Penske said Miller Lite was the sponsor of 11 races. According to the team after a Nov. 3, 2017 news release, Miller Lite’s deal was for “2018 and beyond.”


Roughly 24 hours before his first finish outside the top 20 at Martinsville in five years and only his fourth in 35 starts at the 0.526-mile oval, Jimmie Johnson struck a positive tone while also already seeming to reckon with what might lie ahead.

“History helps the week coming into the race, but as soon as timing and scoring starts on Friday or Saturday, reality is reality,” the nine-time winner at Martinsville said Saturday after qualifying 11th – the highlight of a dismal weekend at a normally illustrious track for the seven-time champion. “We’ve had a good car, so I still think we’re missing a little bit. I think we’re in a decent spot. Hopefully a top five will be on the books for us.”

William Byron passes Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images).

It wasn’t. Johnson finished two laps down in 24th solely because his No. 48 Camaro was just that slow. There were no pit penalties or accidents that hampered the superstar once dubbed “Mr. Martinsville” by Jeff Gordon.

Johnson’s struggle was a jarring juxtaposition with his Hendrick teammates.

Elliott challenged Keselowski with the verve that Johnson once showed in dethroning Gordon as the best driver at Martinsville. Alex Bowman was a solid top-15 driver for 500 laps, and even William Byron finished two spots ahead of Johnson despite starting from the back and overcoming a half-spin.

It was a sobering reality for Johnson, who is 15th in points through six races with new crew chief Kevin Meendering. That relationship still is developing, and there have been small victories such as making the final round of qualifying in four of the past five races.

“We’re getting practice sessions sorted out,” Johnson said. “We’re qualifying better. We’re having some good first halves of races. We’ve had a couple of good full races. But that consistency from first practice session through the end of the race is what we’re trying to hit on now.”

They will need to hit on it soon or the possibility of Johnson missing the playoffs for the first time in his 18 seasons will become disturbingly real.


There’s been no official confirmation of its demise, but NASCAR’s decision on group qualifying further underscored the Drivers Council is gone and likely for good.

Before announcing a new penalty Monday for failure to make a timed lap during any round of qualifying, drivers’ opinions hardly were solicited, according to those surveyed at Martinsville. The door to the NASCAR hauler remains open – Jimmie Johnson said he made a visit after Fontana quals – and there were several conversations between officials and drivers about group qualifying dating to last October’s 2018 announcement.

But as far as a formal gathering between NASCAR and drivers to discuss big-picture issues – which had been a regular occurrence since the Drivers Council’s inception in 2015 – there has been none this year or any scheduled in the future.

“I wouldn’t read too far into there not being a Driver Council,” Johnson said. “We had quarterly meetings at best, and depending on the timing of when those meetings took place, we could have a say in whatever was going on. The door is always open at the transporter. That’s still the way communication takes place.”

Martin Truex Jr., who recommended removing Lexan from spoilers to eliminate rear visibility, said he wasn’t approached by NASCAR for his opinion about group qualifying. The 2017 series champion said the Drivers Council largely isn’t missed.

“In a situation like (group changes qualifying), it’s probably a void,” Truex said about the lack of a formal channel. “But in most situations, it’s probably not a void because it was just one of those things that honestly became a waste of time for us.”

NASCAR updates rule book about race damage in regard to possible penalties

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NASCAR updated its rule book Wednesday to include language in the book’s penalty section that series officials could consider any damage caused during a race when assessing if a violation has occurred.

Section 12.4.a now reads (bold added to highlight updated section):

“NASCAR may issue penalties as it deems fit to provide for the orderly conduct of the sport. Such determinations may be made by NASCAR before, during, or after the Event, and may consider, to the extent deemed reasonable by NASCAR in the interests of racing competition and fairness, any modifications caused or required as a result of damage caused by In-Race accidents.
The change could impact whether a winner (or any other car inspected after the race) is disqualified for failing post-race inspection.
Section 8.3.c of the Cup Rule Book already had a similar statement in regards to vehicle eligibility. It stated:
“Such determinations may be made by NASCAR before, during, or after the Event, and may consider, to the extent deemed reasonable by NASCAR in the interests of racing competition and fairness, any modifications caused or required as a result of damaged caused by In-Race accidents.”
Rear spoiler with the wicker that was added at Talladega. Photo: Dustin Long

NASCAR also announced Wednesday that the Cup package for next weekend’s race at Daytona International Speedway will be the same as used in the race at Talladega Superspeedway.

