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‘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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Bump & Run: Who is having a better season? Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Busch?

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With four wins apiece, which Joe Gibbs Racing driver is having the better season, Kyle Busch or Martin Truex Jr.?

Nate Ryan: The points, playoff points and top 10 tallies point to Busch, but Truex gets this nod because he is improving as the season unfolds while making a largely seamless transition to Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch’s No. 18 Toyota has been more consistently excellent, but Truex’s No. 19 team seems slightly more playoff ready.

Dustin Long: It’s easy to get the sense that Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn are figuring things out, but I’ll take Kyle Busch for having the better season at this point. Busch has led more laps, had more top-three finishes, more top-five finishes and more top-10 finishes than Truex.

Daniel McFadin: Truex has won four of the last eight races, but he struggles in the races following his wins. Meanwhile Kyle Busch has been incredibly consistent through 16 races, failing to finish outside the top 10 just once at Kansas. We’re still waiting to see Busch find his kryptonite.

Jerry Bonkowski: Busch is having a statistically better season than Truex and has been at or near the top of the points for much of the season, but they’re equal where it counts the most. What’s more, they play off each other so well, you’d never know they’re first-year teammates.

 

Do stages need to be re-evaluated for road-course races, particularly Sonoma?

Nate Ryan: Yes. There has been only one “natural” caution over the past 246 miles of Cup racing at Sonoma Raceway. It seems as if having two scheduled yellows in a race that emphasizes strategy might be adversely disrupting the driver behavior and rhythm of an event in which action can be dependent on the randomness of cautions (and this could apply to any race that features green-flag pit stops without losing a lap). While the Sophie’s Choice of going for the win vs. amassing points adds an interesting wrinkle, it also seems too preordained and rote, eliminating some of the tactical genius and unexpected twists that make road-course racing fun.

Dustin Long: I’m not convinced this needs to be done. I do like seeing which teams will toss aside potential stage points for the chance to go for the win and pit shortly before a stage break. If nothing else, stage breaks do provide two restarts and restarts are often some of the most exciting moments in a race. You really want to eliminate two restarts a race?

Daniel McFadin: I think so. With NASCAR keeping in place that caution laps during stage breaks count towards the lap count, Stage 2 at Sonoma had only 15 competitive laps under green compared to the first stage’s 20. I’d add five laps to the second stage there and have the final stage be 45 laps. It’s still significantly longer than the first two stages. 

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes. Personally, I feel stages don’t work well in road course races, especially at a place like Sonoma, which saw a half-mile larger track this year for the first time in more than 20 years (due to adding the Carousel). Road course races should be a constant, moving episode and not interrupted by stages. And if it proves fans like the racing more without stages, it may be something to look at when the major changes come around in 2021. 

 

With the first Cup race of the year on a road course behind us, what’s one road course you’d like added to the Cup schedule?

Nate Ryan: Road America already has proved worthy of the Xfinity Series and also provides a NASCAR-IndyCar doubleheader opportunity. If the category were expanded to street races, Toronto already hosts stock cars with NASCAR’s Canadian series.

Dustin Long: Road America. 

Daniel McFadin: Laguna Seca, baby! It was my favorite road course as a kid and I’d love to see a Cup car navigating its variety of turns, especially the Corkscrew. Would three California Cup races, with two on road courses be healthy for the sport? Probably not. But I still want to see it.

Jerry Bonkowski: Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, or Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. I’d be happy with either — actually I’d be the happiest if both were on the schedule.

 

What has been the best story in NASCAR this season?

Nate Ryan: Ross Chastain, and if there’s justice in the near future, his story should continue to unfold on a bigger stage than a third-tier series.

Dustin Long: The development and domination of the Big 3 in the Xfinity Series — Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer — and the questions of where they’ll race next season.

Daniel McFadin: Without a doubt Ross Chastain and Niece Motorsports. With its Gateway win, the small team will more than likely compete in the Truck Series playoffs. They could deliver a second consecutive Truck Series title from an underfunded team as the giants of the series – Kyle Busch Motorsports, GMS Racing and ThorSport Racing – struggle to find victory lane with their full-time drivers. If you’re a fan of old school motorsports stories, there’s one playing out with this team.

Jerry Bonkowski: It’s a close call, but I am going to go with Tyler Reddick having a slight edge over Kyle Busch in best overall story of 2019.

Roger Penske approves of shorter NASCAR schedule, Cup-IndyCar doubleheaders

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The Captain has spoken.

Roger Penske, one of two owners to field cars in both NASCAR and IndyCar, would like to see the two worlds merge for doubleheader weekends between the Cup Series and IndyCar.

