Paulie Harraka brings a different kind of diversity to NASCAR
In Paulie Harraka, NASCAR has found a completely different candidate for its Drive for Diversity program, writes Ed Hinton.
SOUTH BOSTON, Va. -- Paulie Harraka is a meteor that hasn't hit your lawn yet. A bullet train headed down your driveway.
If Paulie were a hurricane, he'd be Category 3 and building, projected to be a Cat 5 by the time he makes landfall.
"'If Paulie doesn't make it in racing, he can always run for president of the United States,'" team owner Bill McAnally says NASCAR president Mike Helton told him recently.
There's plenty of time for the Oval Office to be Paulie's safety net, because you have to be 35 years old to occupy it. Paulie is 19.
Paulie is of the very last minority I expected to find at NASCAR's Drive for Diversity scouting combine this week. "Harraka" is a Syrian name, but that's just the technicality that qualified him for the Drive for Diversity.
Paulie really represents America's tiniest minority: the super-intellectual, overachieving dynamos of energy from the elite universities, the Ivy League schools, M.I.T., Stanford and, in Paulie's case, Duke, where he's a freshman.
Paulie's type is always headed for heights unknown, but usually in government, science, economics, big business
"I love this sport," he says. "I love everything about it. I love engineering. I love the business side of it. I'm double majoring at Duke in mechanical engineering as well as public policy to get some of the business side of it."
Paulie said that in five seconds. Paulie talks so fast, with such authority, you figure he could get a Shakespearean soliloquy into a sound bite.
The brightest hope thus far produced by the Drive for Diversity is Marc Davis, the 18-year-old African-American driver at Joe Gibbs Racing who is knocking on the door of the Truck series for next year, and will make his Nationwide Series debut for JGR at Memphis on Oct. 25.
Paulie, of Fair Lawn, N.J., is the second biggest hope out of "D4D," as NASCAR people call it in their shorthand.
This year Paulie became the first driver in the five-year history of the program to win a track championship, with 11 late-model victories at All-American Speedway in northern California.
You'd think Duke, located in Durham, N.C., would be the perfect location for Paulie to go to college and pursue a NASCAR career at the same time.
McAnally, based in Antelope, Calif., plans to run Paulie full-time in the Camping World West series in 2009, so Paulie's going to run up an awful lot of plane tickets that read RDU-SFO-RDU -- Raleigh-Durham to San Francisco and back -- on a weekly basis.
Won't that be too much for even Paulie, transcontinental commuting while studying at one of America's toughest universities?
"It's got to be tough, but again, he's Paulie Harraka," says McAnally, whose own résumé includes running the developmental program for current Cup star Clint Bowyer. "That kid can do most anything."
While in high school, Paulie worked two summer internships at Evernham Motorsports and a 13-month internship at Joe Gibbs Racing. He was befriended by Benny Parsons, whom he came to call "Uncle Benny."
"One day before he passed away we were talking and I said, 'Uncle Benny, if you could only have one, the Daytona 500 or the Cup championship' -- he'd won both -- 'which would you pick?'" Paulie says. "And he said, 'The Daytona 500.'
"So, I guess that's what my eye's on right now. And I want to be the first Sprint Cup champion who's also graduated from Duke."
Duke annually rejects plenty of kids with perfect SAT scores and dazzling résumés. So, which is tougher, Paulie, getting to Cup level, or getting into Duke?
"Getting into Cup may be a tick tougher," he says. "At Duke, you can lay it all out on paper. You can say, 'Hey, I've done this, I've done that, this is my GPA, these are my extracurriculars, I was president of this.' You can lay it out. Getting to Cup level, you've got to have all that, plus you've got to have the right breaks. You gotta have it all."
"Paulie's definitely got the talent, he's got the drive, he's got the passion," says McAnally. "But the most important thing about Paulie is he's willing to pay the dues. He's willing to take it one hurdle at a time."
He had raced go-karts since childhood, but when McAnally took him two years ago, "he couldn't shift a four-speed transmission," says the owner. "In '07, we didn't win a race with him."
But he learned every element from the ground up: "He was under the car, all over the car, he wanted to see the car on the scales you look at pictures from Victory Lane, he's always the dirtiest one on the team."
Even now, "I'll get e-mails at one o'clock in the morning from him: 'You know, I was thinking if we changed that first gear a little bit, it'd be a lot better on a restart.'
"His wheels are always turning."
In Paulie Harraka, NASCAR might be getting a kind of diversity it never imagined at the outset of D4D, which was intended, says program head Marcus Jadotte, "to create opportunities for kids who otherwise might not have them."
Paulie is the kind of kid of kid who'll make his own breaks, kick down his own doors. He doesn't necessarily need the Drive for Diversity. But that's exactly the way America's whiz kids get where they get -- working the system at every angle, every technicality, taking every little opportunity they find.
The D4D's intent, in spirit, was aimed more at drivers such as combine participant Kristen Bumbera, 21, of Houston, who became the first D4D female driver to win a feature race, two in fact, also at All-American Speedway or 19-year-old, African-American driver Michael Cherry of Tampa, who finished fourth in points and was rookie of the year at Motor Mile Speedway in Virginia this summer
That was the intent. But the rules are the rules. Female and minority drivers. Even the whiz-kid minority, if technically the ethnic minority.
When will the Drive for Diversity finally produce a full-time Cup or even Nationwide driver?
"Give Paulie Harraka three years," says McAnally.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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