NASCAR's Newest Combo: Drivers and College Students

Mary Jo BuchananSenior Writer IApril 4, 2010

Back in the day, most race car drivers "grew up" in the sport, having worked in the garage and then graduating to driving the car on the track. 

Because many of the drivers started their racing careers so early in life, whether in go- karts or Legends cars, most have graduated from high school but the majority have not gone on to college. 

Now, a new kind of driver seems to be emerging onto the NASCAR scene.  This driver is not only a high school graduate but a college student as well.

According to NASCAR, Sprint Cup driver Ryan Newman has been the only driver behind the wheel with a college degree, his from Purdue in engineering.  But there are three up and coming drivers in NASCAR today that are chasing in Newman's footsteps, looking for racing fame and working hard for their undergraduate degrees.

One of these young men combining race cars and college also has a famous last name, at least in the northeast.  Chase Mattioli, grandson of "Doc" Mattioli and Dr. Rose Mattioli who own and manage Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Penn., is currently racing in the ARCA Series while also attending Fordham University.

Mattioli is a sophomore at Fordham, majoring in business administration.  While he hits the books at college, he also prepares for his work on the race track, with his next race later this month at Salem Speedway in Indiana.

Although growing up at Pocono Raceway in the "family business", Mattioli began racing at the age of seven.  He started his racing career in quarter midgets at the Lehigh Valley Track, where he raced for the next three years.

But Mattioli's introduction to racing was less than auspicious.  "The first time I got behind the wheel, I crashed into the wall," Mattioli admitted.

Fortunately, no one was hurt in the crash.  "It was fun though," Mattioli said.  "And it was at that very moment that I knew that I wanted to be a race car driver."

Mattioli has recently progressed to the ARCA Series, the launching pad of many future NASCAR stars.  For example, ARCA has most recently been the entry point for IndyCar Series and rookie NASCAR driver Danica Patrick.

Mattioli balances the rigors of ARCA racing with his studies at Fordham University.  Most of his peers don't even realize that Mattioli even gets behind the wheel of a race car on a regular basis. 

"I don't wear a NASCAR jacket out," Mattioli said.  "I don't want people to judge me about it before they know anything about me."

Mattioli also credits his college experience with rounding him out personally.  He enjoys museums, restaurants, like poetry and is playing intramural softball for the first time in his life.

His family, especially his grandparents support both his racing career, as well as his college education.

"I want to see Chase get his education," grandmother Rose Mattioli said.  "Racing is something he has his heart and soul set on."

"One day, he's going to wind up being an attorney," Dr. Rose said.  "I know he will be good at that because he always argues with me!"

Similar to Mattioli with the driver/student combination and also as far as the famous pedigree is the next up and coming NASCAR star Austin Dillon.  Dillon is the grandson of Richard Childress, owner of Richard Childress Racing whose most famous driver was the late Dale Earnhardt.

Dillon is currently racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, driving the No. 3 truck, which is most associated with the "Man in Black" Earnhardt.  The young driver is also a full-time communications student at High Point University in High Point, North Carolina.

"It is a challenge keeping up with both," Dillon said.  "But High Point University has been great in working with me on my class schedule. I feel like I can be successful in both school and racing."

Dillon's college is also very proud of him. "It takes an incredible young person to manage the demands of racing and the rigorous academic schedule at HPU," Chris Dudley, VP of Administration at HPU, said.  "We support him in this endeavor, and we look forward to welcoming him to HPU this fall."

Dillon just completed his race weekend in his truck competing in the Nashville 200 at Nashville Superspeedway.  Dillon finished 14th in the race, the highest finish of all of the Truck Series rookies, earning him the "Rookie of the Race" honors.

Dillon currently sits 12th in the 2010 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series points standings.  This combination race car driver and student seems poised to continue his successful racing family tradition, while also working on his degree.

There is one other racer and college student that is working his way up the NASCAR ladder.  Paulie Harraka, a participant in the Drive for Diversity program, is competing for the K&N Pro Series West Championship this year.

Harraka, a New Jersey racer of Syrian descent, started off his West season with a bang, winning the first race of the season at the All American Speedway in Roseville, Calif.  Harraka qualified for the pole for that race, led 125 of the 160 laps, and then took the checkered flag.

Harraka is currently a sophomore at Duke University, the only school to which he applied after graduating early from high school. 

"I started out as a mechanical engineering major," Harraka said of his time at Duke.  After doing some exploring, he 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 too appreciates the flexibility at Duke, allowing him to continue racing, while also pursuing his studies.

Similar to the other college racers, Harraka started his racing career early in life.  "From the time I was a little kid," Harrak said.  "I just loved NASCAR."

Like Mattioli, Harraka raced go-karts, winning the New Jersey State Championship at the age of seven.  He was "discovered" by legendary track promoter "Humpy" Wheeler while racing go-karts at Charlotte Motorspeedway.

Harraka has participated for several years in the Drive for Diversity program, racing in the West developmental series.  He won the "Rookie of the Year" honors last year and hopes to compete for the championship this year before moving to the next step in his career.

Harraka will next be on the track on April 8 at Phoenix International Raceway in Arizona. 

While Mattioli, Dillon and Harraka all gear up for the summer and the busiest part of their respective racing seasons, they are all balancing homework, writing papers, studying and preparing for their upcoming finals at the same time.

These three drivers may just epitomize the new breed of NASCAR drivers, those that not only excel behind the wheel but also in the classroom.  And having the combination of both driving excellence and a college diploma may just be the ticket to their successes, for their futures on and off the track.