charlotte motor speedway

Daniel McFadin

The Summer of Justice, Legends racer

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CONCORD, N.C. – It’s a hot evening at Charlotte Motor Speedway and like many similar evenings in the track’s history, there’s an angry driver.

As the sun sets behind the frontstretch grandstand, he is by himself in the garage usually reserved for the Xfinity Series on NASCAR’s race weekends.

The tall figure of a dark haired 15-year-old stands in his black firesuit looking down at his phone.

When approached, there are signs of tears in his normally jovial eyes.

Justice Calabro assesses the damage to his Legends car (Photo by Daniel McFadin).

“We didn’t even finish the first lap,” he says before reaching down and slapping the back of his No. 25 Legends car, a 5/8-scale fiberglass version of the modifieds that once raced in NASCAR.

He paces around the car and assess the damage to the front end – relatively minor compared to a wreck he was in the previous week – as he lists how the first three rounds of the Bojangles’ Summer Shootout have gone for him.

“Every time,” he says. “We’ve lost something on the front end, blown a tire, got taken out. Doesn’t matter. We don’t pass Lap 2.”

This aspiring racer’s name is Justice Calabro, he’s not from around here and he just wants to finish a race.

GO EAST, YOUNG MAN

“Oh my God, we can get how much for how much?”

When Vanessa Calabro sat down and looked at how much it would take for her family to get a house in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area – roughly 2,400 miles from their home in Hollywood, California – she was surprised.

It was mid-2017 and the Calabro family had a decision to make.

Would it pick up stakes and swap coasts in order for their 13-year-old go-kart racing son to pursue his dream of auto racing?

The price range helped.

“We can literally get three times the house for half the price,” Vanessa’s husband, Cliff Calabro, said. “That really excited her.”

The next question his wife asked?

Would Cliff – who was a guitar player and music director for the Bret Michaels band before his son’s birth  –  be able to continue his job as a freelance audio mixer in television?

“I could do what I do from anywhere,” says Cliff, who did the math and discovered it was cheaper to fly cross-country a few times a month than to continue living in California, where he primarily worked out of a home office.

“I was paying $2,500 a month in water and power and it’s only about $1,200 for me to fly three times a month,” he says.

For Justice, an only child who was turned onto motorsports through racing movies like “Cars” and “Herbie: Fully Loaded” (his dad bought and restored one of the cars used for “Herbie”), there were other benefits to relocating to the Carolinas.

While he’d be moving east to Concord, North Carolina, in order to race fast, he’d get to slow down away from the track.

“People get to be a kid longer,” Justice says. “When you’re in L.A. you’re forced to grow up very quickly because of the environment you’re in. Out here I surrounded myself with people who are young at heart. I had to bring myself down to a level where I can actually enjoy life and not be uptight about everything that’s going to happen. When I left L.A. I was 14 and I was like ‘When am I going to get a job? When am I going to do this? When am I going to do that?’”

While Justice would eventually get a job detailing cars, his main worries are his school work at Cox Mill High School in Concord and his racing career.

Cliff adds that competing in Legends on the West Coast would be a “logistical nightmare” for a family that got into racing when Justice began driving go-karts locally at age 8.

“A lot of Vegas trips, San Diego, Sacramento, which is eight hours, you know what I mean?” says Cliff. “California is so big.”

But even after a trip to the July 2017 Daytona Cup Series race and their first visit to Charlotte to “catch a vibe,” the family wasn’t ready to pull the trigger.

“We got back and were all pumped up,” Cliff recalled. “But then you start to settle back in. ‘Can we really do this? Is this possible? That’s when we came out in November, ‘Let’s go out there again one more time and see if we really want to do this and have him test a Legend car.’”

According to Cliff, Justice “crushed” it when drove a Legend car for the first time.

The test occurred on the 1/5-mile track located behind Charlotte Motor Speedway under the watchful eye of Walter Stillwell of Stillwell Racing, who would eventually add Justice to his team after his family made the move to Concord in April 2018.

Stillwell has been involved in short track racing for 35 years and Legends for 15 years. He was also part of William Byron’s development as a Legends racer at the start of his career.

“He came to the driving school and did really well, listened good,” Stillwell says of Justice. “Done exactly what we told him and turned good times. Was really smooth in the car. We work with him intensively on that even now. He’s shown it.”

