The first stop for Aric Almirola every time he steps off the plane in South Florida ahead of a race weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway is to find somewhere to get Cuban food for lunch.
Almirola, whose father emigrated from Cuba in the 1960s, grew up in Tampa, but now lives in North Carolina like so many of his fellow drivers do. There are certain things he just can’t get up in the Carolinas.
“That Cuban culture — the Cuban food, the Cuban people, that warm, huggy, touch, feely — you don’t get that in North Carolina,” Almirola said, “and you certainly don’t get Cuban food in North Carolina, so I miss that and that’s a must-do for me as soon as I get off the airplane.”
The annual trip to the Miami metropolitan area for Almirola is only a few weeks away. He’ll be back in Miami next week ahead of the Ford EcoBoost 400 in Homestead on Nov. 17, when he’ll drive the No. 10 Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing in the final race of the season. Although he won’t be part of the final four vying for the NASCAR Cup Series championship, Almirola will have a chance to continue a strong finish to a frustrating, up-and-down season.
His year began with success. He finished in the top 10 in six of the first seven races of the season before crumbling in the middle section of the calendar. But then Almirola only cracked the top 10 in three of his next 23 races. He reached the Round of 16 of the Cup Series playoffs, but fell short of the Round of 12 in September because of a 14th-place finish at the Bank of American Roval 400 in Charlotte.
The last four weeks have been encouraging, though. Almirola finished in the top five twice in four weeks and now has two more weeks to keep building on his strong finish, starting with the penultimate race of the season Sunday at the Bluegreen Vacations 500 in Avondale, Arizona.
“I feel like as of late we’ve kind of turned a corner,” Almirola said. “Our level of competitiveness has gotten a lot better, and we’re starting to put races back together to where we’re running up front.”
His trips to Miami always come with a little bit of a home-track advantage, too, for the driver fans affectionately refer to as, “The Cuban Missile.”
Almirola, 35, has seen the way interest from Hispanic fans in his sport has increased since he began driving.
He sees it most clearly whenever he has an autograph signing or fan-interaction event. For an hour-long autograph session, Almirola will typically meet with about 200 fans and actually get to spend time sharing a few words with each. In these moments, it’s more clear than ever the influence he and other Hispanic drivers are having on the sport.
“I’ve really noticed over the last several years that in those one-hour autograph sessions, the percentage and the amount of Hispanic fan base has really grown over the last several years, and I’m proud of that. I really am,” Almirola said. “It makes me feel good that my people — the people I closely relate to — are paying attention, and watching and supporting.”