Life in the Fast Lane
It's a safe bet that only one student spent the time between high school graduation and enrolling at Pratt behind the wheel of a car traveling more than 150 miles per hour.
It's also a safe bet that no student spent the first four weekends at Pratt traveling from North Carolina to California to race.
But Paul Harraka is not your typical engineering student. Not only does he live in the fast lane, he wins. Racing in NASCAR's “minor league,” Harraka earned the checkered flag 11 times out of 23 races in the Whelen All-American Series held between March and September at the All-American Speedway in Roseville, Calif. Last year, he was named that venue's Rookie of the Year.
Harraka plans to continue a NASCAR career during and after his four years of college, and he feels that his time at Duke as a double major – mechanical engineering and public policy – will make him a better driver and future businessman in the sport.
Also, he said, having a college degree should make him more versatile and marketable to racing teams. It would also make him unique in the sport -- as it now stands, Ryan Newman is the only NASCAR racer who has graduated from college.
For Harraka, getting an education is just as important as a racing career. The New Jersey native graduated from Lake Norman High School in Mooresville, N.C., with a 4.38 GPA, in spite of his hectic traveling schedule.
“The time I spend studying engineering should help me better understand all that goes into turning out a winning machine, while my studies in economics should help me succeed on the business side of the operation,” Harraka said. “I think that in the modern age of racing, knowing all aspects of the business is crucial to being successful.”
From its earliest days, NASCAR and its predecessors have been known for larger-than-life drivers from often unusual backgrounds. But as Harraka points out, there are still colorful characters on the circuit, but winning consistently takes more than just being a fearless driver.
“More and more, the success of a NASCAR depends on the entire team doing the best they can,” Harraka said. “In motorosports, fractions of a second can make the difference between winning and losing. A team needs highly capable people in so many different areas, from members of the pit crew to the engine guys to the body guys, not to mention the business end of the operation.”
Harraka began his racing career at the age of seven, competing in go-kart events across the country and Canada. By the time he was 15, he had won more than 150 such races, including 13 national championships and six world championships. He remains the youngest racer to have won a national championship.
After he stopped racing go-karts, the then 15-year-old met H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, track president at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte. Wheeler convinced him to race in a more powerful car during the Summer Shootout at the track, and Harraka won his first race he competed in. Later that year he won the Winter Heat Final, also at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Because of his successes on the track, NASCAR named him one of 19 members of its 2007 Drive for Diversity Combine, which is designed to provide minority and female drivers an opportunity to compete with established teams in different NASCAR circuits. During that Combine, Harraka impressed Bill MaAnally enough that he was hired to race for his team, which he has for the past two years.
The California racing season may be over, but come November, Harraka will be heading west once again – to pick up his champion's trophy and check at a special banquet in Las Vegas.