At Talladega, teams had a wicker added to lower speeds. What will be used at Daytona will be a one piece spoiler/wicker. The overall dimensions remain the same for the spoiler.

NASCAR America presents MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET with Ty Dillon

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This week’s episode of NASCAR America presents MotorMouths airs today from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and features Germain Racing driver Ty Dillon.

Dillon will join Marty Snider and Dale Jarrett as they take viewer phone calls.

If you can’t catch either of today’s shows on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Hattori Racing Enterprises, Austin Hill to compete in Xfinity race at Daytona

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Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Austin Hill make his Xfinity Series debut next week at Daytona International Speedway, Hattori Racing Enterprises announced Wednesday.

Hill, who won the season-opening Truck Series race at Daytona, will drive the No. 61 Toyota Supra for Hattor Racing Enterprises, which makes its first Xfinity Series start since 2015.

Scott Zipadelli, who serves as Hill’s crew chief in the Truck Series, will serve the same role in the July 5 race.

Hill will be sponsored by AISIN Group, Aisin AW, and ADVICS, as well as United Rentals.

“You always want to move up the ladder, and I can’t wait to get in the car,” Hill said in a press release. “I honestly never thought I’d have this opportunity. All thanks goes to (owner) Shige (Hattori) and AISIN Group. They’ve been working on this for a while and it’s a big deal for all of us to put a program together to race the Supra. We have a great team here, and it’s going to make the transition a lot smoother working with Scott and the entire truck series team. We set the bar pretty high for ourselves at Daytona, so hopefully we can have the same success as we did in February.”

Hill’s win in Daytona was his first career Truck Series victory. Through 11 starts this season he is seventh in the standings with two top fives and six top 10s. He has 62 Truck Series starts since 2014.

The team stated in the release it is trying to put together more Xfinity races this season.

“We’re very excited to return to the Xfinity Series,” Hattori said in a press release. “The Toyota Supra is extremely important to our partners and very popular in Japan and we want to be part of the Supra program in NASCAR. It’s exciting for our team to compete in the Xfinity Series at Daytona, especially after winning there earlier this year. Austin has done a good job in the truck so far and this will be good to get him more experience.”

 

‘The Sims:’ How virtual reality is changing motorsports

Photo: Dustin Long
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CONCORD, N.C. — A man leans his head into the window of Rajah Caruth’s race car. Caruth does not know him.

The man bows his head and prays, just as he’s done with the other drivers.

Shortly afterward, Caruth cranks the 125-horsepower engine and guides his white No. 13 Legends car from the staging area to pit road. Rain earlier rid this June night of humidity. The heat that baked drivers during the day is bearable as the sun sets behind the Charlotte Motor Speedway grandstands.

While Caruth and 18 competitors wait for the first semi pro feature of this year’s Bojangles’ Summer Shootout, an official walks between the rows of cars fist-bumping each driver.

Rajah Caruth prepares to run his first Legends car feature race. Photo: Dustin Long

“For those folks to come up and say ‘you got this’ or ‘good luck,’ that was pretty cool,” Caruth later said.

Clad in a plain black uniform and helmet, Caruth focuses on staying calm inside his car before he takes a monumental step in his racing journey.

Then comes the order to start engines. Each car, a 5/8-scale version of the NASCAR modifieds that ran in the sport’s early days, fires off with the buzz of bees on to the quarter-mile track.

As Caruth weaves his car from side to side to warm the tires, a thought strikes him.

“OK, we’re in it.”

Just what it is, Caruth doesn’t know.

He’s seen what’s about to happen for years but never from this viewpoint. His previous racing experience came on a computer with a reset button. There is no such button here.

Days shy of his 17th birthday, Caruth is about to start his first race.

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A first-generation NASCAR fan who traces his interest in the sport to the 2006 animated film “Cars” that included characters voiced by Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, Caruth wanted to be a driver. He wore a Jimmie Johnson uniform for Halloween in the second grade. But with no tracks near his Washington, D.C. home and the prohibitive costs to enter the sport, even for his two-income family, Caruth settled for racing on a computer, hoping to follow the path William Byron took to NASCAR’s premier series.

While many of NASCAR’s top drivers were racing by the time they were 8 years old, Byron did not begin until he was 14, gaining his experience with an iRacing simulator. When Byron hit the track, he quickly succeeded. He won the K&N Pro Series East title at age 17, a Truck series rookie record seven races at 18, the Xfinity championship at 19 and Cup rookie of the year honors at 20 last season for Hendrick Motorsports.