In an appearance Friday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive,” Penske discussed the possibility of a doubleheader in relation to also shortening the NASCAR schedule.

“I would love to (see) us run on the same weekend,” Penske said. “It would be fun to fans to see the difference of the IndyCars and also the NASCAR cars. … We’re going to have to disrupt some of this as we go forward. That might be one of the things to do.”

Penske’s words come with the weight of being the defending Cup championship owner and the reigning Indy 500 winning owner, which resulted in two trips to the White House since April. Team Penske is also coming off Joey Logano‘s win Monday in the Cup race at Michigan.

The discussion of potential a Cup-IndyCar doubleheader has been prevalent since May, with Cup drivers expressing their support of it along with IndyCar President Jay Frye, who said it “would be a game-changer in a good way.”

But earlier this month IndyCar CEO Mark Miles said that while he’s “not opposed” to it, he called the prospect a “long shot.”

Said Penske, “We’re going to talk about two races on one weekend, because one of the things we have to do is take a look at this (NASCAR) schedule and the future because when you think about 36-38 weekends, if we can take five or six of those and make those doubleheaders and let our guys go home.”

NASCAR is experimenting with a doubleheader weekend next year by holding two Cup races at Pocono Raceway June 27-28.

“We do that in Supercars in Australia, we run Saturday and Sunday, typically a smaller race on Saturday and the big event on Sunday and we have seven crew members with each car, plus a couple of engineers and a team leader,” Penske said. “We do that with one car at the track.”

Penske sees financial and personal benefits to tightening up a schedule that runs from February to November.

“It can be done and again I think that’s something we’ve got to look at from cost perspective,” Penske said. “From a personal perspective I think we’ve got to think about the life these guys have on the road and what we need to make them be home more. Those are things that I know that (NASCAR President) Steve Phelps and certainly (CEO and Chairman) Jim France understands.

“And we’re going to see changes probably in the rules, we’re going to see changes in the schedule, I think we’ve got to tie it together with our media partners … and say ‘What’s better? How can we make this sport better?’ People maybe want to see shorter events. People’s timeline that they have to be able to watch some of these events, is it three hours? Is it an hour-and-a-half? What gives us the best results from a commercial perspective as far as I’m concerned.”

 

Report: IndyCar CEO calls IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader a ‘long shot’

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Mark Miles characterized the idea of a race weekend featuring the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and NTT IndyCar Series at the same track a “longshot,” according to The Indianapolis Star.

Miles is CEO of Hulman & Company, which oversees the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

IndyCar CEO Mark Miles. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

While Miles said he’s “not opposed” to such a weekend, he told The Indianapolis Star: I don’t know if I feel like there is a lot of momentum (behind it). It’s certainly not a new idea. I haven’t had any direct conversations with (NASCAR) about it recently, so we’re not any closer to getting it done than we were previously.

“I think making it happen is a bit of a long shot.”

Talk picked up last month about the idea of Cup and IndyCar running at the same track on the same weekend.

Jay Frye, IndyCar president, said last month that he would be a “huge supporter” of an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader weekend.

“It could be a cool American motorsports extravaganza-kind of weekend,” said Frye, who was a former Cup team executive before moving to IndyCar. “We’ve talked about we’d run Saturday night and that Cup stays in its normal spot on Sunday. There are a lot of crossovers with manufacturers and amongst teams. We’ve talked about the friendships we have with them.

“I think it would be a game-changer in a good way. It’s not something you do every week. If you did it once or twice a year. You have to do it one time first. See how it goes. There would be certain tracks we would go to that would fit. At end of day, why not try it? It’s good for NBC, good for IndyCar and good for NASCAR.”

IndyCar driver Graham Rahal is all for such a doubleheader.

“We have to all help each other grow,” Rahal said on the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Doing these joint events that only certain tracks can do are huge. We have to do it. We have to build our sports together. To do it independently, yeah, we might make ground here or there, but ultimately we’ll never make enough.”

There is support from some in the NASCAR garage for a weekend at the same track with the IndyCar Series.

“I think it’d be great,” Denny Hamlin said. “I mean I think that sometimes our fans are not the same and so it would be an opportunity to introduce each other. I’ve never been to an IndyCar race before, so it would be an opportunity for me to kind of see it up close and personal and I wouldn’t mind wandering around the garages and seeing how they do things.”

Miles scoffed at the notion of conducting a third IndyCar race at Indy, according to The Indianapolis Star. He also made clear that neither the IndyCar Grand Prix nor Indianapolis 500 would be interested in sharing their weekends with NASCAR.

Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO and President Marcus Smith said he is aware of the topic but “I wouldn’t say it’s on my top 10 list at this point. But we’re certainly open for discussions because we like to do things that are different and fun. So who knows? Our schedule for NASCAR is set for next year. I’m sure if it’s interesting to IndyCar after they finish the Indy 500 then they’ll want to talk about it.”

SMI owns such tracks as Texas Motor Speedway, which hosts the IndyCar Series this weekend. NBCSN has coverage of the race beginning at 8 p.m. ET Saturday.

 

 

The Furniture Row Racing veteran who stayed in Denver … and in racing

Pete Craik
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INDIANAPOLIS – When Furniture Row Racing closed its doors after the 2018 season, engineer Pete Craik was facing the same dilemma as a few dozen of his co-workers.

How to remain a resident of Colorado but also continue a full-time career in a national racing series?

There were no shortage of offers to stay in the NASCAR Cup Series, including following crew chief Cole Pearn and Martin Truex Jr. to the No. 19 at Joe Gibbs Racing, but all would have required a relocation to North Carolina.

Having settled in Denver, Craik and his new wife, Abby (whom he met after moving to Colorado four years ago), decided they wanted to stay.

He found empathy in the decision from Pearn (who jrecently discussed his own reservations over leaving Colorado in an interview with The Athletic).

“Cole said, ‘That’s fair enough. We really want you (at Gibbs), but I get it,’” Craik said. “I just decided initially to say unless I can stay here, I’ll figure something else out.”

The Australian managed a good compromise.

Craik, who came to America in 2012 to work in the NTT IndyCar Series for three seasons before his NASCAR stint, joined Ed Carpenter Racing in January.

He still lives in Denver, staying in touch with ECR team members in Indianapolis daily through instant messaging programs. He travels the 18-race IndyCar circuit and visits the shop once a month.

Pete Craik was the race engineer on Ed Carpenter’s sixth-place Chevrolet in the Indianapolis 500.

There’s a parallel to the relationship that Furniture Row Racing had with top engineer Jeff Curtis, who worked remotely from the Charlotte area while the team’s headquarters were in Colorado.

“It’s not like you’re out of the loop at all,” Craik said while standing outside his team’s Gasoline Alley garage stall four days before the Indianapolis 500 last month. “It’s just you’re either in the office here or my office at home.”

Craik is the race engineer on the No. 20, which qualified second and finished sixth in the Indy 500 with Ed Carpenter (who will race the Dallara-Chevrolet this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway).

“I really like this series,” said Craik, who spent three seasons at Andretti Autosport before moving to NASCAR with Furniture Row in 2015. “The cars are good. It’s competitive. I’ve always said that it pains me that it’s not more popular, because I think it’s a great series. It was an easy decision once I spoke to (ECR). It’s a good team, and hopefully I can try to contribute something to that.”

Craik is one of a few Furniture Row Racing veterans who joined IndyCar teams since last year. A few others remained in Denver to work at team owner Barney Visser’s machine shop. But many naturally decamped for North Carolina.

“Honestly I don’t know that many people in Denver anymore because they all moved,” Craik said. “I didn’t have time to go and make friends because we all had each other.”

The camaraderie was a hallmark of the success for Truex’s No. 78, which won the 2017 championship and made the title round in three of four seasons. Craik said a key to the tight-knit group’s success was putting the finishing touches on chassis supplied by other teams (first Richard Childress Racing, then JGR).

“The cakes were baked, and we were putting icing on the cake,” Craik said. “We obviously were heavily sim based and relied on that a lot. We just had a good group. We just wanted to win. I think everybody does, but we were a bit of a ragtag group of guys.

“We had a lot of fun. We just got along well. Everybody was pushing in the same direction. There wasn’t a bad egg amongst them.”

He remains in touch with many of them. Team owner Barney Visser attended a Denver wedding reception in January for Craik (he was married in Australia last December to Abby, who is pictured above during a visit to IMS).

“Barney was putting in a lot of his own money, having health issues and wanted to spend more time with his family, so I get it,” Craik said about Visser’s decision to walk away from NASCAR. “Hey, I wouldn’t want to spend that money myself, so I totally get it.

“It was a good time, but the time’s over. You’re not going to get it back, so there’s no point in looking back on it and wishing it still was.”

The bonds from that team remain strong, though, particularly with Pearn and James Small, a fellow Australian who helped recruit Craik to Furniture Row but went to the No. 19 this season.

“We all still get along,” Craik said. “There’s no hard feelings about it at all. I think everybody’s ended up in good positions otherwise, whether it’s in Colorado not in racing, or in racing. Some people didn’t want to move, but it ended up that way. I feel really fortunate I didn’t have to move, and I get reminded of that by James and Cole every day.

“They text me and are like, ‘Man, you really got a good deal.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I did.’ ”