HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- You can count on one hand the number of NASCAR drivers that have come from our nation’s capital. You can use the same hand to count the number of African-American drivers in the sport and have fingers left over.
Washington, D.C., is not exactly a hotbed of racing talent, but it’s where Rajah Caruth fell in love with the sport, thanks in part, to one of his favorite movies.
“Lightning McQueen!” Caruth said. “Speed Racer and Diecast. That’s how I got into racing.”
He followed Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards and Jeff Burton among others. At the age of 12, he got to see them in person for the first time at Richmond Raceway.
“I remember a lot (about that day),” the 20-year-old said. “I remember being surprised to go to the race in the first place. I remember seeing the grandstands. It hasn’t changed in my mind what that feeling was like. I had waited for it for so long.”
Caruth would also have to wait for his first opportunity to drive on an actual track. He honed his skills on racing simulators which have become a very popular training tool for both the novices and pros in the sport.
“I raced on iRacing pretty frequently and did pretty well,” Caruth recalled. In 637 career iRacing starts, he has 69 wins and 258 top 5 finishes. “Sim racing was really my only route.”
That led to a tryout in NASCAR’s Drive For Diversity program, not without a fair amount of convincing his parents to allow him to follow this incredibly narrow path to success.
“I think I just didn’t shut up about it,” Caruth admitted. “I think my dad realized, this is what I’m going to do, and he’s been behind me every step of the way. Mom is a little more on the protective side and not crazy about her son driving race cars. But she’s still very supportive.”
Caruth has run late models at Greenville-Pickens Speedway where he earned his first on-track win and he finished third in the ARCA Menards Series East standings last year. Alpha Prime Racing thought enough of his potential to give him a six-race tryout in the Xfinity series which begins Saturday at Richmond. A journey that has come full circle since his first visit here eight years ago.
“I just hope I don’t get lost in the sauce,” Caruth said. “In a lot of my experiences as a driver, I’ve been too caught up and haven’t enjoyed the moment. I don’t even remember much from my first Late Model win. I think if you had told 12-year-old me what this would be like, he wouldn’t believe it, but he would have been really happy."
Although he majors in motorsports management at Winston-Salem State University, his car will be sponsored by Virginia State University, a fellow HBCU but a CIAA rival.
“Having an HBCU on my car is important, even if it’s a rival school. At least it’s not [North Carolina] A&T,” he said.
Caruth presents himself as a poised, seasoned veteran, which of course, he is not. He admits to the duck-on-a-pond theory of being calm on the outside but a whirling dervish on the inside. This isn’t just a huge opportunity for him, but could also pave the way for other African-American kids to follow whatever racing dreams they might have.
“It’s huge,” Caruth admitted. “This can make or break my career. If I don’t do what I’m supposed to do, it’s on a much bigger scale. I welcome the responsibility and the duty that I have. I was that kid watching races on TV and wishing that was me. Watching [fellow African-American drivers] Bubba [Wallace] and Lewis Hamilton race, people that look like me, meant a lot. I’m just going to do the best I can."