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Meet Rajah Caruth, the 17-year-old eyeing a NASCAR career and a driver’s license

The D.C. native is excelling in the racing company’s diversity driver program

WASHINGTON – Rajah Caruth has navigated cars on racetracks at speeds of 150 mph. He has rubbed elbows with racing legends and may one day be a regular on the NASCAR circuit. But to his mother, Samantha Caruth, he is a 17-year-old with a learner’s permit whose recent run to the mall in the family Acura left her uncomfortable.

“He has this habit of using both his feet while he’s driving,” Samantha Caruth said recently. “He made me nervous.”

No, the lanky, soon-to-be high school graduate doesn’t yet own a driver’s license (he earned his permit last July), but he might already be the best race car driver in Washington.

Caruth is one of six drivers who was selected to participate in the 2020 NASCAR Drive for Diversity Driver Development Program, which is designed to help diversify motorsports and has helped launch the careers of current NASCAR drivers Bubba Wallace (second place in the 2018 Daytona 500), Kyle Larson (2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year) and Daniel Suarez (2015 NASCAR Xfinity Series Rookie of the Year).

Rajah Caruth is the first driver with an iRacing background to earn a spot in the NASCAR Driver for Diversity Driver Development Program.

Courtesy of Roger Caruth

For Caruth, who will represent Rev Racing, his first season racing late-model cars was scheduled to begin this weekend at South Boston Speedway in Virginia. But the NASCAR season (along with much of the rest of the sports world) is currently on hold because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

His debut will have to wait.

“Nothing in my lifetime is comparable to what’s happening now,” Caruth said. “It’s impacted everyone, and we all have to adapt. When everything’s ready to pick up, I’ll be ready.”

Caruth said he’s been ready since he was a child, recalling when his father took him to the theater to see the movie Cars, the computer-animated film about auto racing. “I was only 3 or 4 at the time,” Caruth said. “But that movie stuck with me.”

His devotion to cars — especially fast cars — became more evident in a fifth-grade journal entry. “I want to win the Daytona 500 and be a cup series driver,” Caruth wrote.

Weekend activities were scheduled around televised NASCAR races, while Caruth pleaded with his parents to allow him to attend a live race. That dream became a reality in 2014 when his father and grandfather picked him up from school and embarked on a long Friday afternoon drive. Caruth had no clue about their destination until the moment he saw the Richmond International Raceway through the car windows.

“The moment I saw that track,” said Caruth, who grew up idolizing Bubba Wallace, Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson. “I may or may not have cried.

“I remember sitting in the family section of turn four, eating pizza and watching those old cars go by. I was in seventh grade, and I knew at that moment that’s what I wanted to do.”

Even despite not seeing many professional drivers who looked like him.

Rajah Caruth with his third place trophy won while driving a Legend Car in a 2019 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Courtesy of Roger Caruth

“It goes without saying that over the years the stars of the sport haven’t been a full reflection of the diverse landscape across the country,” said Jusan Hamilton, the NASCAR racing operations race director. “It’s for a number of reasons whether it’s proximity to racetrack exposures or with the way NASCAR has developed over the years where you see the same families in the sport. So the knowledge it takes to come into NASCAR and in the industry in general can be a challenge.”

The challenge for the Caruths was to break that paradigm.

Caruth’s parents presented him with the book NASCAR, The Complete History, and watched Caruth consume the 636 pages of the hardcover so quickly and repeatedly that the pages over time became mostly separated from its binding. “Read that book from front to back so many times,” said his father, Roger Caruth, “that he became a walking NASCAR encyclopedia.”

In 2017, as a birthday gift, he set foot in an actual race car for the first time at the Autobahn Indoor Speedway in Jessup, Maryland. After Caruth posted a few impressive lap times while driving an electric go-kart, an instructor persuaded him to enter a league. The result was humbling.

“I sucked,” Caruth said. “I had no experience and I really didn’t know how to race at all.”

