Rajah Caruth looks to add to Richmond memories in Xfinity Series debut

0 Comments

Rajah Caruth’s parents told him to gather a few things for an overnight trip, but they didn’t say where they were headed. After the family left their Washington, D.C., home, Caruth fell asleep in the car. 

When he awoke, he saw a sign for Richmond Raceway parking. It took a moment for his grogginess to wear off, but as soon as it did, Caruth’s excitement mirrored that of any other 12-year-old going to Disney for the first time.

He had been fascinated with stock car racing since he saw the movie “Cars.” Caruth wore a Jimmie Johnson uniform for Halloween in the second grade. He watched races, studied results and dreamed of being a driver.

For years, Caruth asked his parents to take him to a NASCAR race. They surprised him with this trip in 2014. Roger Caruth saw his son near tears when they reached the track.

Rajah Caruth recalls getting a race program that came with a diecast car and stopping at a concession stand for Papa John’s pizza. He walked to the stands and proceeded to the fence while Cup cars qualified ahead of that night’s Nationwide Series race.

“The sun sets right out of Turn 4, and they still had that Ferris wheel at the entrance of Turn 3 and it just resonates in my mind,” Caruth told NBC Sports. “I remember having my pizza in my hand and my backpack on and just race cars (on track)… and the sun is setting. It’s a beautiful scene.”

Eight years later, Caruth looks to make more memories at the same track. 

The 19-year-old Winston-Salem State University student will be on the other side of the fence Saturday, making his Xfinity Series debut in the No. 44 Chevrolet for Alpha Prime Racing. He’ll be one of two Black drivers competing in either Cup or Xfinity this weekend, joining Bubba Wallace.

Caruth’s path to this weekend, though, is unlike that of his competitors. 

He remains the only driver to enter the Drive for Diversity program without on-track experience. Caruth’s training came from iRacing, the simulation racing program. His Xfinity debut occurs less than three years after his first race in an actual car, a Legends car event at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He’s made a remarkable climb in a short time.

“I really can’t grasp it,” Caruth said of his quick rise from Legends cars to late models, ARCA and the Xfinity Series. “It’s pretty bonkers.”

Those who work with Caruth say he’s ready for this opportunity.

“We’ve taken him to a lot of places and thrown a lot of different things at him,” Matt Bucher, competition director at Rev Racing, told NBC Sports. “I never feel like he’s in over his head.”

A new direction

Without on-track experience, Caruth had to stand out in other ways if he hoped to be selected to NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Youth Driver Development program with Rev Racing in 2019. 

Bucher, who was one of those involved in the selection process, said Caruth’s social media presence was important. Caruth tweeted often and posted videos about his iRacing and his interest in NASCAR.

“We’re trying to push together other avenues to get into racing other than having a last name that takes you there,” Bucher said. “You can go and pick up a basketball at a Dick’s Sporting Goods for $20 and play basketball. You can’t buy a race car for that. There needs to be other avenues for children that want to do this (and) can kind of try it and not destroy perfectly good race cars or do things like that.”

If Caruth could succeed, Bucher said, it would show iRacing as “an avenue that we can look for drivers down the road as well. Just to kind of open a door that really wasn’t there.”

The idea that someone could go from iRacing to driving actual cars was shown by William Byron. His on-track experience didn’t begin until he was 14 years old, many years after many of his competitors. He won a Camping World Truck Series rookie record seven races at 18, the Xfinity championship at 19 and Cup rookie of the year honors at 20. 

Byron was 21 when Caruth was selected to the youth driver development program. A path was there for Caruth to follow.

Trying to catch up

Caruth’s white No. 13 Legends car starts at the back of a 19-car semi-pro field in his maiden race June 10, 2019 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He wears a bulky, black driver uniform void of sponsor logos and a personal website address. 

Caruth is days shy of his 17th birthday. Some drivers have completed their first decade of racing by this time. He’s about to start his first race. 

The green flag waves. Caruth charges. He passes three cars on the first lap and another on the second lap. A car makes contact with Caruth’s on the third lap, sending Caruth’s vehicle into the SAFER barrier. He drops to last. The car’s handling is affected and he goes a lap down. Eight minutes after his first race started, it is over. He finishes 17th.

The learning has begun.

“I cannot wait until tomorrow,” Caruth says looking ahead to the next race.

