NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Paulie Harraka Diary #1

Nice little intro here

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OK, first question. It’s a simple one: How would you describe yourself? And why do you race?

I am… the most competitive person you will ever meet. Everything, everything in my life is a competition. I always want to be better, always thinking of how I can make stuff better. In conjunction with that, I’m an adrenaline junkie. And when you combine those two things, I guess you get a racecar driver. Richie (Wauters owner/crew chief) and I, we get along really well because we’re both always thinking about how to make cars go faster. The wheels are always turning.

When I get in the racecar, I love it. I love, even over the course of a run figuring out how we get ourselves positioned right. Figuring out where this truck wants to be. Figuring out how to win races.

Tell me how a Duke graduate came to find this opportunity.

I think it was more of a racecar driver ending up at Duke than a Duke kid ending up at NASCAR. But I got to the end of my high school career and had the grades to go wherever I wanted to, but also had a racing career that was going really well. I had to make a decision and at that point, in 2008 I decided it would be best for me to go to Duke. It ended up working really well because it helped differentiate me from other drivers. And I always looked at Duke as a way to augment my racing career. Not as a backup plan, but as something that could augment it. Whether that would be the unique branding platform that it gives me, whether it’s the alumni network, the classes that I take, all these things…

So far, so good. I’m in my last semester, it’s been a lot of work traveling back and forth to California, running for Bill McAnally in the K&N West Series and doing all the things that were required to make both of those two work, we made happen. But ultimately, when you get two opportunities like that, driving racecars and going to Duke, you don’t pass either up. So I made that happen, climbed through the ladder with Bill, ran the All-American Series, won the championship in that. Ran the Pro Series West, won a bunch of races in that. Obviously, the Truck Series is the next ladder in my progression. And Richie and I started talking over the winter, late November and realized, really quickly that we think the same way and we want to do things the same way. One thing led to another, we went and tested at Rockingham, the test went really well and… here we are.

Now, a lot of people say that “smart,” in an intellectual sense and NASCAR don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Prove them wrong.

I’m not a type to sit and talk Shakespeare with somebody. I don’t know anything about it. I don’t care. But for me, it’s about how I can use a Duke education, or any education to make me a better competitor. To understand the racecar better, to communicate with my crew chief better, to give more value to my sponsors, to do whatever it takes at the end of the day to make race cars go faster.

What is something you’ve learned in class that has helped you on the racetrack.

I think it’s engineering courses. And you can take that engineering knowledge, and understand the physics and chemical engineering that’s what makes these racecars go. When I was in the West Series, and the All-American Series, I built all my own shock absorbers. It’s that knowledge, understanding the physics behind it that enables you to do that. And while I don’t plan to build my own shocks in the Truck Series, having that understanding of how shocks work, what they do, the details of how they function not just from an operational perspective but from a big picture of the race car perspective, enables me to communicate better with Richie.

What’s the reaction been when you meet somebody for the first time on campus and they find out you’re a NASCAR driver?

Well, a lot of people know about it. Those that don’t, they always think it’s really cool and they’re really interested in it because it’s unique. I’m unique in the NASCAR community because I’m a Duke student; I’m unique in the Duke community because I’m a NASCAR driver. And everybody thinks the other is cool. I can’t tell you how many people in the garage make comments about it because everybody here knows that I go to Duke and I’m a huge basketball fan. Mason Plumley’s actual jersey is in my locker right now. Not like an off the shelf Mason jersey… because Mason is a good friend of mine, and he’s number 5, and we’re number 5, so Mason sent me his jersey to use for a farce.

That’s awesome. How did you get to know Mason?

Just randomly, we became buddies, good friends. He’s a fantastic guy. I think athletes have a similar mindset; we all congregate in some ways. I think a lot of my friends at Duke are athletes of basketball, soccer, lacrosse, whatever teams. But being a race car driver at that university makes me unique. And for people, they think it’s cool.

OK, let’s move onto the 2012 season. Every rookie sets personal goals as to what they want to accomplish throughout the year. What are yours?

Certainly, I’ve got a lot of experience to get. Almost every racetrack we go to, it will be my first time racing there. That puts a big learning curve in front of me. I’ve got a veteran crew chief to help me do that; Johnny Benson is here with us at Daytona to help me through that. That said, I only race for one reason and that’s to win. That’s always my goal. If I ever don’t come to the racetrack to win, I need to not come to the racetrack. So for us, we want to win Rookie of the Year. We want to win races this year. We think we’re more than capable of doing it; we expect it.

But is it hard to move up in a series and change your mindset? What I mean by that is any talented rookie, no matter how good they are, will get to a new track and know by the end of practice they don’t have the “ability” – whether it’s equipment, inexperience or otherwise – to win there.

But the approach is always the same about the race. Learning as much as I can about the racetrack, learning as much as I can about the racecar. Figuring out what we need to do to win. Is it one thing to go to All-American Speedway, where I’ve won 11 races in Late Models and two K&N Pro Series West races? Yeah, it’s a little different than going to Daytona or Martinsville for the first time. I don’t have that knowledge base to draw off of.

But, the preparation and the mindset is still the same. For me, that’s “We’re going to a racetrack. We’re going to do the best we can, and we need to learn and improve all weekend long; whatever the net result is, the net result is.”

