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How 20-year-old HBCU student Rajah Caruth went from virtual racing to NASCAR

Rajah Caruth

In February for Black History Month, USA TODAY Sports is publishing the series “28 Black Stories in 28 Days.” We examine the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials continue to face after the nation’s reckoning on race following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. This is the third installment of the series.

The first time Rajah Caruth climbed behind the wheel of a race car, he knew nothing about it would be easy.

A rising senior at a Washington, D.C. high school in the summer of 2019, his only racing experience was on a virtual track with his iRacing rig. He wasn’t scared but had no idea what to expect, and he certainly wasn’t prepared for the physicality his virtual world could never fully simulate.

He instantly felt the pressure and vibrations in his hips, chest and legs, initially struggling to merge his iRacing experience with his novice on-track skills. On a real-life track, the stakes are exponentially higher.

“You have a reset button on [iRacing], so there’s almost zero consequences for crashing,” Caruth says. “Versus in real life, you slip a tire at one point or place your vehicle in a spot it shouldn’t be in, it’s game over.”

He doesn’t come from a family of racers with NASCAR ties. The Caruth family’s D.C. home is about 100 miles from the nearest NASCAR track. His parents work in academia and stressed education, despite college not being a priority for some aspiring racers, many of whom begin competing before they’re teenagers.

But Caruth’s fixation on NASCAR and becoming a professional driver only grew as he did. Already an avid student of the sport, Caruth kept digging.

Now, the 20-year-old racer and Winston-Salem State junior, who had zero NASCAR or racing experience just five years ago, made his full-time debut in the third-tier NASCAR Truck Series on Friday at Daytona International Speedway. In a rain-shortened race with more laps under caution than a green flag, Caruth got loose and crashed on Lap 58 for a 29th-place finish.

Caruth, piloting the No. 24 Chevrolet for GMS Racing, is in an exclusive club with Cup Series driver William Byron, believed to be the only other driver who traversed the rare but conceivable route of converting simulated racing into a NASCAR career.

‘I want to be a race car driver’

Rajah Caruth is a “Cars” kid. His racing curiosity was piqued as a toddler with his first glimpse of Lightning McQueen before evolving into a full-blown motorsports obsession.

“Racing was always it for me,” Caruth tells me in the lobby of a downtown Los Angeles hotel ahead of NASCAR’s Clash at the Coliseum earlier this month.

Dressed in all black with a Chevy pullover and Chicago colorway Air Jordan 1s, he’s reserved, at first, but it only takes a couple minutes for his charismatic personality to burst through. He seems to shed initial signs of fatigue from his coast-to-coast flight earlier that day, each response becoming more animated and detailed. He’s just excited to talk racing.

He’s got an air of coolness about him, though he’s quick to admit even he has no idea how he’s balancing his fledgling career with his motorsports management major — four classes a term, all in person, while getting all As and Bs for the first time last semester, he says. But his parents insisted he have a backup plan.

Entranced by the cars and their speed, he was the kid who coaxed his family into planning Sundays after church around NASCAR races. Especially the Daytona 500, Sunday’s Cup Series season opener. He’d douse his Diecast cars in Wite-Out to create his own customized paint schemes and endlessly studied racing on YouTube. Motorsports even made its way into school projects, as he idolized Wendell Scott, the first Black driver to win a Cup race in 1963, and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

When he saw NASCAR up close for the first time on a surprise family trip to Richmond Raceway when he was 12, his zeal intensified. NASCAR, especially at the 0.75-mile short track, blitzes the senses with deafening engines and the lingering smell of burnt rubber.

“Everything just seemed so infectious,” Caruth recalls. “From that point forward, it was like, I want to be a race car driver.”

iRacing, he thought, was going to help him get there. So as a rising high school junior in 2018, he shifted his focus.

Juggling school, basketball and track, plus a summer job, Caruth and his family fundraised for an iRacing rig. Every spare second he had was spent in that seat, teaching himself to be a better racer.

“That was my only shot,” he says.