Byron notes that others can follow his unusual path.

“It’s still based on the interest that you have and the will to kind of make it happen,” he said. “If they are expecting to just decide they want to go race at age 14 … it’s going to be difficult for them to make it work. But for me, I had studied it for years and watched it.

Rajah Caruth on the track in a Legends car. Photo: Dustin Long

“Once I was 14, I was well ahead of my time even though I hadn’t been in something. I think there are a lot of kids out there that have a lot of potential that I’ve seen on iRacing and just racing against them, that would do very well in a situation if they could get there.”

Caruth’s quest does not take place in a vacuum. He is a part of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Youth Driver Development program and is the only one of the four who came from iRacing. The other three have actual racing experience. While there are various avenues to NASCAR, Caruth’s path will become a gateway, says a Toyota Racing Development executive who oversees the company’s driver development program.

“In the long run … I’m thinking three to five years, the simulation investment and the time and effort to find new top-level talent, it will come from simulator racing,” said Jack Irving, senior manager, commercial director for Toyota Racing Development, whose duties include TRD’s driver development program.

Three to five years is too far away for Caruth. Now is his chance, piloting a car similar to what former Cup champions Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Joey Logano once drove.

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Five days before Austin Dillon wins the 2018 Daytona 500, Caruth prepares to race. On foot. It is the day of the District of Columbia State Athletic Association indoor track meet. He will compete in the 800-meter run.

A seventh-place finish is not the day’s most significant event for Caruth.

Instead it is the conversation he has with his father, Roger.

Roger Caruth and son Rajah. Photo: Dustin Long

As others compete, Caruth and his father discuss Caruth’s racing future. The previous summer Caruth drove go-karts in a league at an indoor facility located between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. He had not raced in the winter.

“I was a little stressed just because of trying to figure out what I could do,” Caruth said.

He presents various options to his father. One is for the family to purchase a Legends car or something comparable. The costs, though, are too much. Another option is to find sponsorship, rent a car, and run whatever races they can afford. iRacing also is debated. 

iRacing is viewed as the best option. Caruth will upgrade his setup. He buys a steering wheel and eventually purchases a new computer, spending more than $1,000 combined on those items, but it is still much cheaper than buying a car or renting one for multiple races.

Instead of going to a track, Caruth will race from home.

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As simulator technology and racing games improve, they provide a way to train and evaluate drivers. Still, there are limits to racing solely on a computer.

“The actual models are becoming so good,” said Toyota’s Irving. “What hasn’t been mastered yet — and will be — is the feel of the car in your home systems. … To get a full immersion simulator, it’s still almost the cost of a race car.”

Irving acknowledges that there remain challenges even with the simulators Toyota, Ford and Chevrolet have for their drivers in NASCAR, IndyCar and other series.

“You only get so much out of that,” Martin Truex Jr. said of using a simulator to prepare for last weekend’s Cup race at Sonoma Raceway, which he won for a second consecutive year. “All the visual cues are there, but you don’t have the feel, the sensation of speed, the G-forces, the rises and the falls, all of that.”

Even without that, Irving says iRacing can reveal talent, particularly a driver who succeeds in different types of racing on it. 

“You need to be able to race in multiple disciplines,” he said. “I think a simulation racer that we’re going to be able to engage with is going to have to be really, really good on dirt, really, really good on the rally race, really, really good on the road course, just absolutely exceptional on multiple modalities because their adoption of being able to learn. That is going to be important, no different than the great drivers (that) can typically get in anything and race.

Kyle Busch: “Everybody has their own different paths” to NASCAR. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

“If Kyle Busch decided to run (a midget car) in the Chili Bowl, I think he would do quite well just because he’s a gifted race car driver. No different than Kurt Busch at the (Indianapolis) 500 and that kind of stuff.”

Kyle Busch credits his success to understanding his car. That goes back to when he started racing. 

“My vehicle understanding and the reasons why I’m somewhat successful at what I’ve done is a huge credit to my dad,” Busch said. “Growing up in the shop, working on the cars, building the cars, understanding what springs were and meant and how to rate them and what corner to put them in, shocks, cambers, casters – all of that sort of stuff, I learned.

“I built my cars from the ground up with my dad. I tore my Legends car apart one off-season when we were done racing for the year. I ripped it all the way down to the ground because I thought if I strip it, he will be OK if I wanted to paint it, to repaint the chassis and kind of go through everything. I stripped it all the way down and was like, ‘Alright, I’m ready, let’s take it to the paint shop.’ He was like, ‘Nope, I’ll buy you a can of spray paint and you can put it all back together by yourself.’ 

