Paul Harraka: NASCAR Drive for Diversity Ace and Master Juggler

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Paul Harraka:  NASCAR Drive for Diversity Ace and Master Juggler
(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

What is a nice boy from New Jersey doing NASCAR racing in California for the Drive for Diversity program, going to college at Duke, and enjoying his summer with family and friends back home in the Garden State? 

This nice boy is none other than Paul Harraka, a young up-and-coming NASCAR racer who also happens to be a master juggler of all these different aspects of his life.

Over a late lunch special at the Montville Diner, one of Jersey's best, Harraka took a moment to catch his breath, eat a bite, and share his journey as a NASCAR racer.

When asked how a kid from Jersey got into NASCAR, Harraka replied that he started racing go karts at Flemington Speedway, one of New Jersey's best tracks that unfortunately is no longer in existence. 

"From the time I was a little kid, I just loved NASCAR," said Harraka.

As he pursued his passion, he had success early, winning the New Jersey State Championship in go-karting in 1997 at the age of seven.

Harraka continued his winning streak in go-karting with another championship in 1998.  The next year, Harraka decided to run the national circuit.  There he won 13 national and six world championships in go kart racing.

Harraka's big break came at Lowe's Motor Speedway.  While running go-karts, he was approached by legendary track promoter Humpy Wheeler.

Wheeler questioned Harraka, who was just 15 years old, as to how many go kart races he had won, which was 153 at the time.  Wheeler advised the young Harraka to race another type of car to advance his career, particularly urging him to consider legend cars.

When Harraka advised Wheeler that he had not had the opportunity to pursue legends, Wheeler went the next step, putting together a deal to help the young racer to just that.  On July 4, 2005, Harraka raced in the "Summer Shootout" at Lowe's and won his first race in a legends car.

This young driver continued to heed Wheeler's advice, driving late models and even a pro truck in Florida.  In October 2006, Harraka, who is of Syrian descent, was invited to the Drive for Diversity combine in South Boston, Va.

"At the combine, we talk to the media, we have mock television interviews, we interact with team owners," said Harraka.  "And then we drive."

"Team owners observe us through this whole process, especially when we are in the car, how we are communicating with the crew," shared Harraka.  Based on his performance in all of those areas, he got noticed by Bill McAnnally.

McAnnally has been in the sport a long time, starting as a driver himself in what is now the Camping World Series West program. 

As McAnnally got married and began to have a family, his interests turned from driving the car to nurturing other young talent through his own race team.

McAnnally has been a very successful car owner, winning four championships in the West series.  Harraka counts himself very fortunate to be one of the current proteges of McAnnally Racing.

"Although I had some opportunities on the East Coast, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to work for someone like Bill McAnnally," said Harraka. 

It has been a winning combination, as Harraka finished second in points and won Rookie of the Year in 2007 and won the championship in 2008 in the Whelen All-American Series.

In 2009, Harraka himself followed in his mentor's footsteps, moving to the West series.  "We've had a lot of good runs," said Harraka.  But he also acknowledged some misfortunes, such as at Infineon, where he "got dumped."

Harraka finished 14th in that race.  "I wanted to bring home a good finish for the NAPA and the Toyota people," said Harraka, acknowledging that many were at the track for the race.  "But so goes our sport," he concluded philosophically.

His goal for this season is to win Rookie of the Year in the West series.  Harraka is currently battling Blake Koch, who is his closest "drive off" for that position.

Harraka also has wants to "win two races this season," an ambitious goal for himself and his team.  He also intends to come in top three in the points as well, and has every chance since he is currently running seventh in the points standings.

Harraka has not always been a driver.  In the summer of 2005, he interned for Evernham Motorsports in their Nationwide garage, "just cleaning stuff and being a grunt around the shop," said Harraka.

"I got a taste for how much work goes into these cars and the teams operate," reflected Harraka.  "I really learned how it all happens."

He also interned at Joe Gibbs Racing and "learned a ton," especially in the testing arena.  His special interest is in shocks, which he now builds for his own race cars.

After his Gibbs Racing internship, Harraka was invited to continue working there during his school year.  So, the aspiring driver moved to North Carolina to finish his senior year at Lake Norman High School, living with Kenny Francis, the team director for Kasey Kahne and the No. 9 Budweiser car.

Harraka had enough credits to graduate early and did so in January of his senior year.  He then took two courses at UNC-Charlotte to get transfer credits for his college of choice, Duke University.

Harraka filled out one college application, got accepted, and just finished up his freshman year at Duke.  "I loved it", said Harraka.

"I started out as a mechanical engineering major," shared Harraka.  After doing some exploring, he has now switched to being a public policy major, which he is enjoying tremendously.

Harraka admits that he is juggling quite a bit between his racing and academic pursuits.  He appreciates the flexibility at Duke, allowing him to continue racing, while also pursuing his studies. 

Needless to say, Harraka spends most of his time on the plane flying across country reading his text books and studying for his exams.  But he does admit that his "body clock has just given up," acknowledging that he is way past jet lag.

Besides juggling his academic and racing careers, Harraka is also completely devoted to his family, including his parents, his two sisters, and his 11 cousins.  He acknowledges that he could not do all that he does without his family's support.

Harraka is also deeply devoted to his faith.  He is active at the Newman Catholic Student Center on the Duke campus.  He juggles those volunteer activities along with hanging out with a close group of friends, "totally outside of racing."

As if he does not have enough on his plate, the young Drive for Diversity driver also revealed that he is in a relationship, sharing that he now has a girlfriend.  She is a Duke student but is from California, which fits totally into his bi-coastal life style.

Harraka is also juggling some new media responsibilities.  He is penning a weekly blog on nascar.com, sharing his special view on his racing experiences, particularly in the Drive for Diversity program and his run for the West championship.

This young man admits to loving his mother's home cooking, which he does not get enough of given all of his travels.  His favorite movie is "Days of Thunder" and he is a fanatical Yankees fan. 

Harraka also feels "so blessed" to have his grandparents in his life, reading to him as a child and nurturing him along the way.  But most of all he "loves working on his cars," stating that he "knows just enough to know what I don't know."

This driver next races in the Camping World Series West on this July 4 weekend at Irwindale Speedway in California. 

Harraka will be again jetting back out to the West Coast, juggling a visit with his girlfriend, and oh by the way, jumping into a race car to continue his quest for Rookie of the Year and that all-important race win.

Update:  Harraka is in the running for the Camping World Series West Most Popular Driver.  Here is the link to vote for Harraka: http://www.nascar.com/news/features/mpd.poll.camping.world.west/index.html

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