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

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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