November 12, 2012
By Rebecca Gladden
A question I've been asking NASCAR team owners lately concerns the characteristics they look for in a young prospect. Specifically, would they rather have a driver who grew up with laser-like focus on his racing accomplishments, or one with a balanced background that includes varied experiences outside of racing?
The answers I've gotten so far have all favored the well-rounded approach, especially given the current state of the sport, where sponsor appeal is a huge part of the racing equation.
The embodiment of that philosophy is 23-year-old Paulie Harraka. The New Jersey native made his second Nationwide Series start this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, where he qualified 23rd and finished 21st. He has also run 11 Camping World Truck Series races this year with a best finish of 17th (Dover and Kentucky).
I spoke with Harraka one-on-one at Octane Raceway in Phoenix Friday night, where he was participating in a charity event benefitting St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank. The event featured a meet-and-greet with Harraka, along with NASCAR drivers Joe Nemecheck and Dexter Stacey.
Teams of race fans competed Friday night in the Phoenix International Raceway Pit Crew Challenge at Octane Raceway. The fastest pit crew (shown here) received tickets to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at PIR, Octane Raceway annual memberships, and other Octane goodies.
A six-time World Karting Champion and former NASCAR Drive for Diversity participant, Harraka is a recent graduate of North Carolina's prestigious Duke University, where he studied engineering, sports psychology, leadership and business. He has already interned in R&D at Joe Gibbs Racing and worked in corporate marketing for NASCAR.
Friday's event benefitted a Phoenix-area food bank, but Harraka has consistently demonstrated a commitment to giving back as a Celebrity Ambassador for Childhelp, a Scottsdale-based national nonprofit. "I wanted to work with a foundation that helps abused, neglected, and at-risk kids," he told me. "I started looking into different foundations and was really struck by Childhelp and the depth and breadth of the different programs that they have. It really is an impressive foundation. We reached out to them and started talking, and one thing led to another. We actually have them on the car this weekend. You try to do whatever you can to help out."
Like many drivers I spoke to this weekend, Harraka was quick to list Phoenix Raceway as one of his favorite tracks on the NASCAR circuit. "I've gotten to race at Phoenix before. This is my first Nationwide race here, but I've raced a lot here in the K&N Pro Series West cars and it's one of my favorite tracks in the country. Phoenix is so unique. Being a mile long and having the banking that it does, it has all the good points of a short track and a lot of the good points of a speedway. It's really one of my favorite tracks to go to and there's really nothing quite like the event that they put on in Phoenix -- the rows upon rows of motorhomes and people -- it's like one giant festival. I love coming here and I'm really grateful to have the opportunity to drive the mc10 Ford Mustang."
Harraka's sponsor, Massachusetts-based mc10, uses high-performance integrated circuits that stretch, twist and expand during use. "The applications for mc10's flexible and stretchable electronics are extremely broad," Harraka said. "One of the things we're utilizing is a device that will measure impacts to the head and will put out an alert if you sustain an impact that is significant enough to warrant further screening for a possible concussion. That technology has broad applications across a lot of sports. (Concussions) get a lot of attention in football, but recently we've heard a lot about it in our sport. There are a lot of applications for our driver safety. The applications for the technology are huge and the things you can do with it in motorsports are extensive."
Harraka has been testing various mc10 devices in NASCAR races this year, including a product designed to optimize hydration, minimize fatigue, and deliver peak athletic performance during competition.
While gaining valuable seat time in NASCAR this year, Harraka has benefitted from the experience of veteran driver and former Truck Series champion Ted Musgrave, who has served as his spotter in a number of races. "Having Ted is just fantastic. He's been there and seen everything multiple times. Just having him be able to say, 'Hey, have you thought about this, or let's think about that, or in this scenario this usually happens.' For him to provide that information for me is huge."
Harraka's plans for 2013 remain up in the air and he is actively seeking a full-time ride and additional sponsors. "We're working on a few different things with Ted Musgrave, my coach and spotter, just talking about what our priorities are for next year, what we hope to accomplish, and what we have to work with. We've talked to a lot of different teams and looked at a few different options for what might be the best thing next year."
Fans can follow Paulie on twitter at @paulieharraka.
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