Justice is in his second year of Legends competition. He had earned the team two race wins – one at Concord Speedway and another on the Charlotte road course – entering this year’s Summer Shootout, a series of nine rounds of races over eight weeks for multiple classes of Legends and Bandolero cars. The Shootout ends on July 30.

What advice does Stillwell give families breaking into the sport for the first time?

“The first thing is to give it a try to make sure that you like it before you go and put money in the car,” Stillwell says. “That’s the biggest thing. It’s kind of pricey, so you don’t just want to buy the car and “Ahhhh!’ freak out and don’t like it.”

The Calabros purchased Justice’s car used for $10,000. They’ve since gone through a couple of motors for between $5,000-$7,000.

“It’s expensive to tear them up,” says Stillwell.

CAUTIONARY TALE

The cost of racing was learned more than a decade ago by another family that uprooted itself from California and made the trek to Western North Carolina, all on the hopes of their son’s racing career.

That family was Matt DiBenedetto’s.

Instead of the massive metropolis of Los Angeles, the DiBenedettos lived on six acres in the small town of Grass Valley in Northern California.

“I rode four wheelers and dirt bikes basically everyday,” says the Cup Series driver of his California lifestyle. “That’s part of what got me into racing, too. I just loved doing that so I tore up our property and I owned a tractor when I was a kid. I was 11 and I had my own tractor and would tear it up and build jumps and all that stuff. So yeah, I was used to a very quiet living.”

Instead of go-karts, a 12-year-old DiBenedetto raced on dirt, piloting outlaw karts on tracks like Cycleland Speedway in Oroville, a track that also produced fellow Cup driver Kyle Larson.

“I was really young and racing in the open division against all adults and some guys that race sprint cars,” DiBenedetto told NBC Sports. “We were winning basically all the time and people were telling us, ‘Hey, Matt’s really good, you guys need to pursue this.’ My parents never took it too seriously. We were just racing for fun and we just won all the time. I don’t come from a racing background or family.”

Then came March 2004 and their move to North Carolina.

After ruling out other cities as being too big and or too far away from Charlotte, the family moved to Hickory, an hour north of the city. Matt’s father, Tony, had picked it by pointing to a spot on a map with his eyes closed.

It wasn’t long before the family learned how “naive” it was in its racing pursuits.

“(We) really had no idea … the journey and battle we were up against, because we didn’t have the funding,” said DiBenedetto, whose father was and remains a self-employed appliance repairman. “We didn’t have the money as a family to take on what we did and that’s why I use the word naive because we just didn’t realize how expensive it would get and the toll it took on our family.”

Even racing with used equipment and having an all-volunteer crew didn’t make things easier for the family, which had to write checks off its home equity loan.

It came to a head in 2007.

DiBenedetto came home from school one day to find his father had sold their truck trailer, both his race cars and every piece of equipment they had in their shop.

There’d been no warning from his father.

“He was tired of seeing it, just because of how hard it was on our family,” DiBenedetto says. “The reason he didn’t tell me is he just felt so bad because he knew this was my dream. … I was on my own. It was up to me if I wanted to keep on doing it. “

DiBenedetto has another thing in common with Justice Calabro.

Not long after he moved to Hickory, DiBenedetto raced Legends cars in the Summer Shootout.

His track record?

“I got wrecked a lot,” DiBenedetto says with a laugh.

A LITTLE HELP

First off, the wrecks are not Justice’s fault.

His No. 25 Legends car – numbered after his November 25 birthday – was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But there’s not many good places to be when one of the wrecks involves 17 cars and results in a tire bouncing down Charlotte’s frontstretch.

It left Justice to think, “Really? This had to happen?”

$1,500 worth of repairs to his front-end later, the car was ready to go.

Then came the following Tuesday.

Justice’s feature race ended even sooner. As the field came out of Turn 2 on Lap 1, the line of cars running beneath him got together, wrecked and blocked his way, resulting in him getting pinned against the wall.

“This racing is frustrating,” Justice says. “I love doing it but it absolutely gets frustrating sometimes.”

It could be worse. Unlike the DiBenedettos, the Calabros are not completely on their own when it comes to backing Justice’s racing dreams.

While they have small sponsorship from Johnny Brusco’s New York Style Pizza in Concord, Cliff utilizes the same skills he plies on TV shows like “Naked and Afraid” and “World Poker Tour” to help out Stillwell Racing.

