AS ANY MOTORSPORTS aficionado can tell you, it takes more than nerves of steel to win bumper-to-fender races at 180 mph. It takes technology to optimize everything from engine cylinders to intake manifolds. And it takes money to develop that technology and hire the best people to get it under the hood. But as the former grows ever more important, the latter grows more scarce: NASCAR teams perpetually scramble for cash, and this season, sponsorship has dried up to the point where some of the sport's most successful drivers, from Matt Kenseth to Trevor Bayne, find themselves without enough guaranteed funding to drive a full season. The Monday
This ongoing cash crunch is threatening the sport's entire system of racer development: If teams can't find the money for drivers under contract, don't expect them to go recruiting new ones.
So these days, drivers in the lower ranks with personal fortunes now bankroll the technology that will afford them the fastest cars. And it's these drivers who climb from one level of NASCAR to another -- not the ones of equal talent but of lesser means. Private wealth is replacing recognized skill. And that's terrible for the sport.
But one smart racer, 22-year-old Paulie Harraka, out of Wayne, N.J., has a plan to fund adroit drivers, whatever their economic standing. Harraka talks a mile a minute, thinks faster than he talks, and drives faster than he thinks. He started racing go-karts at age 6 in empty parking lots and won his first state championship when he was 7. At 15, he had 153 kart wins under his belt. Since then, he's raced Legends and regional series and participated in NASCAR's Drive for Diversity (he's of Syrian descent). He started competing full time in 2009, winning two events and Rookie of the Year in the K&N Pro Series West, but took most of last season off because, oh yeah, he also attends Duke, where he's enrolled in the markets and management program. This year, at the same time he takes his finals, he also will be driving the No. 5 Ford F-150 for Wauters Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series.
Harraka has seen costs skyrocket across NASCAR's ranks: He says it now takes about $3 million a year to field a team in the Truck Series, $5.5 million in the Nationwide and $18 million in the Sprint Cup. "Drivers are where the value is in motorsports," Harraka says, and yet the costs of entry in those series often keep drivers from controlling their future. Until now.
He recently formed Paulie Harraka LLC, a first-of-its-kind company that raises money from investors willing to bet on his future. Financial backers seek out Harraka and the proceeds go to him, not any team that might want to place him under contract. He then uses that money to fund the research and development that will make his car faster. A top talent in a top car means more top finishes. And more top finishes for Harraka means more money to pay existing investors, which will entice still more investors until suddenly the Nationwide or Sprint Cup series isn't as cost-prohibitive as it once seemed. It's a virtuous cycle: Drivers no longer would be pawns of a team or victims of a bad economy. They would rise on their own merits.
Eventually, Harraka plans to use his earnings as an investment to promote other unknown but talented drivers. That's good news if you want to see more rookies in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series. It's even better if you've got a bit o' the geek in you. Because if Harraka and his partners -- who include Daryl Morey, GM of the Houston Rockets and all-around leading sabermetric light -- are going to sell great young drivers, they'll have to find them first. Harraka's stat guys are now, uh, driving the development of new metrics that go beyond speed to identify the best up-and-coming racers.
So far, Paulie Harraka LLC has raised a little more than $2 million, mostly from savvy business types who haven't associated with NASCAR before -- like Dr. Marvin Slepian, co-founder of SynCardia, a company that makes artificial hearts. Will Harraka reach his goal of landing a Sprint Cup team by 2014? Maybe. But when it comes to reinvigorating driver development, he's lapping the field.