Aric Almirola looked up at the building pointing at the Miami sky and spotted the Cuban flag. “So this is how it all started,” the NASCAR driver said on a rare cold South Florida morning.
It was not difficult for him to imagine his paternal grandparents and his father going to the Freedom Tower in 1966, walking up the stairs to check in on their first day as Cuban immigrants. They brought just dreams and the desire to work, and no other wealth.
“They left everything behind in Cuba to start a new life, a better life,” said Almirola, the lone Cuban driver in NASCAR, the top U.S. racing circuit. “I honor that sacrifice by trying to be better every day of my career.”
When we talk about the “Cuban Missile,” our first thought might be of Aroldis Chapman, the pitcher who can repeatedly throw a baseball at more than 100 mph. But the nickname is more suited to Almirola.
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His father, Rafael, wanted him to play in the Major Leagues and never imagined his son would become one of the best-known NASCAR drivers starting in 2014, when he made a spectacular jump in his career by qualifying for the Chase, a sort of play-off for car racers.
Almirola was improving behind the wheel and his name was making the rounds when he crashed on May 13, along with Joey Logano and Danica Patrick, on a Kansas track and had to be airlifted by helicopter to the nearest hospital.
“I broke my back and spent eight hellish weeks recuperating,” said the 33-year-old Almirola. “I had doubts about my future. Where was I going to be at the end of 2017. Would I have another opportunity? Would I go back to NASCAR?”
Almirola also worried about his separation from his racing team, and had to wait for a new team that would hire him as the racing season was about to begin.
Luckily, he found a home with the Steward-Haas Racing Team aboard the Ford No. 10 car for the Cup Series competitions about to start soon.
“I have the opportunity to be with a top-tier organization that has won two of the last seven championships,” Almirola said. “Now all I have to do is to keep growing, improving in this sport, which is very demanding.”
Almirola knows that well because he’s made many sacrifices to join the list of elite race car drivers since he started racing Go-Karts at the age of 8. But he told himself that he would never stop for anything or anyone until he reached the peak of his profession.
From Go-Karts, he moved up to cars increasingly more complex until 2002, when he joined NASCAR’s development division. By the end of 2005 he was occasionally racing a Chevy for Spears Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series.
Now the Cuban Missile — the nickname was given to him by Tony Stewart after watching him race for the first time — is ready to make another big leap in his career.
“Every obstacle makes you stronger, and I learned that from my father, who used to tell me about all the hardships of coming from Cuba with nothing in 1966 and starting a new life,” said Almirola, visiting Miami on a promotional tour.
“And look at me now. This is proof that dreams are possible if there’s effort and courage, if your family supports you,” he said. “I am a NASCAR driver and I am visiting the Freedom Tower. This is a day I will never forget.”