“I’m in a unique situation because I worked a deal with the team to do their media in trade for their services,” Cliff says. “The team doesn’t charge me to service his car. I pay for his car and everything he breaks. His consumables. But we’re trading labor. I’m here at every race working my butt off filming everything … interviews and impressions on track and racing. It’s very cool, which has really helped their program. … In turn, they’re helping us keep Justice on the track and helping to develop him. I don’t think I could do it without that.”

On July 2, a week after the second wreck, Justice is back in the garage at Charlotte. He’s no longer a Young Lion after moving up to the Semi-Pro class.

And his disposition is a lot more cheery after a week of playing racing video games and hanging it out with “homies.”

“All the normal teenage stuff.”

His day at the track began by qualifying 10th in a field of 27 cars, right in front of teammates Garrett Lowe and Dacin Roberson.

His outlook for the day’s round of the Summer Shootout was also helped by a random encounter minutes earlier in the track infield.

“I walked up to Bojangles’ and this kid gave me like $10,” Justice recounts. “He’s like, ‘I just don’t want to carry around $10, I heard it’s bad luck.’

“I’m like, ‘Life hands you money, you got to take it, right?’”

During the pace laps Justice said he ”wasn’t nervous at all. I felt super confident, I was ready for whatever this race was going to throw at me and I made that pretty clear. I was motivated and made sure to keep my patience today.”

The race starts and the caution comes out with the field halfway down the backstretch. But Justice is nowhere near the incident, which sees one car off in the infield grass and another stalled.

After a handful of green flag laps, the first close call comes for Justice when he makes contact with the No. 49 car of Carson Poindexter in Turn 1 and turns him around. Justice escapes through the infield grass unharmed.

Later, Justice and a handful of others have to go off-track again to avoid a pile-up in Turn 3.

The race doesn’t reach its natural conclusion. Scheduled for 25 laps, the race sees so many cautions that it ends after 25 minutes.

Justice will leave the track with a seventh-place finish.

“I finished! I drove my heart out,” says Justice, who later adds, “Dude, I figured out how to drive today.”

Justice speaks as he rubs watery eyes, a result not of emotion, but of debris caught in his eye from the Turn 3 incident.

“After that I was trying to clean my eyes out the whole race,” Justice says. “It’s still burning right now.”

He might not have earned a top five, but he finished.

Says Justice, “For us right now it’s like a win.”

Justice Calabro, far right, after his first podium finish in the Summer Shootout. (Photo from U.S. Legends Twitter account)

ONWARD

What’s next?

The Summer Shootout would continue, with its downs (elimination from a race after his rear bumper was ripped off) and its ups (a top five).

Justice is already ahead of schedule with his mid-season move to the Semi-Pro division. If things go well in the coming years, after Legends would come late models.

“I think I’m going at a good pace,” Justice says. “It’s good to spend one, two, three years in one class to hone your skills so you know where you are and what you need to and what your driving style is so when you do move up you’re not completely shattered.”

Cliff has “always” told Justice “you got to be realistic” about the future.

“We’re not rich,” says Cliff. “We’re going to give it our shot, we’re going to go in there and work at it. We’re going to use whatever we got. So we got personality, we got some connections, we got some media and you’ve got some talent. We’re going to use everything at our disposal to try to make this a reality for him.”

They plan to widen their racing footprint in Legends in the coming year by racing in Atlanta, Florida and Texas.

But Cliff is “concerned” about progressing to late models.

“Because that’s very expensive,” Cliff says. “Not sure how we’re going to manage that yet. But, you know, we’re not there yet.”

 

Speedway Motorsports Inc. enters into merger agreement with Sonic Financial

Photo by Tim Curlee/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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Speedway Motorsports Inc. announced Wednesday morning that it has entered into a “definitive merger agreement” with Sonic Financial Corp.

Bruton Smith and his family own and control Sonic Financial Corp. Smith is the founder and majority stakeholder in Speedway Motorsports Inc. SMI operates eight tracks that host Cup races, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.

The move would take SMI private just as International Speedway Corp. is in the process of doing with its agreement to have its outstanding shares sold to NASCAR. The France family owns both ISC and NASCAR. The NASCAR-ISC deal is expected to close this year.

SMI’s deal would call for Sonic Financial to acquire all the outstanding shares of SMI common stock at a price of $19.75 per share in cash. Speedway Motorsports’ stock closed at $18.95 a share Tuesday, its highest price in the last year. SMI’s stock was at $13.94 on April 23, the day before SMI announced receiving an offer from Sonic Financial.

