Dale Earnhardt Jr. proved he could drive fast in the front seat of his daddy’s stock car on short tracks throughout the Carolinas. Jeff Gordon was trading paint in quarter midgets in Northern California 11 years before he was old enough to have a driver’s license.
Most NASCAR drivers got started in similar ways.
Not Rajah Caruth. He learned how to handle a race car by playing video games and he says there are a lot of Generation Z drivers getting ready to follow him.
“I feel like it’s just the wave of the future,” said Caruth, 20, who is scheduled to race in the second-tier Xfinity Series on Saturday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana. “It’s big, right? Because that’s the only way I was able to get my start.”
Caruth always had a need for speed. A 400-meter runner in high school, he was 13 when he attended his first NASCAR event and quickly fell in love with the sport. But unlike Earnhardt, who was born into a family of drivers, it wasn’t likely that Caruth, born in Atlanta to parents from the Caribbean, was going to walk out to the garage one day and find a race car.
The family did have a computer and WiFi though, so Caruth had access to eNASCAR’s Ignite Series, a virtual esports competition that uses ultra-realistic software to mimic real-life racing without having to put on a fire suit.
Caruth, then 16, didn’t win a race in the Ignite Series’ first season in 2018 but performed well enough to draw the attention of executives with NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program. They put him in a real car at the Bojangles Summer Shootout at Charlotte Motor Speedway a year later and Caruth won two heat races, finishing 10th overall.
Although there were some bumps in the road during the move from virtual reality to … well, real reality … Caruth says the transition from steering on a computer screen to taking the wheel of a 3,400-pound race car was smoother than he expected.
His first stop was the ARCA Series, in which he drove for Rev Racing, finishing in the top 10 in 18 of his 25 races in 2020-21. He stepped up to the Craftsman Truck Series last year, finishing 11th in his debut. Last weekend at Daytona, in his first race of the new season, he failed to finish after causing a seven-truck crash on the 58th lap of the 250-mile race. His best finish in seven Xfinity races in 2022 was 12th.
“Racing online, I learned how to get information through my eyes, my hands and my ears. So that was limited,” Caruth said in a phone call earlier this month. “When you get in the real-life car, you’re used to having all your senses from the get-go and using them to feel vibrations and sensations provided by the vehicle.
“At first, I didn’t really figure out how to kind of marry the two. But now, being a little bit in, they really work hand in hand where I almost feel like I have a leg up. I’m only used to having so many, I guess ports would be the word, kind of like how you have like USB stuff on a laptop, right? I have way more than I’m used to when I get in the real-life car and that gives me a leg up sometimes.”
Mike Beam says he’ll have to take Caruth’s word on that. The president of GMS Racing, Caruth’s truck team, Beam admits he couldn’t tell a USB from a UFO. “I’m 67 years old and I barely can turn on my computer,” he said. “My grandkids turn it on.”
But Beam sees the value of simulated racing, which grew in popularity during the COVID-19 shutdown when drivers couldn’t get to tracks to practice. Instead, they used multimillion-dollar race simulators such as the one General Motors keeps at its test center in Statesville, N.C.
“The program is so realistic you can feel the bumps. You feel everything and you get a real sense of the race car,” Beam said.
Whether those hours in front of a computer will translate into continued success in a real race car for Caruth remains to be seen but Beam — a former crew chief for racing legends Richard Petty, Michael Waltrip, Bill Elliott and Sterling Marlin — says the rookie is “pretty special.”
“The one thing that he has going for him is an amazing work ethic. And he’s got a really good system down,” said Beam, who will run Caruth full time in the No. 24 Chevrolet truck this year and allow him to drive eight Xfinity Series races, including Fontana, for Alpha Prime Racing.
“Whether he’ll make it, I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t. He’s a good, clean racer. He brought the car home in one piece, got everything out of the car he possibly could. That means a lot. The thing I always tell young drivers is you will get out of this what you put in. Rajah, he believes that. He is not going to miss out on this opportunity.”
Just in case, Caruth is taking a full load of classes at Winston-Salem State, where he’s majoring in motorsports management.
“Being a Black man it’s important to give myself options and my education is something that nobody can take away from me,” said Caruth, who said it takes a village to help him juggle a high-stress job with his academic responsibilities.
“Well, I’ve got a nice therapist,” he said jokingly. “I’ve got a cool dad and mom and sister and lenient teachers and a good support system and a great race team. So really the circle I’ve had the chance to create over this last little bit has allowed me to pursue both of these endeavors.”
Pursuits that began with Caruth logging on to his computer just to play a video game.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.