And it worked.

iRacing launches on-track career

Caruth subscribes to the idea that you get out of iRacing what you put in. Treat it like a professional craft to master, not a video game, and you could end up with professional results. But making it to NASCAR requires more than that. Opportunity and financial support are necessities, and he needed to maximize iRacing to procure each piece.

The summer he turned 16, he was racing online for the first time in the eNASCAR Ignite Series, and his rapid improvements elevated him into NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program the next year as the first participant with a majority-iRacing background.

Through the program, which NASCAR estimates has about 80 alumni, and help from Max Siegel’s Rev Racing team, Caruth was finally behind the wheel of a real race car. The following season in 2020, he won his first Late Model race at South Carolina’s Greenville-Pickens Speedway.

He went from iRacing to Legends to Late Models and ARCA, and after just four years, he made his NASCAR debut with seven Xfinity and four Truck races, all in 2022.

“That program gives you the leniency to develop and make mistakes, for the most part, and grow into your abilities and who you are as a person,” he says.

In his third Xfinity start, he made an unfortunate error, crashing on Lap 2 and taking out another driver. He says veterans — Bubba Wallace, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Austin Dillon among them — were quick to reach out. They know the learning curve is almost insurmountable, but they also recognize significant potential in young drivers, says Brandon Thompson, NASCAR’s VP of diversity and inclusion.

“I’ve gotten that same text from drivers or from team owners or whoever it may be, like, ‘Hey, we’ve all been there,’” Wallace says. “The biggest thing you can do, though, is make sure you don’t do that again because that means you’ve learned from it. … I’ll go to his ass on certain things, but I keep it real with him.”

Adapting to real cars and real-world haters

Making the jump from virtual to real-life racing was hardly seamless, Caruth remembers.

iRacing feeds drivers an abundance of information, and simulators are a common tool for the best of the best. But the virtual world can’t simulate all the physical sensations from a real car and track. It can be overwhelming.

He had to shake his bad habits, like toning down the aggression, not oversteering and not smashing the gas and destroying his rear tires. He reminds himself to be more present with his actual race car.

“I can’t be on 10 all the time,” he jokes.

He’s extra hard on himself, especially when, at first, the real-life results weren’t there. He describes 2019 and 2020 as “a pretty tumultuous” time.

Even as he adapted to real cars and tracks, confidence eluded him. So he turned to his family for guidance and began therapy last year, saying the combination led him to a turning point in the past six months as he released some of his self-inflicted pressure.

“I’ve kind of learned to give myself grace,” Caruth says. “You’ve got to hold yourself accountable, but you cannot have negative self-talk.”

Not all the attention the rising star has gained is positive, though. He faces misinformed stigmas about starting in iRacing and seizing his Drive for Diversity opportunity as a young Black man breaking into a predominantly white sport with an ugly, racist history.

Both factors fuel his haters, Caruth says, despite NASCAR progressing to be more inclusive and diverse. He’s been booed at races and trolled on social media, leading him to delete the apps from his phone. Just a few weeks ago, during an iRacing event, he recalls a racer he passed a couple times chirping at him afterward: “‘Everybody knows how you got your ride.’”

Those comments are “pretty frequent,” Caruth says. And if critics aren’t questioning his credentials as an iRacer, they point to the Drive for Diversity program as giving him an unearned ride, when the program’s goal is quite literally the opposite. Aiming to provide equitable opportunities in motorsports for those historically discriminated against, the program helped launch NASCAR careers for Wallace, Daniel Suárez and Kyle Larson.

Previously the only Black full-time driver in NASCAR, Wallace is, unfortunately, all too familiar with taunts and disingenuous arguments about how he got his Cup ride. Because of that, Wallace, as a mentor and friend, has been able to help Caruth navigate his growing spotlight, encouraging him to tune it all out.

“Bubba has been one of the most helpful to me, not only for on-the-race-track things but … also on a personal level, like understanding the similar things we go through,” Caruth says. “Since I was in Legend cars, it’s been big to have him in my corner.”

Bubba Wallace, left, and Rajah Caruth

By 2021, only about three years after he began iRacing, Caruth’s shot at a full-time NASCAR ride was in sight. But he needed financial support to help him advance from the ARCA racing to the next level: the NASCAR Truck Series.

