When NASCAR's Drive for Diversity (D4D) program selected Paulie Harraka in the fall of 2006, he took the big step of moving up into late model racing from karting and legends cars.
Harraka spent four years in the program and achieved breakthrough performances. He was D4D's Driver of the Year in 2007; in 2009 he he was named Rookie of the Year and became the first D4D driver to win a touring series race in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West; and in 2010 he added a third victory and finished third in the West championship.
But in 2011, it was time for Harraka to move on from D4D, which is designed to develop minority and female drivers at NASCAR's grassroots level. He'd spent four years with Bill McAnally Racing, which had shared the funding for Harraka with NASCAR, and McAnally had invited him back without NASCAR's support for 2011. Harraka declined. His goal is to race in Sprint Cup and he didn't think another season in the West series would offer a chance at advancement.
"The racer in me wanted to come back, but from a career standpoint, I didn't see how the West series was going to get me there," Harraka said. "I could win the West, lead every lap, win every race and it's not going to get me into [Camping World] Trucks. It's drivers coming up with money now. There are no teams hiring drivers now. I need to find a sponsor or I won't get a shot.
"I decided to take the year off [
How hard is it? If he puts together a Truck deal, Harraka would become the first D4D graduate to race full-time in a NASCAR national series. The program began in 2004.
The 22-year-old Harraka would have been a top prospect for a team's driver development program several years ago, the type that brought Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle to Roush Fenway and Kevin Harvick to Richard Childress Racing. But with money hard to find for even Cup teams, those programs have virtually disappeared. The drivers getting into the best seats are those with family money or family ties, like Austin Dillon, this year's Truck champion. He's the grandson of Richard Childress, who is moving Dillon into the Nationwide Series in 2012.
Dillon undoubtedly has talent and deserves his shot at the next level, but he's able to focus on racing, not creating his own opportunity. Harraka has to do both.
Harraka has an impressive resume both and off the track. He's a senior at Duke University, on target to graduate in four years this spring. Harraka managed to keep up with his classes while flying across the country from North Carolina to California, driving for McAnally. He's talented and smart.
"I overloaded on classes in the fall [of 2011] and have only one class [remaining] ... in the spring semester," Harraka said.
Duke is an Ivy League-level institution, famous for its doctors, medical researchers, lawyers, businessmen and, of course, basketball players. Harraka looked at Columbia and some of the Boston schools, home of Harvard and others. He graduated from high school with a 4.38 grade point average.
"I could [have gone] almost anywhere I wanted," Harraka said. "Duke was perfect for me. It's two hours from Charlotte and that definitely helped. It was the first school I visited and I loved it."
Harraka is calling on Duke's alumni for help in putting together his marketing program.
"Being at Duke, I'm different than a lot of drivers," Harraka said. "It's something that makes me unique to the Duke community. Nobody at Duke has ever been a NASCAR driver and it's been beneficial to me on both sides. As far as a Duke kid doing it, they're really interested in it."
Harraka was raised in Wayne, N.J., but racing had brought him to Charlotte, NASCAR's capital, when he was in high school. He was an intern at Evernham Motorsports in the summers of 2005 and 2006, starting out sweeping floors and eventually working under Kenny Francis in the electrical department. Harraka was later an engineering intern at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2007 and 2008.
Harraka moved to Charlotte for his senior year and graduated from Lake Norman High in Mooresville, N.C. He's since worked as a test driver for Stewart-Haas and Red Bull Racing and, in the summer of 2010, was an intern in NASCAR's corporate marketing department. He's developed friendships with team members and drivers, including Jimmie Johnson.
"Jimmie has told me, 'You're doing everything right,'" Harraka said.
McAnally spotted Harraka at the D4D combine at South Boston (Va.) Speedway in the fall of 2006 and was immediately impressed. He still is.
"Paulie was passionate, sincere, committed and educated," McAnally said. "He gave great feedback. He was hungry to drive late models and he worked hard and drove hard. He did a great job for us. He'd gotten the development he needed in the four years with us.
"I had Clint Bowyer in a development program for Richard Childress and Kevin Harvick and David Gilliland both made it out of the West Series, so it can be done. You can do it, but you need all the stars to line up."
Harraka is thankful for the D4D, but knows there are more hurdles ahead to reach Sprint Cup.
"Drive for Diversity opened a lot of opportunities for me without a doubt," Harraka said. "It's how I got hooked up with Bill McAnally and moved forward. If you look at how drivers climb the ladder, they do it by running [well] for two years in Trucks or Nationwide. The Trucks are a gateway for me to Cup. Ultimately, Cup will need new drivers and I need to be in position when that time comes."