Mexican-born Daniel Suarez relaxes in a chair at Joe Gibbs Racing headquarters, just feet away from the orange-and-white race car that is, by far, the finest he’s ever driven.
A rookie with the personality and potential to be NASCAR’s next star, he is still two weeks from driving that car, the No. 19 Toyota, in the Super Bowl of NASCAR’s Monster Energy Cup Series, Sunday’s Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.
When the race begins, he’ll be the only foreign-born series regular in the 40-car field, starting 19th.
But to get to that point, driving that glossy, powerful beast, there was struggle. There was an old kart, rattling and lovingly pieced-together, that he drove on dusty backroad tracks. There was pain, and sweat, and hustle.
And there was financial frustration. In the place of the sponsor decals meticulously arranged on his sleek Camry, there often was nothing.
Before Daniel Suarez reached NASCAR’s highest level, there was only a dream.
And there was his father.
Alejandro Suarez sacrificed a lot for his son, for the opportunity to race in America. The owner of a small auto-restoration shop in Monterrey, Mexico, he scraped and scrounged to build the racing karts in which his son started his racing career.
“My dad,” Suarez said, eyes distant, “he has done a lot for me with a little. ... Just a few people really know what it has been to go through this process to make it to this point. One of those people is my dad.”
When Daniel was 12 and just a year or so into racing karts, Alejandro heard of a race in Las Vegas, with the top 5 finishers getting a ticket to Europe, to compete in Spain.
He stuffed their gear and four mechanics into a Dodge Dakota, put Suarez’s kart into a remolque – a trailer – and drove 22 hours from Monterrey to Las Vegas.
[LINEUP: Starting order for Sunday’s Daytona 500]
Suarez remembers the next part vividly. The kart he drove was the oldest on the track, and with the race almost over, he said, he thought about the effort and money it took to build it. He thought about that long drive through the desert to get there. He thought about his father.
“I am not going back to Mexico without winning this race,” he thought.
He won his group, placed fifth overall, and scored entry to the race in Spain.
“(I remember it) like it was yesterday,” Alejandro said through an interpreter via a long-distance phone call from Monterrey. “He got out of the car, totally screaming, and went over to hug me and the mechanics, too. It was a beautiful moment because it was the only old car on the track.
“It felt great because after all the sacrifices, the goal had been met.”
But the work was not done. At night, when the races were long over, Suarez, Alejandro and the crew stayed later than the other drivers and collected the almost-new tires discarded by other teams. They would put them on Suarez’s kart for his next competition.
And there was still a 22-hour drive back to Monterrey.
Suarez excelled racing in Mexico, winning 10 races over four seasons against the country’s best. But even as he succeeded, he longed for bigger challenges than he could find in his homeland, for a bigger challenge and better equipment. The cars in Mexico are lighter, with less horsepower and less aerodynamic sophistication.
It wasn’t NASCAR. And he wanted more.
When he talked about making the jump from Mexico to the United States, though, he didn’t get much support.
“My driver friends told me so many different times, ‘Daniel, there is no reason you have to go there. It’s going to be very difficult. You (are taking) a huge chance, stay here in Mexico,’ ” he said. “Every single one told me the same thing. If 10 people spoke to me, they all said the same thing.”
But there was one other voice: Alejandro’s.
“Everyone told us to stay in Mexico because it was impossible to get to the United States,” Alejandro said. “There have been generations of drivers who tried. ... Danny and I talked a lot about this, and we wanted to do this because we don’t like to do things halfway.
“I believed in Daniel, and he believed in himself.”
But success, they both knew, would not be without obstacles.
In NASCAR – and America – it can be daunting to be different. But Suarez embraces being an anomaly.
After splitting his time in the Mexico series and K&N Pro Series East, he switched to the latter full time in 2013, and earned a spot in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, taking the plunge to stay in the United States.
“For me to be here in the United States, to be a Latin driver (in America), I am the only one,” he said. “And that is great. … I really like to be that driver that came from a different country, who has something else to say, who has a different story.”
In one area, though, he knew he couldn’t continue to be different. He couldn’t understand his first American crew, and they couldn’t understand him.
“Either they learn Spanish or I learn English,” Suarez thought, and decided it would be unfair to ask the former.
He watched American television – two movies a day as “homework” – and studied English.
I’m very, very proud of where I’m from, very proud of my accent. A lot of people like it, a lot of people hate it. But that’s the way it is.
NASCAR driver Daniel Suarez, on his Spanish accent
It was difficult – especially when coupled with his duties at the shop, and the added strain of trying to find sponsorship in a foreign country as a foreign driver.
But as he got more comfortable in the United States, and with the language, his talent as a driver started to produce victories. And opportunity.
As a member of Rev Racing and NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity’s Class of 2014, he showed enough to earn a spot in the No. 18 car with Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity Series in 2014.