Now, with Daytona, the draft is what makes or breaks you. As a rookie, you’re out there for the first time with some of these guys. How do you prove you’re worth working with in the draft?

I think everybody looks for two things: they want to work with somebody who’s fast, and they want to work with somebody who’s smart. The fast thing, I think Richie’s got covered. And the smart thing, I’ve got some ARCA experience to draw off of. Am I Ron Hornaday? No. Have I done this a bunch of times, have I won this race a bunch of times like Todd Bodine has? No. But, you go out there, you don’t put yourself out there in compromising positions, you don’t put your competitors in compromising positions. You go out there, run your race in a smart way for the first half and show guys, “Hey, we’re for real.”

CURRENT EVENTS

Alright, so for NCAA Basketball we’ve got the big tournament coming up, but already Duke has played a few close games of its own. The second one with North Carolina didn’t work out, but the first… can you explain your feelings surrounding the last-second win? How do you feel the basketball team, and Austin Rivers in particular has played this season?

I think that game was fantastic. The comeback win, and to be that far down and see us rally was something else. My roommates and I, some other friends were watching at my apartment and we were so excited. We were going crazy, everybody in our apartment complex was going crazy. Me and one of my buddies ended up going back to campus, because there was a bunch of stuff going on as the players arrived back – UNC is only 15 minutes away – and it was a blast. It was a really fun night. And the whole Duke basketball atmosphere… we’re a basketball school. It’s what we are. And there’s a tremendous amount of school spirit pride behind that. And it adds to it when there’s friends on the team.

Now you mentioned you’re good friends with Mason. How well do you know the team?

No, I know a few of the different guys. Some of them I’ve never met, some I don’t know. I know both Mason and Miles Plumley, Seth Curry. A decent number of guys. And Coach K is the man. I’ve had the privilege of spending a little bit of time with Coach, getting to know him and he’s a fantastic guy and a fantastic role model. The way he runs his life and his basketball program is something that everybody could learn from.

FAN QUESTION

Growing up, did you follow a driver in particular on the NASCAR circuit? And now that you’re in the “Big Leagues,” have you gotten a chance to meet them? Were they everything you thought they would be? – Shannon, Ann Arbor, Michigan

So, growing up I was a Ricky Rudd fan. And Ricky and I became friends and ended up racing together. Mark Dismore, the former Daytona 24-Hour winner, built a road course for go karts out in Indiana and they have a big 200-lap race there every year. It’s a big deal, and it draws all the big “open-wheel” guys. It takes at least two drivers to do it, you make pit stops – the whole nine yards. And Ricky and I did that race together. We shared a car competing against Dan Wheldon, Tomas Scheckter, all the IndyCar names who run this race. Leonard Wood, Ricky had just stopped driving for the Wood Brothers at the time, built us a refueling rig so we had some of the fastest pit stops of anybody. And, long story short we ended up taking the lead during the second stint and ended up winning that race. Lapped almost the entire field. From that point, Ricky and I have remained friends and we still talk on the phone all the time. He’s even going to be analyzing me on SPEED this year! Picking me apart for the whole world to hear (laughs).

WHAT’S HOT / WHAT’S NOT IN PAULIE’S WORLD

This Month’s Topic: NCAA Tournament

What Team Scares You For Duke Heading In? At this point, where our basketball program is, I don’t know if there are any teams that “scare” me. There’s always those that pop up in the tournament you never would have thought would be good. You had Butler the last two years, and then you had everybody talking about VCU as the new Butler last year. I don’t know if there are any schools out there like that right now, but nobody saw them in the Final Four.

So that’s the biggest thing the last two things have taught us: you don’t know what underdog is going to steal the big school’s thunder, like Duke and Syracuse and Kentucky. It seems like a tiny little school always comes out of nowhere; so let’s see who that might be. I think it is cool where you get this underdog, nobody really thought about them kind of teams and suddenly they’re in the Final Four and you go, “Where did they come from?”

What Team Doesn’t Scare You? Well, I think Florida State, having beat UNC and beat Duke, was somebody that I was kind of like, “Uh oh.” But not anymore.

The Duke – North Carolina Rivalry. How special is it for you, and have you ever done something special to celebrate it?

Well, the rivalry is so big because we’re so close. And I have friends at Carolina, and you’ll see Carolina kids at Duke because we’re so close. I even had a girlfriend that went to North Carolina. It wasn’t during basketball season, thankfully. But that rivalry makes it so cool, that much more fun to go to school there because Duke and Carolina kids are generally, in the “big picture” friends but obviously fierce, fierce rivals during basketball season. It makes it that much more fun.

Duke has all kinds of traditions around the Carolina game. When we beat Carolina or win the national championship, we have these big benches on campus: I’m talking 10 feet tall by 25 feet wide, wood. And we burn benches on campus and there are some really cool traditions around that. When we won the national championship, I was on campus and one of my best friends and I had gone to Cameron and we’re sitting there, watching the game inside Cameron. And obviously, it was crazy because Cameron was just packed with student. The whole arena was just packed with students, going nuts… when you’ve got rivalries like that, they just add to the mystique of the basketball program. When so many people are behind the program, it makes it so much fun.

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