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Sitting on a table next to Rajah Caruth‘s bed is a large, black bookthat’s slowly falling apart. Caruth has flipped through it so many times that the edges are frayed and the pages have come unglued from the cover.
Caruth received the book, NASCAR: The Complete History—an encyclopedia of sorts for NASCAR fans—as a Christmas present when he was 7. He’s been obsessed with auto racing ever since.
“He’s a kid that goes in deep to whatever that he loves,” says Caruth’s mother, Samantha. “I think he loved cars in general, but … NASCAR, the images, he wanted to know more about it.”
There’s a dispute on who bought the book (Samantha gives credit to Caruth’s aunt; Caruth’s father, Roger, thinks he and Samantha did), but there’s no denying Caruth’s passion.
The rising senior at School Without Walls wants to be a professional NASCAR driver. This spring, he earned one of four spots in the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Youth Driver Development Program. Caruth will leave next month to train with Rev Racing and compete in the Bojangles’ Summer Shootout at Charlotte Motor Speedway in June and July.
Caruth may not yet have a driver’s license or even a learner’s permit, but he’s been training for what feels like his whole life for this opportunity. And if he makes it to the NASCAR circuit, Caruth would be one of the few black racers in the sport.
“It’s been my everything,” he says. “As I got older I realized I wanted to make a career out of this.”
When the animated film Cars came out in 2006, Caruth’s dad took him see it in downtown Brooklyn, near where they lived at the time, figuring it would be a nice movie for the young boy already obsessed with things that moved—mainly planes and trains at first.
The opening scene of a racetrack and all the people involved immediately caught Caruth’s eye. He points to that movie as the beginning of his journey to NASCAR.
“I think looking back on it, the personalities I guess of the people, and so many different characters around the racing scene … so much stuff happening,” says Caruth, who’s lived in D.C. since 2009. “The speed and stuff, I think that was probably a thing too. And the cars looked pretty cool, as well.”
His parents started buying him Matchbox cars. Eventually those presents became anything NASCAR related. At school, Caruth would do research projects and presentations about the sport.
It wasn’t until around the time they went to a NASCAR race in 2014 at the Richmond Raceway that Samantha realized this was not a fad for her son.
“I knew he loved it. I knew it was something he was passionate about,” she says. “There are adults who are working their whole lives who never find their passions. I don’t think it was clear for us it was something he wanted to do [like], ‘I’m going to be a driver.’ … Last few years, [it’s been,] oh I guess we have to listen.”
Set up in the kitchen of their Northwest home is an iRacing machine, an online racing simulator that replicates NASCAR cars and tracks that Caruth uses to train. Since he has lived in a big city all of his life, his on-track experience has been limited to go-kart tracks.
His parents bought the machine, which costs roughly $2,000, in June of 2018, after being convinced of its ability to develop race car drivers. William Byron, a 21-year-old professional NASCAR driver from Charlotte, began his career with iRacing.
“With some of the other folks, these kids are exposed to cars, driving cars at 12, 13, even younger and kind of climbing up the ranks,” says Roger. “It’s almost kind of a national pastime in these communities. We realize that was a challenge. We were at track meet maybe a year or two years ago and it kinda dawned on me as I was driving that we need to sit down and [have him] really explain to me and visualize [the process] and conceptualize it, [looking at] where we are now, how to get there, what are some options [going forward].”
Caruth says he watches some form of racing or practices online for “at least an hour, or probably more, a day.” He’ll go on YouTube when he’s bored to study footage. Racing cars has come naturally for him. He says he immediately felt comfortable in a go-kart.
“He’s a real good athlete,” says Roger.
Caruth also realizes that very few professional stock car drivers look like him. His favorite driver, 25-year-old Bubba Wallace, is the only African American at the top level of the sport. Wallace, who has participated in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program in the past, finished second at the 2018 Daytona 500.
When Caruth messaged him on Instagram before the combine to qualify for this summer’s program, it didn’t take long for Wallace to reply.
“Sky’s the limit [for Caruth],” says Wallace. “He’s got a big opportunity coming up. I’d tell him to just go out there and give it your all. You’re going to lose a lot, but that’s the ones you learn from the most. In the sport you lose more than you win, but if you come back the next week with that same heart and desire, then you should be all right.”
Caruth, who turns 17 next month, is eager to join his idol. The next big test begins in a few weeks.
“I want to go all the way,” he says.