Mexican Driver Makes Leap To NASCAR’s Top Circuit
NASCAR's efforts to increase diversity are starting to pay dividends behind the wheel. Last year, Daniel Suarez became the first foreign-born driver to win a national title in what's essentially a NASCAR minor league. This year, the 25-year-old from Mexico will race full-time in the sport's top circuit. He's a graduate of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program, and he's one reason the sport is becoming more popular among Latinos.
Daniel Suarez dominated the championship race last year in the series one step below NASCAR's top circuit.
Suarez was born in Mexico and grew up racing there. Breathless after winning the XFINITY Series, he thought back a few years to when his dad and NASCAR helped him make a change.
"They gave me the opportunity to move to the U.S., to learn English, to start a new life and try to follow a dream," he said. "Thanks to that, we are here right now."
He came up through NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, which helps develop minority and female talent. It's already made a significant difference in the diversity on pit crews. And this season, Suarez will become the second driver from the program to make the sport's top circuit, now called the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
His success is helping NASCAR gain fans in the Latino community, says Ruben Garcia Jr., a 21-year-old driver from Mexico City.
"People are starting to look into the world of NASCAR way more than they used to," he says.
Garcia is now in Drive for Diversity and says he's trying to follow in Suarez's footsteps. He says the sport's popularity has also grown among Latinos because NASCAR started a series in Mexico 10 years ago.
Most of the top American races are broadcast in Spanish now, and NASCAR has staff dedicated to creating Spanish-language content online and on social media.
"Any brand that's trying to make sure that they have growth in their sales or in their consumption, they need to get younger and more diverse," says Jill Gregory, NASCAR's chief marketing officer. "That's where our country is going, and so that's why you've seen us really make an investment in this area."
She says Suarez's success has helped with Latino engagement. She also points out he does all the things NASCAR needs any successful driver to do, regardless of ethnicity. He's highly skilled on the track, charming with fans and great with sponsors.
Race team owner Joe Gibbs backs that up.
"He's all over it," Gibbs says. "We'd be down at the bowling alley with a sponsor that had nothing to do with Daniel, and I'd turn around and there he is – he's bowling."
Communications company ARRIS is a sponsor. Executive Vice President Ron Coppock says Suarez brings the global aspect to the business.
"One of our largest-growing regions internationally is Latin America," he says. "That does not just include Mexico but all of Latin America. Danny has become a rock star."
Coppock says he saw fans and TV crews mob Suarez in Mexico City last year.
Suarez has also earned the respect of fellow drivers, including Matt Kenseth.
"He's a really hard worker," Kenseth says. "He asks a lot of questions. He always wants advice, wants help, puts a lot of time into it."
Another driver, Kyle Busch, jokes that Suarez may ask too many questions.
"His rookie season in Xfinity, he came to me every single Thursday," Busch says. "I pretty much knew it was set on the calendar: Daniel Suarez phone call, 3:00. We would talk about that weekend's racetrack and about what to do, what to expect, this and that, practice and tire wear. He wore me out, that's for sure."
Busch says it showed how eager Suarez is to succeed.
NASCAR has had Latino drivers since its early days. But they've been a small minority, and only three have won races at NASCAR’s top level. Ruben Garcia Jr., who's trying to follow in Suarez's footsteps, says there will always be haters.
"There are sometimes where people will think it's better just to have American drivers in their sport because they feel like it's their sport, like they really own the sport," he says. "But NASCAR has been growing so much that now it is an international sport."
Garcia says the positive comments he hears vastly outweigh the negative ones. He says he has detractors among his fellow Mexicans too – that’s just part of being in the spotlight.
Suarez relishes that.
"It's been amazing to be able to be a role model for so many future new drivers or so many fans," he says. "I have seen how a lot of people from the entire Latin American community follow the sport."
He wants to bring even more out to the racetrack, starting with the Daytona 500 this Sunday.