Rajah Caruth pursues his NASCAR dream via an unlikely route — Andscape
Rajah Caruth’s devotion to world-class sporting pursuits began with multiple sports. He shot hoops, played soccer and ran on the track growing up. He explored a shared childhood interest in transportation with his father, visiting airports and railroad yards to watch planes and trains come and go.
Caruth’s par abruptly veered and accelerated into a narrower lane of sports and interests several years ago. And he is full speed.
The Winston-Salem State University junior quickly became a benchmark in motor racing, not only for his unusual success, but also for his limited experience and unparalleled journey from a Washington high school to racetracks nationwide.
His next step towards his establishment will be this weekend at Richmond Raceway in Virginia when he competes in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series for the second time (much like Double-A baseball).
Caruth runs full time with Rev Racing in the ARCA Menards Series (a feeder circuit for NASCAR’s three national series), leading that circuit virtually all season until August 8, when he dropped to second place in the standings. In April at Richmond – where he attended his first NASCAR race at age 12 – Caruth made his debut in the Xfinity Series (considered the second highest level of competition in NASCAR). He started 22nd and finished 24th, perfectly respectable and arguably excellent for a driver’s first lap in these cars.
His first foray into the Truck Series in June was downright impressive, finishing 11th after starting 19th in the lineup. After that race, Spire Motorsports signed Caruth to drive more this season. By the end of the year, 20 ARCA races, four truck races and seven Xfinity races should be in his rearview mirror.
“There were times last year where I didn’t race for months, and it was really hard to figure out how to use my time wisely, how to compete with people,” Caruth told Andscape. . “This year I learned how up and down racing can be and how important the mental aspect is. It’s really hard to be honest, but I try to understand and enjoy the journey.
If that sounds like a lot, it’s making up for lost time and a childhood that didn’t revolve around running.
Many observers might reflexively compare Caruth to 28-year-old Bubba Wallace, the only black driver racing full-time in NASCAR’s top-flight Cup Series. Yes, the two share similarities. But the mentor and the mentee come from opposite backgrounds.
“At the age of 16, I had seven years of experience” Wallace told The Athletic. “And when he was 16, he was brand new.”
While many tykes in youth sports emulate their favorite players on the pitch or hardwood, others do the same on asphalt tracks, sometimes dirt. Sophomores can take turns at 70 mph in high-stakes motorsports, as evidenced by the Discovery series Baby Drivers. At this age, Caruth had just discovered his passion for wheels after watching Cars.
“I’m always going to catch up to people in terms of experience and ability just because I started so late,” he said. “But other than that, I don’t really pay attention to it.”
Maybe there is an advantage?
“I guess I don’t have any bad habits,” he said. “Especially since it’s, like, my fourth year of racing, period. I feel like I can jump into different things and figure it out pretty quickly.
Most of Caruth’s time behind the wheel has been virtual. He started competing on iRacing in June 2018, shortly after his 16th birthday, and every spare moment this summer was spent on the racing sim platform. It was a game for some but a school for him, a way to study the craft the way he had studied NASCAR history as a child, when he paired schoolwork with racing whenever possible.
Emerging technology intersected with NASCAR’s desire for driver diversity and a rising star took shape.
“His talent was there, but all of those things together amounted to a perfect storm,” said his father, Roger Caruth. “iRacing has allowed NASCAR to find talent in unconventional places.”
Caruth’s prowess in sim racing in 2018 – making the playoffs and qualifying for the championship round – helped him land one of four coveted spots in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, the launch pad for Cup regulars such as Wallace, Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez. Caruth is the first participant whose primary journey was virtual racing instead of the on-track experience. He didn’t race in a real race car until 2019.
But on Saturday night on the Truck series, he’ll do laps with 25-year-old John Hunter Nemechek. Next month at the Xfinity race at Kansas Speedway, Caruth will be able to swap paint with Ty Gibbs, who is nearly 20 years old. Such environments are commonplace for these young Drivers. Nemechek’s father is Joe Nemechek, who broke Richard Petty’s record for all-time starts in the NASCAR National Series in 2019. Gibbs’ grandfather is the Super Bowl-winning football coach who trained five-time NASCAR champion Joe Gibbs Racing in 1992…a decade before Ty was born.
Generational ties abound in races and family ties are excellent. But genes do not guarantee greatness. Each driver must sit in scorching heat and endure relentless G-forces, using cat-like reflexes and precise hand-eye coordination to avoid danger, and race lap after lap at speeds approaching 200 mph on the grandest tracks. Having a name can help attract sponsors, but success in racing – as in other sports – requires more than resources.
“Every professional athlete at the highest level has that ‘it’ factor, whatever it is,” Caruth said. “But you also have to have the passion and the work ethic to do things that aren’t as glorious to end up on the racetrack, whether it’s sitting on the simulator, watching a movie, going to meetings, do homework.
“It’s kind of how much you want it. I think that’s what separates people.
Sounds good, but the desire doesn’t go that far. No matter how much everyone wants to shoot like Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, Roger Caruth said it was more like “Mess Curry” when coaching his son. “Everyone wants to stop on half court and shoot jumpers,” he said. “Rajah was very decent in defense because of his speed and he was a solid basketball player, but I couldn’t get him to give up those jumpers.”
The family and friends who cheered on Caruth at basketball games and track and field competitions broadened their knowledge of motor racing, which places its own demands on human performance. If these people did not believe that pilots are sportsmen beforehand, Caruth cleared up any confusion.
“It’s a physical effort to show a skill,” he said. “When you’re driving a race car, you feel intense forces at high speed and really use all of your senses to calculate information and perform at a high level.”
Caruth is rapidly approaching the upper level and it really got going, turning faces along the way. He’s redefining what’s normal, not only for him but also for the fans and riders like him.
Alpha Prime Racing co-owners Tommy Joe Martins and Caesar Bacarella are sold.
“Rajah is the future for us”, Martins told nascar.com after signing him as a part-time Xfinity rider. “[Rajah and Roger] are exactly the type of people we want to be part of at Alpha Prime Racing. Rajah has his whole career ahead of him and I’m honored that they trust us to be one of his first steps.
“He’s going to be a star,” Bacarella said. “No question about that.”
No pressure though. Caruth has the same high expectations.
Just another thing to get used to.