Roger Caruth and son Rajah in 2019 at Charlotte Motor Speedway with the Legends car Rajah drove. (Photo: Dustin Long)

That summer, Bubba Wallace runs Legends car races in the pro division between his Cup starts. Caruth has looked up to Wallace for years.

Wallace’s Truck Series win in 2014 at Martinsville Speedway resonates with Caruth. Wallace’s vehicle that day honored NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott, the first Black driver to win a Cup race in NASCAR history.

“It means something to see people who look like us do stuff, because that representation gives us confidence to be able to do it,” Caruth said of seeing Wallace win.

Throughout the 2019 summer, Caruth talked with Wallace and learned from him. They practiced together. Wallace had Caruth follow him to see the proper line to run. Wallace also told Caruth to try to hit his car, but Caruth could never catch him.

“I was hard on him, but then I had to realize, man, he’s never raced before,” Wallace told NBC Sports. ” … I had to kind of tone the reins back a little bit and appreciate what he’s been able to do.”

Caruth didn’t mind Wallace’s tough love.

“From a coaching standpoint, that has worked for me through my other sports, especially if I know that person cares and isn’t doing it in a negative manner,” said Caruth, who played basketball and ran track in high school.

As Caruth moved through various racing divisions, he reached out to drivers, crew chiefs and mechanics to seek ways to improve.

“He asked a lot of questions early on to me that I’m thinking, ‘You really don’t know the answer to that?’ There again he’s an iRacer, he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know,” said Chris Lambert, spotter for Denny Hamlin in Cup and part-time spotter with Caruth in ARCA. 

“It’s good that (Caruth) asks a lot of questions. He’s a student of the game.”

Caruth needs to be to make up for all that experience others have over him. 

Keeping track

The notebook is not what one would expect to see a driver carry. Most drivers type notes about how they performed and how their car ran on a computer, phone or tablet.

Caruth’s notebook is an actual notebook. The mustard-colored cover features a repeating design of flamingos. In a white box, it reads: NOTEBOOK. Below that word it reads THOUGHTS & IDEAS.

Caruth updated the notebook by writing on the cover in a black marker: POST RACE NOTEBOOK. In the lower right hand corner, he wrote RAJAH CARUTH.

He started taking notes June 27, 2020. He competed in twin 40-lap late model features at Hickory Motor Speedway, which bills itself as “The Birthplace of NASCAR Stars.” The track’s champions include Ralph Earnhardt, Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson and Harry Gant. Josh Berry, who competes in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports, was the track’s champion in 2014. 

Rajah Caruth looks through the notebook he’s kept for races since June 27, 2020. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Caruth wrote that in the first 40-lap feature he started 18th and finished 18th, noting: “Felt good physically, was a little jittery initially but got into a good rhythm.”

He stated how he was faster than another car but “couldn’t figure out how to pass him.”

In the second twin, Caruth started 18th and finished 18th, noting that he “steadily fell off as the race progressed.”

Caruth summarized that he “kept getting more tired (as the race progressed). Need to eat more pasta and de-stress. Nerves likely contributed to exhaustion as well.”

His early notes read more like a journal entry about how he ran. As he gained experience, the notes become more detailed about the car and how he performed.  

Flipping through the pages, Caruth stops on the notes from a late model race at Florence Motor Speedway in September 2020. 

“This race was big for me because I was very doubtful going into it,” he said.

He had made a mistake the previous race at Myrtle Beach Speedway and wrecked on the backstretch. Caruth carried that disappointment into the race at Florence. 

“How I usually get,” he said of the angst he carried within. “End of the world. Not thinking positively. I started eighth (in Florence) and there were only like 12, 14 cars but it was very top heavy (with good drivers). … I drove up to second.”

His good run ended when his engine blew with 18 laps to go. That didn’t diminish how he good he felt about his performance. 

“I guess,” Caruth said, “the racing gods or God himself (was saying), ‘Look at that. How clear do I have to make it to you that you have what it takes?’”

Contending for an ARCA win

About midway through last month’s ARCA race at Phoenix Raceway, Caruth battled his Rev Racing teammate Nick Sanchez for fifth place. Their duel allowed the leaders to pull away.

Later, Caruth got on the radio to Lambert, crew chief Brad Parrott and Mark Green, Rev Racing’s director of driver development, to apologize.

“I’m sorry for racing my teammate so hard,” Caruth said during the caution break. “I’ve got to make the most of my opportunity. I’m trying to stay in front of him until my tires come in.”

