Darrell Waltrip

‘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.”

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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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Denny Hamlin’s Darlington throwback paint scheme to honor Darrell Waltrip

Joe Gibbs Racing
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Joe Gibbs Racing and FedEx on Friday unveiled the paint scheme Denny Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota will carry in honor of retiring broadcaster and NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip for Darlington Raceway’s Southern 500 throwback weekend in September.

The car has a unique white, grey, black and orange paint scheme.

Waltrip attended the unveiling at Sonoma Raceway, which will mark the final race he will call for FOX Sports. NBC Sports takes over the remainder of the NASCAR Cup broadcast schedule starting next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.

Here are several tweets that illustrate the paint scheme on Hamlin’s Darlington ride:

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Podcast: Sonoma could be Darrell Waltrip’s last NASCAR race ever

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Darrell Waltrip has been a fixture at NASCAR tracks for more than 40 years, since he made his first Cup start in May 1972 at Talladega all the way through his last 19 years as an analyst for Fox Sports’ NASCAR coverage.

But that could change after Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway, which marks Waltrip’s last as a member of the Fox broadcast team as he rides off into retirement.

On the latest episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, the 72-year-old Waltrip discussed his broadcasting career’s conclusion and if he’ll still be seen at the track in retirement.

“I don’t know if I’ll go to another race or not,” Waltrip said. “The hardest thing to do, and most people know this that’s been in the sport, is to go to a track and not have anything to do. If you go to the track and you don’t have a team, you don’t have a car, you don’t have a job, you’re just there to show up? That’s a hard road to hold, at least it always has been for me.

“Look, I started racing when I was 12 years old. I’ve said then and I’ll say it now: Ever since I was 12 years old I got up on Sunday morning and held onto something. I held onto a steering wheel for most of my life. I held onto a microphone the last 19 years of my life. I’ve held onto a dream that someday I’d win a Cup race and someday I’d win a championship. When I got into the TV booth, it never happened, but someday it might, that I may win an Emmy for being an outstanding broadcaster.”

Wallace also discussed his preparation for race broadcasts and his reaction to whispers that he was out of touch with the garage and today’s drivers.

“I hear a lot about not being relevant and that really aggravates me,” Waltrip said. “Because one thing I work really hard at and have for most of my career is trust. So when I talk to a Chad Knaus or a Cole Pearn or Rodney Childers, whomever I talk to, I don’t blab … I’ve never been that way. I call guys every week saying, ‘What happened? What’s going on?’ I’ve been in the shops enough to know the equipment.”

Waltrip boasts that if challenged, he could build “a better car by myself than anybody in that garage area.”

The NASCAR Hall of Famer also shared some regrets he had from his broadcasting career, including a very recent one.

“I said something about Jimmie Johnson (last) Sunday that after I thought about it, it wasn’t a great thing to say, but Adam Alexander asked about (Daniel) Suarez and Jimmie, ‘Who’d win a race first?'” Waltrip said. “My response was Suarez is too aggressive and Jimmie’s not aggressive enough. That probably in hindsight wasn’t the right thing to say. I have a lot of respect for the man, seven championships, 83 wins. I have a lot of respect for him. Out of that respect, you should not say something like that.”

You can listen to the full podcast below.

Other highlights: What Waltrip thinks his broadcast legacy is and his defense of his “Boogity” catchphrase (37:00)

 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr, David Ragan honoring Darrell Waltrip with Sonoma schemes

Roush Fenway Racing
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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and David Ragan will pay tribute to Darrell Waltrip this weekend by driving two of the NASCAR Hall of Famers’ old paint schemes in the Cup Series race at Sonoma Raceway.

The tributes comes in the last race Waltrip will serve as an analyst for Fox Sports’ NASCAR coverage. He is retiring after 18 years in the broadcast booth.

Stenhouse’s No. 17 Ford has been made to look like the No. 17 Western Auto/Parts America cars Waltrip drove from 1992-1997.

“Darrell Waltrip has meant a great deal to our sport as both a competitor and a member of the broadcast media,” team owner Jack Roush said in a press release. “The thing that stands out to me about Darrell is that after I just announced I was starting the team with Mark Martin, I was invited into a driver’s meeting that season. Darrell Waltrip was one of the first to welcome me into the fold and say ‘Come on in Jack, we are going to have a lot of fun with you’ and we sure have over the years.”

This is not the first time Stenhouse has driven one of Waltrip’s old paint schemes.

Darrell Walltrip at Sonoma Raceway in 1997. (David Taylor /Allsport)

In the 2016 Southern 500, Stenhouse used the scheme Waltrip had for his first Cup win in 1975.

This is the second time Stenhouse has driven the Western Auto/Parts America scheme, but the first time with the right color scheme.

Stenhouse’s 2017 Southern 500 car used the scheme but with the colors of his sponsor, Fifth Third bank.

“With as much as he’s done in the sport on and off the track, Darrell will definitely be missed,” Stenhouse said a press release. “I have enjoyed all the sit-downs and seeing his passion that he has for the sport. I’ve gotten to pay homage to him with two Darlington throwback schemes so it will be extra special to drive his iconic paint scheme for his last appearance in the booth.”

Ragan’s No. 38 Ford also is inspired by one of Waltrip’s Parts America schemes.

Ragan’s car is based on the chrome scheme Waltrip drove in 1997 that commemorated his 25th anniversary of competing in NASCAR.

 

“I’m so grateful for the opportunity to run this scheme during Darrell Waltrip’s last race as a broadcaster with FOX,” Ragan said in a press release. “We’ve developed a great relationship over the years and he’s truly been an asset to our sport. It still gives me chills listening to replays of him calling my Talladega win in 2013. His enthusiasm for racing is unmatched and I know we will all miss seeing him up in the booth each week. All I can say is, ‘Thanks, DW.'”

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Iowa winners and losers

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WINNERS

Christopher BellScore another win for the Big 3 in the Xfinity Series. Bell collected his fourth victory of the season Sunday. His 12 wins in 55 Xfinity starts is tied with Dale Earnhardt for second most in the first 55 Xfinity races for any driver. Darrell Waltrip owns the record with 13 wins in his first 55 Xfinity starts. Both Earnhardt and Waltrip had Cup wins before making their first Xfinity start. Bell  has not made a Cup start.

Joe Gibbs Racing — Christopher Bell’s victory was JGR’s 325th career NASCAR win across Cup, Xfinity and Trucks. That ties Joe Gibbs Racing with Roush Fenway Racing for most career NASCAR wins across the three national series.

Brett Moffitt He admits he was upset with finishing second in Sunday’s Truck race and was on his way to the airport when his team called him and told him to get back to the track. With Ross Chastain’s truck failing inspection, Chastain’s win was taken away and Moffitt was declared the victor.

Harrison Burton He did double duty Sunday. Burton placed third in the Truck race and finished fourth in the Xfinity race. Not a bad day’s worth of work.

Zane Smith The 20-year-old finished a career-high fifth for JR Motorsports. It was his fifth series start. All four JR Motorsports cars finished in the top 10 for the second race in a row.

LOSERS

Ross Chastain — Won both stages and led 141 of 200 laps to win the Truck race … only to see his truck fail inspection afterward and have the win taken away. Team is appealing NASCAR’s decision and an appeal likely will take place this week.

Johnny Sauter In a feud that apparently goes back to Texas, Sauter wrecked Austin Hill under caution in retaliation for being wrecked by Hill on Sunday. NASCAR parked Sauter. Now Sauter awaits to see if there will be further penalties and if that impacts his playoff eligibility. Even the executive of series sponsor Gander Outdoors weighed in on Sauter’s action: