Talkin' Trucks with Paulie Harraka: College and NASCAR go hand in hand

Courtesy of Wauters Motorsports
College student by day, NASCAR driver by weekends, that has been the life of 22-year old Paulie Harraka the past four years.

As graduation quickly approaches, the Duke University Senior already has a career in focus as a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver for Wauters Motorsports.

For Harraka, a past participant in NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, the progression to the truck series was just a part of the ladder system he has been working for some time. From competing in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series and winning 11 races in 2008 to moving to the K&N Pro Series West in 2009 and 2010, it was all in preparation for Harraka to debut in NASCAR's premiere leagues.

Harraka's rookie year is also met with a rookie team as veteran crew chief Richie Wauters launched the No. 5 team after being atop the pit box for many years with drivers ranging from Shane Hmiel to Kyle Busch and Aric Almirola.

"I remember my first race, June 1 1997, at the now defunct Flemington Speedway in Flemington, New Jersey. I actually won, I won that race and won almost every race that year," Harraka recalled of his racing start.

That was all it took for an eight-year old Harraka to be hooked on racing. After racing in karts, Paulie switched to Legends cars and by invitation of the great "Humpy" Wheeler participated in the Lowe's Motor Speedway Summer Shootout. Winning that race allowed Harraka to catch the eye of NASCAR leading to an invite to the Drive for Diversity Combine.

"NASCAR has a "step" series (Whelen, K&N, Truck, Nationwide and Cup) and obviously I was able to go through two of those steps being the K&N Pro Series and the Whelen All-American Series because of the program, Without a doubt that program (Drive for Diversity) helped set the stage for me to climb into the Truck series."

On whether or not the experience has further prepared him for his transition into the Trucks, Harraka says "It made it possible. I could not have gone from a Legends car into a Truck, it has made it all possible."

Racing with Wauters Motorsports

"The team maybe brand new but with an owner who as a crew chief experienced lots of success, he has the same core guys he has had for years. So in one sense we are an upstart team but in the other sense we are a group with lots of experience and background in the series," Harraka said when asked the challenge of being a rookie driver working with an upstart team.

Wauters Motorsports is a single Truck team which leads to the question of who is mentoring the young Harraka through the ups and downs of the sport and through the questions he may have at the track each week. Needless to say, his answer was a bit surprising.

Harraka with team owner Richie Wauters
Courtesy of Wauters Motorsports
"Johnny Benson came with us to the first few races, which was great, Johnny was really helpful. I leaned on Jimmie Johnson a lot as we go to these race tracks, between the two of them and trying to draw off of Richie's experience as I can."

Jimmie Johnson and the Truck Series had me (and still has me) a bit perplexed, given that he has only raced one NCWTS race but Harraka's reasoning is all the answer I needed.

"He does have experience at these race tracks and on these tires, he knows what he is doing. When Jimmie Johnson talks you need to shut up and listen!" (I guess if you were a rookie and needed a mentor, the 5-time NASCAR champion would be the right one to ask?)

I asked Paulie about the transition from cars to Trucks and it he feels he is getting comfortable adjusting after just four races. (Harraka started in second position for the Rockingham race, his best start to the season.)

"There is definitely a transition in getting into the Trucks. The biggest difference is getting used to the tire, the radial tire and the bias, it behaves different and all these tracks are new to me. Going to Kansas, that was my first time racing on a mile and a half, racing on a radial tire on a track like that, that is where a lot of the challenges are. The Truck thing is significant but some of the other parts are greater challenges," Harraka said.

Looking ahead at his schedule, I asked Paulie is there one race in particular that he is looking forward to.

"I am excited about Phoenix, I have not been there since they re-did it. Phoenix is the kind of track, it is a speedway but it is kind of like a speedway short track and that is really cool. Honestly though, every track we go to I am excited about."

Even in rival territory (Kansas), Harraka
sports his Duke pride.
Courtesy of Wauters Motorsports
Paulie Harraka, Duke University - Class of 2012

Speaking to Harraka on his last day of college classes his quote was priceless, "that is freaking weird," he said on the thoughts on no more classes.

"It has been an amazing, amazing journey through Duke," Harraka said with an indescribable tone in his voice.  Proud, overjoyed, and maybe a bit sad for this chapter to come to an end. With finals looming and graduation day awaiting, May is going to be a busy time as Harraka will graduate with his degree in marketing management.

Making college life and NASCAR mesh seems from the outside that it could be an impossible task, but for Harraka and his classmates at Duke, he is just one of the many with unique talents.

"While I have had a unique college experience, I have really loved it." Harraka explained the diversity of the students at Duke to me, from an Olympic fencer (Rebecca Ward, who won Bronze in '08 at Beijing before attending Duke) to a student who turned down a job with one of the top three consulting firms in the US to continue his professional soccer career. "Duke is a university of people with unique backgrounds, interests, talents so in one regard being a Duke student who is a NASCAR driver is totally unique. In the other regard, being a Duke student who has a commitment outside of Duke, and they happen to be really good at, is not that unique."

Unique or not, Paulie Harraka will become just one of a handful of NASCAR drivers to compete while also having a college degree. Impressive if you ask me.
Talkin' Trucks with Paulie Harraka: College and NASCAR go hand in hand Talkin' Trucks with Paulie Harraka: College and NASCAR go hand in hand Reviewed by Unknown on Friday, April 27, 2012 Rating: 5