His car was better on a long run. The challenge was that while Caruth would restart fifth, there were less than 50 laps to go and likely more cautions. How would he keep a car that was not as strong early in a run in position to contend for the win?

He maintained until a series of late cautions. On a restart 12 laps from the scheduled distance, Caruth was fifth. He hung back on the restart and worked his way to third within two laps of the restart. He made it to second on the next-to-last restart.

A caution sent the race to overtime. Caruth started on the front row. He again hung back coming to the green flag, but he spun his tires, was stuck four-wide for second and lost positions. He recovered to finish fourth. 

Caruth placed behind winner Taylor Gray, Daniel Dye and Sammy Smith. All three drive for top organizations in the ARCA Menards Series. Gray races for David Gilliland Racing, Dye is with GMS Racing and Smith competes for Kyle Busch Motorsports. 

It was a good effort for Caruth. One he could learn from.

“At the end of the day, it’s (Caruth) believing in himself,” Parrott told NBC Sports after the race, “and that’s what I’m trying to push.”

AUTO: MAR 11 ARCA Menards Series - General Tire 150
Rajah Caruth drove this car to a fourth-place finish in the ARCA Menards Series race at Phoenix Raceway. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Reflection

Last year, Caruth took a 1/64 diecast of Dale Earnhardt’s 1998 Daytona 500 winning car with him to races as a good luck charm. 

This year, he’s taking the 1/64 diecast red Coca-Cola car Earnhardt drove in the 1998 NASCAR exhibition race in Japan as his good luck charm.

It goes back to his high school days when he longed to be a driver. He used to bring diecast cars with him to school.

“I wouldn’t even play with them, I would just have them in my backpack,” he said. “If I would get stressed, I would pull one out and have it in my hand or put it in my pocket.”

Even now, having a diecast car can calm Caruth.

“Personally, I’m probably insanely critical about myself,” he said. “Not probably, it is unhealthy, I guess, how critical I am on myself pertaining to my craft of driving. When I’m reflective, I kind of remember how it seemed so foreign to pass somebody or see the leader. Second race of the year (this season) and we go and almost win at Phoenix.

“I remind myself to be reflective, to look at it and put things into perspective, because it’s easy to get into my own head, and I’m terrible about that … and just internalizing negative stuff.”

For as much as he talks about having a positive outlook, he worries about what comes next in his racing career, beginning with Saturday’s Xfinity race at Richmond.

“I know I have to approach it as just another race, but also like it has the opportunity to make or break my career because it is on a national stage,” he told NBC Sports.

Caruth says that even though he’s scheduled to run six Xfinity races this season for Alpha Prime Racing. He’s scheduled to run at Dover, Pocono, Kansas, Martinsville and Phoenix this season. 

So, why does he view Richmond as a make-or-break type of race?

“We started this partnership with Chevrolet this year,” he said. “I‘m hoping I can ride with them, have it parlay into other opportunities and have me grow as a driver in NASCAR. 

“Honestly, after those six races after this year, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ll have the opportunity to come back (to Rev Racing) and race ARCA, hopefully. But there’s no Truck plans, no Xfinity plans, no long-term sponsors. 

“Really, I see it as every race with Tommy (Joe Martins) and Alpha Prime, I kind of see it as make or break, it’s an audition. I see that. I still have less than 60 stock car races, and I know I’m very under-experienced. Luckily, I’m able to compete against people that have been racing longer than I’ve been alive and been competitive against them. 

“I hope I can help my draft prospect through these races. It just holds an insane amount of gravity for that reason. … Of course there’s talks and other people (say) ‘come here’ and ‘come here,’ but it’s always ‘How much money can you bring?’ Why do you automatically assume I have funding? I don’t. 

“That’s my look at it. In reality, every race doesn’t have to be make or break. (But) that’s how I see it. That’s the gravity it holds on me. Hopefully, I do good enough.”

Photos by Dustin Long

Drivers to watch in Clash at the Coliseum

0 Comments

The 2023 NASCAR season will begin with Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the second race on a purpose-built track inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Although a non-points race, last year’s Clash generated intense interest as NASCAR moved the event from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to Los Angeles. The race was rated a success and opened doors for the possibility of future races in stadium environments.

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

MORE: Toyota looking to expand NASCAR presence

Year Two will find drivers competing on a familiar landscape but still with a track freshly paved. Last year’s racing surface was removed after the Clash.