But by the end of the summer Caruth began to understand there was a bit of nuance to racing, and that he had to learn a bit more than turning the wheel, hitting the gas and breaking. The more he learned, the more competitive he became and by the end of the summer he had a few second-place finishes and won a semifinal race. “That really fueled me,” Caruth said. “And made me realize I cared about racing so much.”

Now his family just had to come up with a plan.

During a break in a 2018 track meet at the Prince George’s County Sports and Learning Complex (Caruth ran the 1,500, 800 and 400 meters at School Without Walls High School), Roger Caruth pulled a piece of paper out of his backpack and asked his son to draw a graph that showed how he could achieve his goals.

“We drew it out with cup racing being the goal, and the path to get there from bandolero racing to legends to late models,” Roger Caruth said. “And in mapping that out we discussed finishing high school and getting through college.”

The first step was to get Caruth set up with iRacing, a computer-based racing simulation that allows members to experience being behind the wheels of real cars while driving on some of the world’s most prominent tracks. In 2018, his first year of iRacing, Caruth estimates that he ran as many as 500 races on his home set-up and even made the playoffs in one of the leagues.

As Caruth honed his skills on iRacing, Roger Caruth explored the costs of renting a race car at the tracks closest to Washington (Richmond Raceway, Dover International Speedway and South Boston Raceway are all within a four-hour drive). Caruth, meanwhile, applied for a spot in the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Youth Development program in 2019.

Eight young drivers traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, to compete, with Caruth earning one of the four spots and the right to race legend cars (5/8-scale fiberglass full-fendered versions of the famed NASCAR modified cars, with speeds at his level of racing approaching 70 mph) last summer as part of Rev Racing, a NASCAR-supported racing team that was launched with the goal of developing female and minority drivers.

He was finally racing real cars on big tracks in NASCAR-sponsored races.

“It was an adjustment, and the iRacing really helped me with having quick hands, which is necessary with the difficulty of how hard legend cars are to drive,” Caruth said. “The biggest challenges were my visual cues and my peripheral because I was used to looking at a smaller computer screen that was right in front of me. I had to learn to not be so narrow-visioned, and to fully view my proximity to other cars and being close to walls.”

Caruth performed so well in the youth program that he was encouraged to apply for the 2020 NASCAR Drive for Diversity Driver Development Program. Of the nearly 100 applications, 10 were selected to compete in October 2019 in a two-day combine at Daytona International Speedway and New Smyrna Speedway that included assessments on fitness, marketing/media skills and driving late-model stock cars — regular-sized cars that were bigger and faster than the legend cars he had driven earlier in the year. Six drivers would move on.

“At the end, it was clear there was a clear top three and that numbers four and five — which I thought included Rajah — was debatable,” said Roger Caruth, who admitted to being consumed with nerves as he watched his son through the combine, especially as he spun out in one of his laps.

A month later, NASCAR announced Caruth had earned one of the six spots, becoming the only driver to advance to the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Program with only an iRacing background and no real-world driving experience.

“Getting the news was awesome,” Caruth said. “Honestly, I felt the big cars were easier to drive than the legend cars because of the power steering, weight distribution and power. I felt really comfortable.”

NASCAR officials are excited to have Caruth continue with the program for a second year. “He was really impressive coming out of that combine, given his level of experience,” said Hamilton, the NASCAR race director who also manages the Drive for Diversity Program from the NASCAR side. “We expect to see him continue up the ranks at the beginning level, challenge for wins and make a steady progression.”

Caruth, who has been embraced by the NASCAR community and says he has not experienced racism in the sport, is eager to get started. He’ll just have to wait a while longer.

Rajah Caruth getting ready to race.

Courtesy of Micah Jackson (Rev Racing)

“It’s discouraging in a way because I was really excited to start the season,” Caruth said. “I’ve been spending some of my time with iRacing, and keeping sharp on that platform is all most of us can do right now.”

Caruth is also preparing to attend Winston-Salem State University in the fall where he’ll study motorsport management at the historically black university. And perhaps he’ll find time to get his driver’s license, too.

“That’s something I’m going to need,” Caruth said. “When I get to college, I’m not going to be able to rely on someone to drive me around.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.