It’s been awhile since we last talked, a number of races so why don’t we go with one: a difficult weekend at Charlotte in mid-May. What did you take away from your race weekend where you crashed, and why?
You know, Charlotte we were running sixth with about 40 or so laps to go. So the good thing is, we were certainly having our best run of the year. In that particular instance, I was bit overaggressive. We were a bit aero tight, and I was trying to get to the front of the pack I was in, because I knew we could drive away from them and I just got a little too aggressive. Totally my fault.
Kasey Kahne mentioned to me at Charlotte his support system is what worked him through the slump he’s been in, a group of 4, 5, 6 close-knit guys that have been with him through it all. Who do you vent to when you’re going through a down period like this one… or do you need to vent to anyone?
It’s a little bit of a mix. Right before I got on the phone with you, I was actually talking to Ricky Rudd. And Ricky went through the list of all the guys at the top of the Cup Series right now and how many cars they wrecked at the start of their careers. That was his way of supporting me, and he said, “Dude, it’s going to happen. It happened to Kyle Busch. It happened to Jeff Gordon.” You can go down a list… it happened to everybody. So definitely having a guy like Ricky imparting those reminders is helpful. And I’ve always got my group of friends, buddies that I can take a step back with and take a bigger approach. Richie and I also talk almost every day about what we can improve on, what we can do better, and how to move forward.
Does a comeback like Kahne’s, over in the Sprint Cup Series give you additional hope you can turn things around quickly in your situation?
I don’t think there was ever a point where I needed to look outside for hope. I believe very strongly in myself. I believe very strongly in my race team. It’s just a matter of time… a matter of me getting enough races under my belt in these trucks and on these racetracks. And then, Richie and I need to keep working together more and more to learn each other better. It’s a matter of… getting more races in, bringing that steady improvement. The results don’t show it, but we’ve improved a lot since the start of the year. Texas will be an opportunity to start to show that… it may be my first time there, but it’s so much like Charlotte. It’s the first time I’m going somewhere and I can say, “I’ve been somewhere close to ‘here’ before.” Daytona, Martinsville, Rockingham, Kansas, Charlotte, Dover… they’re all places that are completely different.
It’s like in the West Series. When I went to Colorado National Speedway for the first time, a 3/8th-mile short track north of Denver we went and qualified on the outside pole and we won the race. Yeah, it was my first time there but we had already been to a bunch of short tracks that weren’t much different.
Take us through what happens when you get involved in a wreck. When you see an impact coming, do you do anything to prepare inside the car? How quickly does an actual crash unfold?
Everything happens super quick. You do everything you can to avoid hitting the wall, to avoid doing a lot of damage. As a driver, you’re driving it up until pretty much the last minute trying not to hit anything. Then, when it becomes inevitable you’re going to hit, you brace yourself somewhat but there’s not a whole lot you can do. It happens, and you hope you don’t bounce into anything. You hope you can keep the car at the top of the racetrack, so it doesn’t slide into traffic, becoming a moving slalom as it goes to the bottom. That’s about all you can do.
The whole thing unfolds in just a few seconds. But there’s a point where you know you’re going to hit. You’re already pissed off as you’re heading into the wall.
Five races in the Truck Series have produced five different winners so far this year. Why has this division in particular produced so much parity?
Well, I think it’s a matter of being a strong series, with a number of strong race teams and drivers. And there’s been a lot of side-by-side racing. It’s a hallmark of the Truck Series; you see a little bit more of it this year because there’s not as many Cup guys jumping in. Obviously, Kyle’s not running any races, Brad and Kevin are running a few… but you don’t see as much of that. It allows the Truck guys to really step up and shine, which is great.
John King got the rug pulled out from under him last week, the No. 7 car pulled due to lack of sponsorship. Your reaction to one of your main ROTY competitors now forced to sit on the sidelines the rest of the year.
It’s really disappointing. You never want to see that happen to somebody. You never want to see a good competitor no longer come to the racetrack. But it’s part of the sport. It’s part of the way things are right now.
Do you ever worry about that type of situation happening to you, even when things are good like with your ride here with Wauters Motorsports?
Well, you just try and hedge and get as far ahead of it as you can. You try and get your funding locked down as early as you can. That’s one of the things that’s gotten me to the Truck Series is thinking really carefully about how we’re going to make the economics work. How are we going to get ahead of things, how are we going to make sure that our funding is certain. I know how John feels, because I sat out all of 2011 and that sucked. I ran two races in 2011, that’s the least number of races I’ve started in a year since 1997. That feeling is no fun for a racecar driver. So I feel for John; it’s not easy.
When you do sit out for a long time, how does that effect your confidence at all? Does it make you wonder, heading to this year’s season opener for example whether you’re going to be a little rusty, if you can still get the job done?