Eleven months later, he won his first Xfinity pole, followed quickly by his victory and being named the series’ rookie of the year.
And in 2016, Suarez won the Xfinity Series championship, becoming the first foreign-born driver to do so.
And four years after struggling with the language, Suarez now speaks English well – to the point where, in a recent Spanish-language interview, he said “friends” instead of “amigos,” then giggled at the irony.
The accent is still there, and it’s thick, but he wears it well.
A troll on Twitter aggressively directed him earlier this year to work on his English or hire a translator – to which Suarez glibly replied, “I can speak Spanish and Portuguese to you as well, but I doubt you understand either.”
“I’m very, very proud of where I’m from, very proud of my accent,” he said, grinning. “A lot of people like it, a lot of people hate it. But that’s the way it is. And (at the same time), I think it’s something very cool that I have this opportunity (in America).”
It’s an interesting time for a native of Mexico to be the leading rookie of the year candidate in NASCAR’s top series. He is in the highly competitive car of Carl Edwards, who stepped away from the sport after being one of four drivers with a title shot in the 2016 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
That’s the same month Republican candidate Donald Trump was elected president after a contentious election in which he made a wall between the the U.S. and Mexico a key campaign promise. The relationship between the countries remains controversial.
NASCAR undeniably features drivers turning left while its fans lean hard right, and its CEO and chairman, Brian France, publicly endorsed Trump during the campaign.
And Suarez, a Mexican immigrant with a work visa, could be the sport’s next big thing.
I’m sure Trump is proud of this Mexican. Why? Because he has done things the right way. This Mexican has a work visa. This Mexican pays taxes to the U.S.
Alejandro Suarez, on his son Daniel
NASCAR, which is pouring resources into a message of inclusion, makes it clear that it is an entity separate from France’s endorsement.
“When Brian made that personal decision and personal endorsement, that’s what he did based on his personal relationship,” said Jill Gregory, who became NASCAR’s first female chief marketing officer in 2016. “What (the endorsement) didn’t change was NASCAR’s commitment to fan-base growth, to our fans that are younger and more diverse, and our continued commitment to our diversity programs across the organization.”
Suarez does not discuss politics, and both he and his father say the immediate group of drivers, teammates and NASCAR executives around Suarez is a warm one.
“I’m sure Trump is proud of this Mexican,” Alejandro said. “Why? Because he has done things the right way. This Mexican has a work visa. This Mexican pays taxes to the U.S.”
Still, he worries a little.
“The fear I have, more than anything, is the possibility of racism that someone, anyone may have toward a Mexican or someone not American,” he said. “But this person is not inside Daniel’s circle. It could be someone on the corner, someone who can be against anything any Latin American does.”
NASCAR, despite its efforts, is not diverse. In the field of 40 for Sunday’s Daytona 500, it has one female driver, one Cuban-American driver, one Japanese-American driver and Suarez. The other races this season will be no different.
But in Suarez, Gregory sees hope.
“A young driver like Daniel bringing the on-track and the off-track together really makes him appealing to fans across all of our demographics,” said Gregory. “He’s kind of the total package, from our standpoint.”
Even better for NASCAR, Suarez wants to help diversify the sport.
“If I was an American, born in America, I would like to have a diverse sport,” he said. “To have people from Mexico, from Brazil, from Argentina. That’s cool! Because you are bringing more different fans from different parts of the world into a sport.
“If I was a person born in the United States, I feel like that would be very cool.”
A young driver like Daniel bringing the on-track and the off-track together really makes him appealing to fans across all of our demographics. He’s kind of the total package, from our standpoint.
NASCAR chief marketing officer Jill Gregory
Some rival drivers have even voiced their support. Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeted that if it can’t be a Hendrick Motorsports driver who wins the pole at Daytona, he’d want it to be Suarez.
Being the complete marketing package is great, but Suarez wants to win races, too. There is glee in his voice as he discusses Daytona and the season beyond.
“Joey Logano told me, I thought it was funny, he told me ‘Man, I have one state behind me. You have an entire country,’ ” he laughed.
“And that’s true! I feel very, very lucky.”
Even fans – some of whom trolled Suarez on social media in his first year in the sport with racial slurs and harsh orders to speak better English – are warming to his charm.
Sunday, Suarez will walk out to the track and pull on his helmet. It features a green and white Mexican flag graphic draped around the top, the flag’s golden eagle at the crown. One of a kind, on a driver who is one of a kind.
Alejandro will be in the stands for his son’s biggest competition to date.
This time, he will have flown to the race.
After all his sacrifice, he’s thankful for those who now support his son.
“They’ve backed us in everything so we can make history,” Alejandro said, “which is what we’re trying to do.”
Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue
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