This weekend, junior Paul Harraka, full-time Duke student and NASCAR prospect, will go on nothing less than a journey. He will awake early Saturday morning and fly across the country to Salt Lake City, Utah. There, he’ll conduct a meet-and-greet with his sponsors that night, wake up and practice Sunday morning, go through qualifying in the early afternoon and race a few hours later. Regardless of the result, he will then fly to Los Angeles, transfer planes, and eventually land in Durham around 6:30 a.m. Monday and drive back to campus.
After all, he can’t miss class.
“That’s usually the way it is,” Harraka said. “I’m not here many weekends.”
Harraka, who has raced his whole life, currently competes in NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, a tour that competes only in the western part of the United States. Journeys like the one he takes this weekend have become the norm for him, but he insists that despite all the difficulties, the opportunity to pursue a Duke degree and a NASCAR career are both opportunities too good to give up.
“When you get an opportunity like I’ve got, to come to Duke, you can’t pass that up,” Harraka said. “When you’ve got that opportunity like I’ve got to chase my racing career, you can’t pass that up. It’s not so much a matter of picking one or the other, its a matter of how do I make these both work and how can I make them complement each other.”
Harraka’s double life has worked out well so far. During the week, he attends all his classes, studies for tests and immerses himself completely in the Duke community. At the racetrack, he is equally impressive and currently sits 3rd in the point standings with one victory through nine races this season.
“I still marvel at his ability to keep it all straight,” Harraka’s mother Donna Lozy said. “Nothing gets put on the backburner, nothing gets done with less than his full attention.”
His NASCAR performances so far have attracted the attention of some upper echelon NASCAR teams. Earlier this year Harraka raced for veteran driver Joe Nemechek’s NEMCO Motorsports in the Nationwide series, one tier below the elite Sprint Cup series. According to Harraka’s team owner on the Pro Series West, Bill McAnally, there is even more to come from the young driver.
“He is a really smart driver,” McAnally said. “He is very marketable, he is very well spoken, he does a great job for the sponsors he is representing. If he gets a break from one of the national touring series, there is no doubt in my mind that Paulie Harraka will make it as a great driver in NASCAR’s premier divisions.”
Harraka’s success to date has gone a long way to prove that people of nontraditional backgrounds can succeed in the sport. Harraka, who is of Syrian descent, doesn’t fit the mold of the conventional NASCAR driver. He is one of the most successful participants of the sport’s Drive for Diversity program, which was instituted to prepare drivers of diverse backgrounds for competitive racing. Harraka’s career was even highlighted on the BET reality series “Changing Lanes.”
“It was interesting, but as a process it was exhausting,” Harraka said. “You can only focus on so many things. I don’t mind being in front of the camera, but my goal is to win.”
NASCAR also only boasts a handful of drivers in the Sprint Cup Series with a college degree. Harraka has a chance to be in a select group on the tour if he makes the breakthrough. He hopes that his racing success, coupled with academic achievement, will lead others with racing aspirations to also pursue an education.
“I’ve done a lot of speaking at elementary schools about the importance of an education,” Harraka said. “I hope that by completing a degree at Duke while pursuing a racing career and hopefully being successful at both, people will look at it and say, ‘I think my education is important.’ I hope it helps people realize that you don’t have to give up an education to do something.”
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