Kickin' It With Paulie: Pre-Martinsville Edition
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It’s been a long break for the Camping World Truck Series drivers and teams since the season opener at Daytona. But for Paulie Harraka, finishing up his college career at Duke University the break has been more like “business as usual.” In between classes, he sewed up a sponsor deal with MC 10 for Martinsville, did testing for the upcoming race and… spoke at a prestigious MIT conference? Not the type of itinerary you hear from your usual NASCAR driver, especially one that’s on Spring Break from school.
In the second edition of our Harraka diary, we talk about his bumpy start to the season, all the busyness that followed and find out what he thinks about Duke’s “one and done” system, among other topics.
Let’s start with Daytona. Can you describe what happened in that accident that left you simply trying to survive the rest of the race.
Going into Daytona, there are a lot of unexpected things. We were in just the wrong place in the wrong time, being in the middle of three-wide as you come off the banking and off of four. I gave the truck on the inside of me plenty of room, and I should have actually crowded him a little bit more, so I had more air on the right side of my truck. Lesson learned. A lot of it is feel; no one can explain to you to get the air taken off of you until you’ve felt it a few times. So, you’ve just got to feel it.
From the driver’s perspective, describe what it’s like to run around a track like Daytona at less than maximum speed. Could you still learn anything after your crash?
It’s certainly not fun. You’re just out there making laps and fighting for all you can fight for from a positions perspective. You’re still out there working hard, trying to get as many spots as you can. But when the damage is extensive enough so that you can’t contend for the win anymore, it hampers your day. And you can’t really learn anything anymore, even as a rookie.
What’s your routine after a bad finish as opposed to a good one? Does it change?
I have a pretty steady routine that doesn’t change whether we win or crash in qualifying. But as far as leaving a bad day at the racetrack, I’m the type of driver who wants to understand. It’s behind me now, but I had to watch the tape a few times, and talk to Johnny Benson about it and make sure it doesn’t happen again. So, it took a little while to get it behind me but it’s certainly behind me now.
What did Johnny (a former Truck Series champion) have to say?
We just talked about the air around the truck and stuff like that. Johnny was with us at Daytona and he’ll be with us in Martinsville. It’s great to have him. I’m a driver that – I’m not one to just jump in the race truck and simply run as hard as I can. I really want to understand the race truck, and I feel like the better I understand the truck and the series, the better I’ll do and the better I’ll communicate with Richie. So in this case, I have somebody like Johnny, who is a driver that understands the technical side of the sport. Obviously, he has had a tremendous amount of success, too, especially in the Camping World Truck Series, so Johnny working with me, even if for just a weekend to teach me some of the finer points of these trucks and these tires and this aero platform is really helpful. It helps accelerate my learning curve.
With such a large gap between races, what are the types of things you and your team have done to stay fresh?
I was so busy. I missed being out of the race car for sure – I would like to be in the race car if I could – but there’s a lot going on. We announced a new sponsor, a new marketing partner with MC 10. We’ve got so much cool stuff going on, plus I’m still at Duke so I’ve just been plenty busy.
We just did a little bit of testing with our Wauters Motorsports team, and I went to pit practice with my guys.
Did we learn anything about who’s strong in the Camping World Series championship at Daytona? Or is it such an outlier it’s hard to take anything away from it?
Daytona is a huge race, and it’s one we all work really hard to win. But ultimately, when you look at that track, there are a lot of ways to prepare for Daytona that require a tremendous amount of resources. And ultimately, in racing you have to decide if Daytona is worth those resources; or, do you want to allot those resources to short tracks, or intermediates, or places we go to a lot more.
For us, we came to Daytona wanting to win and we worked hard. But we’ve kept our focus on our short track and intermediate programs because that’s where we do the bulk of our racing.
A rookie winning that race… did that surprise you?
It’s great for John. I was too busy with my own stuff to know what was going on – I actually didn’t find out until the next day who won the race – but I’m really happy for him.
Since we last talked, NASCAR ratings have continued to drop at the Sprint Cup level this season. What, if anything, does the sport need to do at that level to drum up more fan interest?
Well, listen the Daytona 500 was also the second most-watched race in history, and the highest on FOX [in terms of number of people]. So you can write a completely different, polar opposite, story, depending on what race you pick. I think sometimes focusing on one event is not a fair indicator.
I think, at a macro level people just overfocus on what the Nielsen numbers are. You look at the sport, there are so many great storylines. You look at how many different winners there have been in the Nationwide Series, you look at Brian Vickers almost winning Bristol – there are so many amazing storylines and so many cool things going on right now, more of the focus should be paid towards that.