Drivers to watch Sunday at Los Angeles:

FRONTRUNNERS

Joey Logano

  • Points position: Finished 2022 as Cup champion
  • Last three races: Won at Phoenix, 6th at Martinsville, 18th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Won in 2022

Logano put bookends on 2022 by winning the first Clash at the Coliseum and the season’s final race at Phoenix to win the Cup championship. He’ll be among the favorites Sunday.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 2nd in 2022
  • Last three races: 3rd at Phoenix, 4th at Martinsville, 2nd at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: Did not qualify last year

Chastain was the breakout star of 2022, winning a pair of races and generally putting himself front and center across much of the year. Can he start 2023 on a big note? If so, he will have to do so without replicating his Hail Melon move at Martinsville after NASCAR outlawed the move Tuesday.

Kevin Harvick

  • Points position: 15th in 2022
  • Last three races: 5th at Phoenix, 16th at Martinsville, 8th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 10th in 2022

Sunday will begin the final roundup for Harvick, who has said this season will be his last as a full-time Cup driver. He is likely to come out of the gate with fire in his eyes.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 13th in 2022
  • Last three races: 7th at Phoenix, 29th at Martinsville, 9th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 2nd in 2022

Welcome to Kyle Busch’s Brave New World. After 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing, he begins a new segment of his career with Richard Childress Racing. He led 64 laps at last year’s Clash but couldn’t catch Joey Logano at the end.

Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 14th in 2022
  • Last three races: 23rd at Phoenix, 35th at Martinsville, 35th at Homestead
  • Past at Clash: 21st in 2022

Reddick ran surprisingly strong in last year’s Clash, leading 51 laps before parking with drivetrain issues. He starts the new year with a new ride — at 23XI Racing.

Ty Gibbs

  • Points position: Won Xfinity Series championship in 2022
  • Last three (Cup) races: 19th at Martinsville, 22nd at Homestead, 22nd at Las Vegas
  • Past at Clash: Did not compete in 2022

After a successful — and controversial — Xfinity season, Gibbs moves up to Cup full-time with his grandfather’s team. Will he be the brash young kid of 2022 or a steadier driver in Season One in Cup?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interstate Batteries extends sponsorship with Joe Gibbs Racing

0 Comments

Interstate Batteries, which has been a Joe Gibbs Racing sponsor since the team’s first race, has expanded its involvement with the team for 2023.

Interstate, based in Dallas, will be a primary JGR sponsor for 13 races, up from six races, the number it typically sponsored each year since 2008.

Christopher Bell and Ty Gibbs will run the majority of Interstate’s sponsorship races, but Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. also will carry the sponsor colors.

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

“We’re extremely proud of our partnership with our founding sponsor, Interstate Batteries,” said team owner Joe Gibbs in a statement released by the team. “They have been such an important part of our team for over three decades now, and it’s exciting to have them on board all four of our cars this season. The best part of our partnership is the relationships we’ve built with everyone there over the years.”

Bell will carry Interstate sponsorship in Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the All-Star Race May 21, the Coca-Cola 600 May 28, at Texas Motor Speedway Sept. 24 and at Martinsville Oct. 29.

Gibbs, in his first full season in Cup racing, will be sponsored by Interstate at Daytona Feb. 19, Bristol April 9, Nashville June 25, Chicago July 2, Texas Sept. 24 and Charlotte Oct. 8.

Hamlin will ride with Interstate sponsorship March 26 at Circuit of the Americas, and Truex will be sponsored by Interstate July 23 at Pocono.

Interstate was a key JGR sponsor in the team’s first season in 1992.

NASCAR announces rule changes for 2023 season

0 Comments

CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR announced a series of rule changes for the 2023 season that includes outlawing the move Ross Chastain made at Martinsville and eliminating stage breaks at all six Cup road course events.

NASCAR announced the changes in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

Among new things for this season:

  • Updated penalty for a wheel coming off a car.
  • Change to the amount of time teams have to repair cars on pit road via the Damaged Vehicle Policy.
  • Change to playoff eligibility for drivers.
  • Cars could run in wet weather conditions on short ovals.
  • Expansion of the restart zone on a trial basis.
  • Choose rule will be in place for more races.

MORE: Ranking top 10 moments at the Clash

NASCAR updated its policy on a loose wheel. Previously, if a wheel came off a car during an event, it would be a four-race suspension for the crew chief and two pit crew members. That has changed this year.