In a memo to employees, SMI stated that once the merger is complete: “Speedway Motorsports, Inc. will continue its focus on owning and operating first-class, modern facilities in premier geographic markets, and providing our individual and corporate fans and customers with the best entertainment experience and marketing value in the motorsports industry.”

Also in the memo to employees, SMI stated: “We have no current plans for job eliminations as a result of the proposed transaction. Rather, the proposed transaction will enable us to accelerate our long-term growth plan and transformation, and maintain our focus on providing the best entertainment experience and marketing value in the motorsports industry.”

‘The Sims:’ How virtual reality is changing motorsports

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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.”

——————————————————————————————————————————

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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Kasey Kahne still smiling despite recent racing setbacks

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Kasey Kahne’s NASCAR season and career were cut short in September because of dehydration issues. Ten races into his return to driving sprint cars full-time, he was injured and has not competed since late March. He doesn’t know when he’ll be able to return.

“It’s been a rough year for me and racing,” Kahne tells NBC Sports, standing in his race shop, near one of the sprint cars he should be getting ready to drive. 

Even as he speaks about all the disappointment in the last eight months, he smiles.

“I’m still happy,” Kahne says, shortly after having hugged 3-year-old son Tanner. “I know it won’t be long and I’ll be fine and then, hopefully, these rough years are behind me.”

Kahne smiles again.

Kasey Kahne signs autographs for fans during a recent open house at his race shop in Mooresville, North Carolina. (Photo: Dustin Long)

It’s the look many NASCAR fans know well. Although Kahne is 39 years old, he looks much like the 23-year-old rookie who grabbed so much attention when he finished second in three of his first seven starts in NASCAR’s premier series. Kahne remains as thin as those days and ready to race. 

He just can’t now because of his undisclosed injury.

So he waits and stays busy.

“I feel like I’m way too young to not work or anything like that,” Kahne says. “Always working on ideas to do.”

As for his racing, Kahne isn’t sure. He was injured in a March 29 flip at Williams Grove Speedway in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. He hopes to be cleared by July 1 so he can spend the summer racing. That way he’ll be better prepared for the Knoxville Nationals (Aug. 7-10). 

If he’s not cleared by July 1, he says he doesn’t anticipate being ready to run at Knoxville a year after his team, Kasey Kahne Racing, won the Nationals with driver Brad Sweet.

Kahne looks forward to racing again based on how the sprint car season started.

“It was really up and down, but we were making a lot of gains and I was making a lot of gains,” Kahne says. “I felt the final two races before I went out for a bit were my best two, and I was heading in the right direction.”

James McFadden will drive Kasey Kahne’s car until Kahne returns. (Photo: Dustin Long)

“I think right now my car that James McFadden is going to drive is going to be awesome for him because we’re in a good direction. I’m really hoping he has a lot of success over the next month or maybe the next two months.”

With being out of the car, Kahne is enjoying more time with friends and family. He watched the All-Star Race. He hosted a barbecue the night of Coca-Cola 600 qualifying last week and spent Sunday watching the races.

Seeing Clint Bowyer swing at Ryan Newman after the All-Star Race brought back a particular memory for Kahne.

“Me and Kevin Harvick got into it once at Phoenix,” Kahne says of their battle for fourth late in Kahne’s rookie year. “We were like running tight, super close. After the race, I bumped him and actually was just saying good race, and I think he was thinking I was mad at him. Instantly, the veteran is going to get pissed, which I totally understand now.

“He’s at my car before I’ve shut it off. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do. Then (Kahne’s crew chief) Tommy Baldwin is mad. It was funny how that all worked. That was kind of like we were mad at each other but we weren’t after we talked.”

Last weekend’s races at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway brought back other memories for Kahne. 

Three of his 18 career Cup wins came in the Coca-Cola 600. His last Cup victory was in 2017 at Indy. He is one of eight drivers who have won both the 600 and Brickyard 400 in their careers. 

Three of those drivers are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame (Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jarrett and Jeff Gordon). A fourth will be inducted in January (Bobby Labonte). Three others are future Hall of Famers (Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick). 

Kahne counts his third Coca-Cola 600 victory as among his most memorable because it was his first with Hendrick Motorsports in 2012.

He recalls much of what happened during his Brickyard 400 win but not much afterward. He was dehydrated after that race, showing signs of what would force him out of the car in 2018.