Let’s talk about Duke and the NCAA Tournament. Describe your feelings about the game and how you would gauge the season following the loss to Lehigh.
I got a call the morning after the Duke game from [NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Director] Wayne Auton. And Wayne’s quote was, “Ain’t Lehigh a high school?”
That pretty much sums it up. It was just disappointing. Nobody expected Duke to lose that early, and I don’t think anybody expected Missouri to lose, let alone both of them to lose in the same day. I think that’s the first time in NCAA history that’s ever happened.
I thought the Blue Devils would go a lot further than they did. I didn’t know if they could handle Kentucky, but stuff happens, right? I think they still accomplished a lot. When you look at the team, they exceeded expectations in a lot of ways. They had a young and inexperienced team, and to be ranked as high as we were in the AP and USA Today rankings, that was a surprise. Did I think we would go further? Yeah. But at the same time, you have to keep expectations realistic.
Austin Rivers is expected to declare for the NBA Draft after just one season. As an athlete who’s able to make money going to school, how do you feel about the “one and done” atmosphere that’s permeated college basketball?
Personally, I don’t know what went into Austin’s decision to go. That said, when you look at the macro Coach K’s teams have produced more graduates than most other programs. Ultimately, it’s collegiate athletics and players have the option to opt out. I think the NFL and the NFL Players’ Union has a little better system that strongly encourages players to stay in college and play through a college career rather than a “one and done.“ That works well for them.
You know, I will say collegiate athletics is ultimately about developing school spirit and pride. And that can be really hard to do when you have athletes that only stay for a year.
“What’s the toughest racetrack you’ve ever run on, in any car? What makes it so tough?” – Maggie Jones, Raleigh, NC
I would say probably the toughest racetrack I’ve ever been to is Miller Motorsports Park in Salt Lake City, Utah. I ran a K&N Pro Series West car there, and I love that place. I love it because it’s so tough. From a driver’s perspective, there is every type of corner you can imagine. Lefts, rights, S-turns, hairpins, sweepers, transitions. You name it, it’s got ‘em. It’s challenging because you have to take kind of a different mindset into each corner. That said, that’s what makes it fun because you can really outdrive somebody there. You can have a 10th-place car but drive up to fifth or even contend for a win there. That’s what makes the challenging tracks in general my favorites.
The toughest corner at Miller is probably the corner getting onto the front straightaway because it’s just so, so critical. You hit that perfectly. It’s a tight, tight hairpin and you’re switching back into lefthander, you’re coming out of a righthander. So it’s really hard to get your entry lined up right, and then you have to get your car turned very quickly so you can get back to the throttle, because that’s a particularly long straightaway.
Every time we went to Miller, we finished in the top 3. So I had a great time at that track.
WHAT’S HOT / WHAT’S NOT IN PAULIE’S WORLD
HOT: So I made the cardinal mistake of going north and cold for Spring Break. I actually spent my time in Boston and New York, but had a blast. I spoke at a conference at MIT, went to a Celtics – Rockets game, went to a concert with my best friend, went out in New York City with some friends. I had a good time and really did enjoy it.
Martinsville is hot in my world right now. I’m anxious to get back in the seat; we tested at Ace Speedway to get geared up and ready for it and that went well. That’s what I’m looking forward to most, is getting back in the truck and going racing again.
NOT: Basketball. I probably won’t watch any of the Final Four games because, as far as I’m concerned basketball season ended two weeks ago.
OK, well one thing that stands out to me… the conference at MIT. Not that many students would say they spent Spring Break doing that; can you tell us a little bit more about it?
Yes, MIT has an annual Sloan Sports Analytics conference. It was really cool because I get to speak alongside some heavy hitters. Michael Wilbon from ESPN, Daryl Morey, GM of the Houston Rockets, Steve Tisch of the New York Giants, the management from the New Orleans Saints. It was a few pro athletes, too. I had the opportunity to go speak there and talk about some NASCAR stuff. It was an opportunity I jumped at and a lot of fun.
What are the keys to a successful weekend at Martinsville and why?
From everybody I’ve talked to, and I’m trying to soak in as much information as I can it sounds like certainly qualifying up front and getting on and off pit road well is really important. It’s a place where the easiest way to gain spots is that. Hit your marks, do everything right on pit road and in qualifying is important. Then, being in the Truck under green a lot of guys get a little antsy because we’re running so tight early on. You need to stay disciplined for the first half of the race, then be in position and have enough Truck left to go for it at the end.