Everybody has their own different paths of how they grow up and how they understand things and what they understand.”

Caruth seeks to gain such knowledge as he also learns to race.

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The green flag waves.

Caruth starts the 25-lap race at the back of the 19-car field since this his first start.

He passes three cars on the first lap.

He passes another car on the second lap.

On the third lap, a car makes contact with Caruth’s, sending it into the SAFER barrier. Caruth falls to last.

He fights the car’s handling and goes a lap down 10 laps into the race.

Rajah Caruth hopes to follow William Byron from iRacing to Cup. Photo: Dustin Long

Eight minutes after Caruth took the green flag, the race is over. He finishes 17th. The contact with the wall bent the right front ball joint, control arm and spindle, making the car hard to turn.

To understand the challenge Caruth faces, look at his competition. Jason Alder, who turned 16 a couple of days after winning this race, began competing at age 6. Alder started in go-karts, moved to Banderlos and is in his third season in Legends car. This was his first win in a Legends car at Charlotte. For as challenging as it has been to reach this point, he knows the difficulties Caruth may experience.

“Racing is really about the passion behind it,” said Alder, who is nearly a year to the day younger than Caruth. “If you have the passion and the determination to continue in the darkest of times, you’re always going to look to the bright side even when you’re learning.”

Caruth is not dejected with his result.

He’s determined.

“I cannot wait until tomorrow,” he said.

It’s another chance to race.

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Caruth is not alone in his quest. There are those who can relate to his journey.

Max Brady and his brother Kenny both didn’t start racing until four years ago. Max was 15 and Kenny 13. Before then, their racing experience consisted of racing video games on their Xbox. They’ve since moved to iRacing. 

Max and Kenny understand that a racing simulator or game can help a driver but also know it can’t prepare a driver for everything they’ll feel once they are strapped into their vehicle.

That’s not an excuse to fail. Max recently won his first Legends car race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Kenny won numerous Banderlo races in three years there before driving a Legends car this year.

Still, Kenny faced challenges with the move to Legends cars. He finished 21st in his first race. The next race, which Max won, Kenny finished eighth. 

While Max and Kenny don’t have as much experience as some of their competitors, they have more than Caruth.

Rajah Caruth receives guidance from Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Stefan Parsons. Photo: Dustin Long

“Being so new to it, it’s going to take some time to learn race strategy and how to keep the car clean, racing around others, being consistent, knowing how to make moves, when to make the moves,” Kenny Brady said. “He’s going to learn as he goes.

“When I started out, I thought if I just got in the car and I was fast, I was going to win right off the bat. It’s so different.”

Kenny is confident Caruth will excel as he gains experience. Kenny has been friends with Caruth for a couple of years. He and Max helped Caruth transition to iRacing last year so Caruth could have better results.

Kenny also has seen Caruth’s ability in a go-kart. Caruth and his dad went to Georgia in late May and Caruth raced with Kenny at an indoor karting facility.

“I was impressed,” Kenny said. “Rajah was on my tail. I beat him twice. He beat me twice. I was very surprised at how well he did, how smooth he was.”

Those traits were evident at the combine to select the Drive for Diversity youth development drivers earlier this year.

“We wanted him to build speed,” said Matt Bucher, director of competition for Rev Racing, which operates the Drive for Diversity program. “I think we got him within three- or four-tenths of where the fast guys were.”

Caruth showed enough talent, despite his lack of experience, to earn a spot in the program.

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Although Rajah Caruth’s racing uniform contains no sponsors, no website address and no stripes or other designs, it’s what is inside that matters this night to him.

He wears a Bubba Wallace T-shirt he got when he and his family attended last year’s Cup playoff race at Richmond Raceway.

Wallace is competing this evening in a different division, a night after he ran the rain-delayed Cup race at Michigan International Speedway.

Caruth wants to talk to Wallace but doesn’t want to appear starstruck. Instead, Wallace approaches.

Caruth, coming off his first career race the night before, and the 25-year-old Wallace, who is in his second full season in Cup and has been racing for nearly two-thirds of his life, talk mechanics. Caruth is trying to get his braking down and maximize his car’s speed in the center of the corner. Wallace offers a few tips.

“Getting it from him just helps me understand it a little bit more,” Caruth said.

Chase Cabre also is here this night helping the Drive for Diversity drivers. Cabre is coming off his first career K&N Pro Series East victory June 1 at Memphis International Raceway.