“The problem with the Brickyard is that I was do dehydrated and stuff and throwing up and just felt horrible and all I wanted to do was to go to sleep and I didn’t get to enjoy the win,” Kahne says. “It took until Wednesday before I even felt halfway decent.”

His condition became more challenging and led to last year’s Southern 500 being his final Cup race.

“An hour to go in that race, I said you better never do this again,” Kahne recalls of that race where he battled dehydration and went to the infield care center after finishing 24th. “This is not good.

“Then after I felt better like the next Friday, I was like I need to race some more.”

Kasey Kahne signs diecast cars for a fan at Kasey Kahne Racing’s open house earlier in May. (Photo: Dustin Long)

He didn’t get the chance in NASCAR. The longer races made it challenging for his body because he was sweating so much. He announced in October that he had not been cleared to race the rest of the season. Having previously said 2018 would be his last in Cup, his career in that series ended. 

While he can’t compete in the long races of NASCAR, the shorter sprint car races are not a problem for Kahne.

He looks forward to getting back into the car. Although Tanner, who has enjoyed all the extra time with his father, expressed other feelings the other day.

“He doesn’t like me getting into race cars any more,” Kahne says. “If I get in one, he tells me to get out. Just because he’s glad that I’m home and not racing.

“I know he likes racing. He had fun when we were at the track.”

Kahne can’t wait to go back as a driver instead of just a car owner.

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Chris Buescher completes ‘epic comeback’ to finish sixth in Coke 600

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CONCORD, N.C. — Roughly 15 minutes after the end of Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, Chris Buescher was the last Cup driver to arrive at the pit road media bullpen to discuss his experience in the 400-lap race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

He had a lot to talk about.

“That was a really fun race,” Buescher said. “The most fun I’ve had at one of these 600s.”

That’s not the tone you’d expect from a driver who got into the wall on Lap 116, fell from 11th to 17th and then cut a tire 12 laps later to bring out the caution.

But it is the tone you expect from a driver who came back from being a lap down to finish sixth in NASCAR’s longest race.

As a result, the JTG-Daugherty Racing driver has consecutive top-10 finishes for the first time in his Cup career. Sunday’s finish follows a 10th at Kansas two weeks ago.

“Had great speed from the drop of the green,” said Buescher, who started 22nd. “Second stage just tried to get a little too high and got up in the fence. It’s on me. … We knew we had speed still, but this group did a terrific job repairing. Came in prepared. Worked really hard after practice, made a lot of changes as well. Just a great all around effort. The pit crew did a terrific job.”

Buescher thought his contact with the wall was “going to hurt us for sure.”

“I felt like it probably knocked a bunch of camber into it and was worried about blowing a tire with just wearing out the inside edge,” Buescher said. “(His team) sure made it look good. Tire wear looked good throughout the night. After we got that going we just kept digging harder and harder and stopped worrying about it and there at the end we didn’t have to worry about a thing.”

In five previous starts on Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval, Buescher’s best finish was 16th in the fall 2016 race.

But Buescher had to survive a “wild” five-lap shootout to end the race, with his car restarting 12th after all but one lead-lap car pitted and Daniel Suarez was penalized for pitting outside his box.

“I need to rewatch the replay to understand what happened,” Buescher said. “I got ran into probably three times. Got ran into the fence at on point when we were four wide. And nobody lifted. Honestly, it’s kind of what we expected all of these races to be like this year. I think it got hot enough, slick enough we finally had one of those nights tonight. It made for some wild racing. Made it frustrating at times trying to get by on the bottom. You had options, you were able to move around. What a great time.”

Buescher’s result comes in the wake of other impressive runs for his team in the previous 12 races that didn’t end as well.

At Bristol he placed seventh in Stage 2 but had to pit from ninth with 41 laps to go due to a loose wheel. He finished 25th.

A week later at Richmond he placed in the top 10 in both stages but finished 22nd.

The Kansas race saw his most consistent run as he placed sixth in both stages before finishing 10th for his first top 10 since Atlanta.

Buescher credited “continuity” and “chemistry” on his team and working “extremely hard through the offseason” to be ready for the new rules package.

“What a terrific finish for us in the JTG-Daugherty Racing group,” Buescher said. “For us to have great runs this season that have been right round top fives and not quite get the finishes out of it, this is a good night to have a pretty epic comeback.”