NASCAR & Auto Racing

Daniel Suarez proud to be making NASCAR history

Daniel Suarez holds the winners trophy after winning the NASCAR Xfinity series auto race at Michigan International Speedway, Saturday, June 11, 2016 in Brooklyn, Mich. The was the first Xfinity win for Suarez.
Daniel Suarez holds the winners trophy after winning the NASCAR Xfinity series auto race at Michigan International Speedway, Saturday, June 11, 2016 in Brooklyn, Mich. The was the first Xfinity win for Suarez. AP

Daniel Suarez knew this was coming.

It has been a whirlwind week for Suarez, who made history June 11 when he won the Xfinity Series race at Michigan International Speedway, becoming the first Mexican-born driver to win a race in one of NASCAR’s three national series.

Win on the NASCAR circuit, and the following week will be hectic. Do what Suarez did, and the number of compulsory media interviews, appearances and sponsor commitments grows exponentially.

“I didn’t really know how this was going to be,” Suarez told the Charlotte Observer, sitting in an office on the 20th floor of NASCAR’s uptown headquarters. “I knew once we got that win, we were going to have a busy week. So here we are now. If we can win every week, I can do this every week. No problem.”

Suarez, 24, has had plenty to talk about and share. He joins Mario Andretti (Italy), Larry Pollard (Canada), Earl Ross (Canada), Ron Fellows (Canada), Juan Pablo Montoya (Colombia), Nelson Piquet Jr. (Brazil) and Marcos Ambrose (Australia) in a small group of foreign-born drivers to win a NASCAR national-series race.

We saw this in Daniel. He’s pursuing (his dream) with a passion and checking some big boxes here.

Steve deSouza, Joe Gibbs Racing’s president of Xfinity development

Suarez has also been atop the Xfinity Series points standings for six consecutive weeks, the first foreign-born driver to lead the standings in any of NASCAR’s three national series.

He will go for his second victory Sunday in an Xfinity race at Iowa Speedway (he also was entered in Saturday’s Truck Series race).

Suarez, last season’s Rookie of the Year in the Xfinity Series, had already come close to winning this year, with four previous top-five finishes.

“I think it was time [to win], for sure,” Suarez said. “But the wait was well worth it, for sure. I’m happy and proud for my team.”

A breakout star

A product of NASCAR’s Drive For Diversity and NASCAR Next programs, Suarez has been on the sport’s short list of potential breakout stars for several years.

Suarez’s interest in cars came early. His father ran a car restoration shop in Monterrey, Mexico, and Daniel started racing go karts when he was 11.

They were a two-man team, driving around the country with the go kart in the back of the family’s pickup truck. His dad served as mechanic and crew chief.

“It started as a hobby,” Suarez said. “But we didn’t have much money. We were always looking for a sponsor and money. We had to somehow find a way to pull me to the next level.”

Suarez is the first foreign-born driver to lead the points standings in one of NASCAR’s national divisions.

Jim Morales ran a race team in Mexico and saw Suarez’s potential. By the time Suarez was 16, he was racing Mini Stocks in NASCAR Mexico.

Morales advised Suarez his best chances to advance in the sport were to head to Europe for open-wheel racing or the United States for NASCAR. At first, Suarez chose Europe. But after a year in Italy, he gave NASCAR a try.

Suarez moved to the Charlotte area in 2011, but his first year in the United States was difficult. Suarez drove for an independent team in racing’s lower levels with no success.

“I wasn’t making any gains,” Suarez said. “I wasn’t learning anything. From the beginning to the end of the year, it was the same.”

Learning the language

Something else was holding Suarez back. Before he could succeed in NASCAR, he would have to learn to speak English.

“ ‘You have the talent to do something big in the United States,’ ” Morales told Suarez. “ ‘But if you’re not able to communicate with people, everything will be wasted.’ ”

With little formal English instruction, Suarez, who briefly attended college in Mexico, immersed himself in learning the language in the United States.

He practiced speaking with the engineers and mechanics at the race shop. He made a point of watching English-speaking television and movies.

11 Top-10 finishes in 13 Xfinity races this season for Suarez

“I didn’t want to lose my opportunity because I didn’t speak English,” Suarez said.

Suarez is fluent in English now. He speaks easily and confidently during the many interviews he gives each week to the NASCAR media.

Things also began to change for Suarez in 2013 when he was tabbed for the Drive For Diversity, NASCAR’s development system that spotlights minority and female drivers. He was also chosen for NASCAR Next, which helps prepare selected young drivers.

“It was huge, being in those programs,” Suarez said.

He won three races in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East in 2013 and ’14. He drove in three Xfinity races in 2014, during which he was noticed by Joe Gibbs Racing, which signed him to its Xfinity team.

Suarez finished his Rookie-of-the-Year campaign in the Xfinity Series with eight top-fives.

And despite problems during last week’s race at Michigan, including a pit-road penalty, Suarez won by overtaking Kyle Busch, one of his mentors at JGR and the owner of his Truck series team, late in the race.

“We saw this in Daniel,” said Steve deSouza, JGR’s president of Xfinity development. “He’s pursuing [his dream] with a passion and checking some big boxes here.”

‘Skill, fortitude, passion’

The reaction to Suarez’s victory was overwhelmingly positive, with Cup drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and commentator Michael Waltrip offering their congratulations.

“Daniel Suarez has competed in NASCAR for a relatively brief time, yet his impact on the sport has been immeasurable,” NASCAR chairman Brian France said in a statement. “Combining impressive talent and an incredible personality, Daniel has attracted fans throughout North America.

“[Saturday’s] victory proved what many already knew: Daniel has the skill, fortitude and passion for future NASCAR stardom.”

Henrique Baca, a close friend of Suarez who is part of this year’s Drive For Diversity class and also a native of Monterrey, said Suarez’s victory has quickly resonated throughout the Hispanic racing community.

“It’s like a feeling I’ve never had, when I watched him win,” said Baca, who is racing in NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series. “He is like my brother, so it was a super happy feeling for me.”

Suarez said he was inspired by Hispanic drivers who came before him, especially Colombia’s Montoya (who is now driving in the IndyCar Series) and Brazil’s Piquet.

I’m a quick study. I wanted to have a great career in something, but I knew that if I didn’t have English, it wouldn’t be in racing.

Daniel Suarez

Suarez said he has become increasingly engrained in Charlotte’s Hispanic community.

“I know a few [Mexican] restaurants here in Charlotte — all of them, actually,” he said. “Every time I go to these places, the people go crazy.”