When Warrick Scott — founder and CEO of the Wendell Scott Foundation honoring his late grandfather — met Caruth at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2021, he asked the young driver what was needed. Simply, help securing sponsors.

“It resonated with me because we’re the family that never got sponsored, and I understood that he would need that help,” says Warrick, seeing Caruth’s potential for global stardom.

Warrick was determined to provide an opportunity that escaped his grandfather, so the Wendell Scott Foundation teamed up with GMS Racing to be Caruth’s primary sponsor for the 2023 season.

With Wendell Scott’s name on the hood of Caruth’s truck more than 60 years after the Hall of Famer’s first NASCAR start, there’s a clear throughline connecting him to Caruth and the future of the sport. For Warrick, the foundation’s investment in Caruth is not hollow; it furthers Wendell’s legacy and posthumously celebrates his career while also offering Caruth the chance to build on the history of Black NASCAR drivers.

“His parents have raised him to be a leader and to be a champion, so that’s my expectation,” Warrick says.

“This is not some type of diversity and inclusion ploy. No, no, no. This is a collaborative effort through strategic partnerships, racing proficiency and internal know-how that we think will create a situation for him to become the best.”

Rajah Caruth climbs from his truck after qualifying for the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

Student of the sport with star-power potential

About five years after he conceived his path to NASCAR, Caruth’s experience with iRacing and on a real track now complement each other.

Even with his full-time Truck Series ride, he says he’ll continue relying on iRacing, not only for reps but also to help prepare him for tracks he’s never raced on, like Circuit of The Americas, where he’ll compete in his first NASCAR road course race in March.

With an insatiable hunger, Caruth studies his own film and that of racers he wants to emulate while drivers, like Wallace, share competitive feedback and push him to utilize the track limits, he says. He’s seemingly always taking notes, perhaps compensating for having only run a few more than 100 races on a real track.

“He’s really a student of the sport trying to hone his craft, and I truly admire the efforts he’s made,” says Johnson, a co-owner of Legacy Motor Club, the sister organization to GMS Racing.

“The interest he’s created in the corporate world and the way he carries himself and conducts himself and his performance on track so far, he has all the ingredients to be a Cup champion.”

One thing clear to anyone watching Caruth race is his speed. His crew chief, Chad Walter, says thanks to iRacing and studying YouTube videos, Caruth is able to share detailed feedback about how the truck is handling in a way drivers twice his age are unable to describe.

“I really don’t want to jinx anything, but success is not as far around the corner as he thinks,” the veteran crew chief said. “It really isn’t.”

Caruth easily rattles off the many areas for improvement but is almost speechless about where he excels — somehow all while exuding confidence. The self-described superhero geek invokes Captain America’s “whatever it takes” Endgame line as his mentality for rising to the Cup Series.

Though guided by others before him, Caruth paved his own way to the NASCAR Truck Series. But he hopes other aspiring drivers, especially children of color, will try to follow him.

Comfortably a member of Gen Z — a demographic the sport needs to engage — NASCAR and those in racing see his star-power potential too. He joined icon Richard Petty, a Legacy Motor Club team ambassador, last month in the Rose Bowl Parade on NASCAR’s 75th anniversary float celebrating the sport’s history and future.

Richard Petty, left, and Rajah Caruth in the 2023 Rose Parade.

“Rajah is in a unique position because he represents both the future of what Cup racing could be one day, but also the present of someone who is experiencing success in the moment,” Thompson says.

“Standing next to someone who has 200 wins and has defined the sport for a generation, having Rajah be there to sort of represent what that next generation of drivers looks like, I think it’s pretty significant.”

He possesses a sophistication unusual for someone who was a teenager last year. He craves Game 7 moments on the track, now trusting his instincts and abilities as he gains invaluable experience. He wants to be the best, ever, in NASCAR, and that, in his eyes, would mean surpassing Johnson.

“I feel like he’s the best of all time,” Caruth says, “and that is who I want to beat one day.”

Source: USA Today