Well, you can’t focus on that. You have to focus on how you can get back into a racecar. If you believe in yourself, and your ability to do it, you step up when you get in the racecar. It’s just a matter of getting the opportunity.
You are now known as a Duke alumnus, part of the Class of 2012. How does it feel to be a college graduate? Describe your experience.
It’s awesome. I can’t believe that it’s over. I can’t believe the four years at Duke have come to pass. It’s unreal. But it’s exciting; I’m really excited to be an alumni. I thought that graduation would be this kind of bittersweet end to college where you were excited you didn’t have to write any more papers or take any more exams. But it’s also bitter because you’re moving away from all your friends. What I found, though is there’s not as much of a focus on that but more of a focus on how I’ve built a great community of friends, mentors, and professors when I’m at Duke – and there’s no doubt they’ll be staying with me the rest of my life.
What will you miss the most about school?
Certainly, having all your buddies within a quarter-mile of you. That’s definitely the thing you miss the most.
Talk about a special partnership you had with Phoenix at Dover. How do you think the presence of the track on the hood can help sell tickets?
Well, I love Phoenix. It’s a really, really cool racetrack and they always pack it in. I was talking to the Track President, Bryan Sperber, and he was telling me about some of the programs they’ve got going on. We wanted to do something together, so we did. So we were focused on the fact the tickets for their whole Cup weekend went on sale June 1st, our raceday for Dover. It’s obviously the second-to-last race of the Chase, it’s a full weekend with my alma mater, the K&N Pro Series West and also the Truck Series. So we’ll have them on the Truck, and during the race, fans tweeted the hashtag #gopaulie and they gave away a whole package to their Octane Club.
Memorial Day Weekend brought us the biggest Sunday of racing all year: The Grand Prix of Monaco, the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. Comment on what you thought of the racing. Would you like to see the 500/600 double attempted once again?
I think the 600 was awesome. I’m really happy for Kasey Kahne, and Kenny Francis, the crew chief, the engineers and that whole group. Really, really well-deserved win for those guys. As for the other stuff, it was a great Indy 500. The whole weekend is as awesome, as far as racing goes. It would be awesome to see someone do that double again like Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon used to do. There’s nothing cooler than that.
What did you think of the Indy 500’s last lap?
As far as Sato… he wrecked, so he certainly didn’t time it just right. He gave it all he had, and then some, but it’s unfortunate. I don’t blame the guy for taking the risk; but I wasn’t driving his racecar, so I didn’t know what challenges they were facing. Where they were strong, where they were weak. But he took a risk, and it didn’t work out. I don’t blame Franchitti, either for doing all he could to protect his position. You gotta do what you gotta do. I don’t think Franchitti did anything to intentionally wreck him, but… you got to protect your position.
“With the hot summer ahead, what are the types of things you like do to inside the car to keep cool? Will you ever eat during a race, too?” – Rob Smits, Charleston, WV
I do not eat during the race. The main focus is on hydration in the 36 to 48 hours before the race. You can’t chug enough water at driver intros to hydrate yourself. You’ve got to start hydrating two days before, make sure that you’re good and full of water. And for me, especially I try and train for that. I try and train in a warm environment to keep my body used to having to exert itself in that heat. And so in the car, you’ve got a fresh air system blowing inside your helmet, so you’ve got some fresh air to breathe. But that’s pretty much all you’ve got to keep you cool. So you’ve got to be able to deal with that heat. You’ve got to be hydrated.
WHAT’S HOT / WHAT’S NOT IN PAULIE’S WORLD
What do you like?
I actually love testing – nothing to hate. I’m one of those drivers who likes to get involved in the technical side of my racecars. What works, what doesn’t, and why we’re testing it. I just like driving, learning about the cars and what makes it better. Testing is certainly a much lower pressure environment than Happy Hour, so I like it.
What’s your favorite place to test?
Well, it’s actually Greenville-Pickens Speedway (in South Carolina). I put down 640 laps in a CoT doing durability testing for a Cup team at Greenville-Pickens. That’s probably the hardest I’ve ever worked as a racecar driver, but man, was it fun.
How hard is it to hold your concentration for 640 laps?
Nah, a place like Greenville, you can’t push too hard, that extra 10 percent because you’ll grind the tires off of it. It’s all about pacing yourself, and you find… you’ve got to have a crew chief where you get lap times every lap. So you know where you’re at. But you find ways to challenge yourself, get 60 laps on a set of tires and you’re right at the end of that run on a set of tires. You try to pace yourself, and it’s hard around that place.
After the most recent diary, Harraka posted his best finish yet, a 17th-place, lead-lap run at Dover, Delaware in which he gained some much-needed on-track experience. The team hopes to build on that momentum this weekend in Texas; as Harraka said earlier, the team was on the verge of a top-10 result at Charlotte and feels strongly they can come home with that type of finish from the Lone Star State.