If a wheel comes off a car while the vehicle is still on pit road, the vehicle restarts at the tail end of the field. If a wheel comes off a vehicle while it is on pit road under green-flag conditions, it is a pass-thru penalty.

The rule changes once a vehicle has left pit road and loses a wheel.

Any vehicle that loses a wheel on the track will be penalized two laps and have two pit crew members suspended for two races. The suspensions will go to those most responsible for the wheel coming off. This change takes away a suspension to the crew chief. The policy is the same for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

With some pit crew members working multiple series, the suspension is only for that series. So, if a pit crew member is suspended two races in the Xfinity Series for a wheel coming off, they can still work the Cup race the following day.

The Damaged Vehicle Policy clock will be 7 minutes this season. It had been six minutes last year and was increased to 10 minutes during the playoffs. After talking with teams, NASCAR has settled on seven minutes for teams to make repairs on pit road or be eliminated. Teams can replace toe links on pit road but not control arms. Teams also are not permitted to have specialized repair tools in the pits.

NASCAR will have a wet weather package for select oval tracks: the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Lucas Oil Raceway Park, Martinsville, Milwaukee, New Hampshire, North Wilkesboro, Phoenix and Richmond.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said that teams have been told to show up at these events prepared for wet weather conditions as they would at a road course. That includes having a windshield wiper. Wet weather tires will be available. 

“Our goal here is to get back to racing as soon as possible,” Swayer said. “… If there’s an opportunity for us to get some cars or trucks on the racetrack and speed up that (track-drying) process and we can get back to racing, that’s what our goal is. We don’t want to be racing in full-blown rain (at those tracks) and we’ve got spray like we would on a road course.”

NASCAR stated that it is removing the requirement that a winning driver be in the top 30 in points in Cup or top 20 in Xfinity or Trucks to become eligible for the playoffs. As long as a driver is competing full-time — or has a waiver for the races they missed, a win will make them playoff eligible.

With the consultation of drivers, NASCAR is expanding the restart zone to give the leader more room to take off. NASCAR said it will evaluate if to keep this in place after the Atlanta race in March.

NASCAR stated the choose rule will be in effect for superspeedways and dirt races.

NASCAR eliminates stage breaks for Cup road course events

1 Comment

CONCORD, N.C. — NASCAR will do away with stage breaks in all six Cup road course races and select Xfinity and Truck races this season, but teams will continue to score stage points. 

NASCAR announced the change Tuesday in a session with reporters at the NASCAR R&D Center. 

MORE: NASCAR outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

NASCAR stated there will be no stage breaks in the Cup road course events at Circuit of the Americas (March 26), Sonoma (June 11), Chicago street course (July 2), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13), Watkins Glen (Aug. 20) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8).

There will be no stage breaks for Xfinity races at Circuit of the Americas (March 25), Sonoma (June 10), Chicago street course (July 1), Indianapolis road course (Aug. 12), Watkins Glen (Aug. 19) and Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7).

There will be no stage breaks for the Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas (March 25).

In those races, stage points will be awarded on a designated lap, but there will be no green-and-checkered flag and the racing will continue.

The only road course events that will have stage breaks will be Xfinity standalone races at Portland (June 3) and Road America (July 29) and the Truck standalone race at Mid-Ohio (July 8). Those events will keep stage breaks because they have non-live pit stops — where the field comes down pit road together and positions cannot be gained or lost provided the stop is completed in the prescribed time by NASCAR.

NASCAR has faced questions from fans and competitors about stage breaks during road course races because those breaks alter strategy in a more defined manner than on most ovals.

Elton Sawyer, senior vice president of competition for NASCAR, said the move away from stage breaks at road courses was made in collaboration with teams and response from fans.

“When we introduced stage racing … we took an element of strategy away from the event,” Sawyer. “Felt this (change) would bring some new storylines (in an event).”

NASCAR instituted stage breaks and stage points for the 2017 season and has kept the system in place since. NASCAR awards a playoff point to the stage winner along with 10 points. The top 10 at the end of a stage score points.

It wasn’t uncommon for many teams to elect to pit before the first stage in a road course race and eschew points to put themselves in better track position for the final two stages. By pitting early, they would be behind those who stayed out to collect the stage points. At the stage break, those who had yet to pit would do so, allowing those who stopped before the break to leapfrog back to the front.