Cabre knows that it will take time for Caruth.

“The difference between here and what’s he used to … everything happens very fast,” Cabre said. “Once he learns the speed factor, the feel, the smells and it all slows down for him, he’ll start to get one thing after another.”

Rajah Caruth’s car after the oil leak was fixed. Photo: Dustin Long

Caruth’s night has its challenges. In qualifying, debris causes an oil leak but Caruth doesn’t recognize the issue. He stays on track, fighting the steering wheel. The back of the car acts as if it wants to slide, a result of the oil getting on the tires. The problem is found and fixed in the garage in time for the semi feature. He finishes third in that race. In the feature, he starts 17th among 21 cars.

On the schedule, Caruth’s race is to take place after the school bus race among local principals and before the “Chicken Dance” contest. A bus oils down the track, delaying Caruth’s race, so the chicken dance proceeds. After it ends, the track is still not ready so the “Hokey Pokey” is played on the track’s speakers to keep fans entertained.

When Caruth gets on track, he notices an issue with his shifter and comes to the pits before the green flag. He loses a lap before the issue is resolved.

Even though he’s not on the lead lap, he battles another car in the final circuits. The duel goes through the final corners. Caruth is passed just before at the finish line. He finishes 17th.

It is in this race that Caruth gets his first taste of being hit from behind.

“That was a pretty cool experience getting moved, honestly, to feel it physically what it feels like so I know moving forward if I’m getting pushed or it’s a good shot,” Caruth said. “He was getting me square except for the last time he got me. He got me a little squirrelly. It was fine.”

That’s what they call “just racin.”

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Caruth’s first two nights have had their ups and downs but he’s staying true to a philosophy he picked up from Hailie Deegan, whose personality and K&N Pro Series West success — two wins this year, one point out of the series lead — has increased her popularity

“I have little goals, kind of like what Hailie Deegan did this last year,” Caruth said. “Little goals week by week and they ended up adding to her race wins.”

Caruth’s progression of goals are to run a clean race, finish in the top 15, finish in the top 12, score a top 10, finish in the top seven, score a top five and eventually win. They are listed in his phone.

He is ready for his third chance to score a top-15 finish. Caruth starts 20th.

Lacy Kuehl salutes Rajah Caruth after he finished 12th in his feature race. Photo: Dustin Long

He charges to 15th in two laps.

He climbs to 14th.

A couple of laps later Caruth is 13th.

He moves to 12th.

Coming through the second turn, Caruth deftly bumps the car ahead of him, moving it up a lane. Caruth zips by to take 11th with the veteran move.

Caruth goes on to finish 12th. Another goal met.

But after the race, he’s unsure of what to do next. He looks for the car he bumped out of the way to talk to the driver.

“I don’t know if I should apologize or what,” Caruth later said. “I didn’t do it right. I got him up out of the groove but my right front caught their left rear so it knocked the wheel slightly out of my hand. I just held it.

“I was full intent trying to move him. I wasn’t trying to hit him hard. It was to the point where I could tell he was already free. If I hit him too hard, he would have spun out and I would have (been penalized) and gone to the rear. In iRacing, I hate hitting people.

“Today kind of helped me realize that OK, I’ve got to get physical.”

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Hurry up and wait.

Tuesday night marks Caruth’s fourth race of the season and it’s his longest night. His class will run the final race of the evening, one slowed by multiple red flags in other divisions.

Rajah Caruth scored his first top-10 finish in his fourth race. Photo: Dustin Long

When it comes time to race, Caruth is ready. As he makes progress, the handling on his car becomes more difficult. The car wants to break free.

Oil is overflowing on to his tires. He spins in Turn 1. Caruth keeps his foot in the gas to turn the car but sees it headed for the curb and stops the car. The caution is out. Caruth heads to the pits. The hood is opened and engine checked. He’s sent back out.

It’s a caution-filled race and Caruth moves up as others have problems.

When the checkered flag waves, he is 10th. He will be scored ninth when the winning car fails inspection.

In less than three weeks, Caruth has gone from a teen who raced solely on a computer to going on track and scoring a top-10 finish in a 20-car field.

This is a night to celebrate. He and his father head to Friday’s so Caruth can get some chicken fingers and watch the video of his race from the GoPro camera mounted on his car. There’s much to savor but also much to learn.

“It’s been a crazy first leg of the journey,” Caruth said, “but I’ve got still go more to go.”

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