Paulie Harraka '12 is an independent racecar driver and founder of Paulie Harraka LLC. He focuses on breaking the mold in NASCAR with a unique group of investors. As a former representative of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, Harraka eventually hopes to use his company to help underrepresented drivers reach NASCAR.
Sterly Wilder: While you were at Duke pursuing your undergraduate degree, you continued to build your burgeoning racing career. Who has helped you continue going after your dreams?
Paulie Harraka: I started racing when I was seven years old. I’ve always loved it. I knew that racing and Duke were both full-time jobs, but when I had both opportunities in front of me, I couldn’t justify passing up either. You never know when the next opportunity might come. I’ve got a great family that supports me. A lot of my energy comes from my mom. She is one of those boundlessly energetic human beings. At Duke, I got to know alumni, professors, and administrators who added to that energy. I’ve gotten a little bit of energy from a lot of different people.
SW: You started out at Duke pursuing mechanical engineering. You ended up in sociology and with a certificate in markets and management. In what ways has the freedom to pursue diverse academic interests influenced you today?
PH: My intention was always to utilize a strong education to augment my racing career and differentiate myself as a driver. Coming out of high school, I felt it would be best to develop a strong engineering background. I got to Duke in 2008, and then the recession hit. I recognized the sport was changing and felt it was wiser to focus on markets, management, and entrepreneurship. Having the ability to move between academic disciplines was an amazing growth opportunity. As an example, I took a public policy course called “High Impact Leadership” with Colonel Joe LeBoeuf and learned a lot about what it means to be a leader. The book I’m reading right now is a book that Colonel LeBoeuf suggested I read. It’s called The Flip Side, and it’s about overcoming the core things that hold everybody back.
SW: You want to help diversify NASCAR by helping underrepresented drivers get into the industry. Why is this important to you personally?
PH: One of the big challenges for our sport is being better representative of the American population. I’ve found a lot of fantastic opportunities through the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program and through attending Duke—and I want other people to have those same opportunities. I don’t want racing to be a sport that is accessible [only] to a certain group of people.
SW: As both a student and an alumnus you’ve been involved in DukeGen, the university’s global entrepreneurship network. What have you learned from participating?
PH: It’s a great forum to tease out ideas. The university has made it a priority to become a hub of innovation, and Duke alumni can be tremendous assets to students in trying to create a culture of creativity and entrepreneurship.
SW: What do Duke students need to know about taking risks in the real world?
PH: Many would say the biggest risk I took was going to Duke. I was on a fantastic path as a racecar driver. Taking risks may mean a little less security. I’m pursuing an entrepreneurial path in sports that nobody has pursued before. There certainly would be more security had I gone on one of the more traditional paths. There are sacrifices that come with risk, but there are also benefits. I think sometimes we just don’t take enough time to weigh the benefits.
SW: Speaking of risk, what’s the fastest you’ve ever driven?
PH: 212 mph. It’s pretty fast!