Daniel Suarez knew this was coming.
It has been a whirlwind week for Suarez, who made history last Saturday 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.
And that’s OK with Suarez.
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“I didn’t really know how this was going to be,” Suarez told the 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’ll go for his second victory Sunday in an Xfinity race at Iowa Speedway (he’s also entered in Saturday’s Truck series race at Iowa).
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 and naturally. 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. My dad and myself wanted to do something more in the sport, to be more professional, but we had no experience in what we were doing.”
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 and became the youngest driver to win a race in that series. He was a star on the rise.
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 decided to give 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 Suarez 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 after he arrived in the U.S.
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,” said Suarez. “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.”
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 for a career in the sport.
“It was huge, being in those programs,” Suarez said. “When I got to the U.S., I wasn’t able to see where I could go. I’d probably be back in Mexico right now.”
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 made the most of that opportunity. He was last season’s rookie of the year in the Xfinity Series, finishing fifth in points with eight top-fives.
All that was missing was a victory.
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. It is a great goal for Latino and Hispanic drivers to be able to accomplish what he has. For him to win was a dream come true, not only for Daniel, but for me and drivers from all over Mexico.”
Suarez said he was inspired by Latino 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.
“What we’re doing now will go a long way to help other Latin American racers, Mexicans, to come here to this great sport and this great country and find an opportunity,” Suarez said. “It’s exactly what happened to me. There are several racers who I know who are doing it the right way in Mexico; some are trying to do something here in the U.S. What we’re doing now could help them realize that what we’re doing is possible.
“It’s not a far-off dream. It requires a lot of work and sacrifice, but it’s something that can be done. Definitely, the opportunity is there, we just have to wait and see who can take advantage of it.”
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.”
Saturday night, after returning from Michigan, Suarez took his JGR team out to dinner at a local restaurant, one that featured an autographed photo of Suarez hanging from the wall. The restaurant, which was supposed to close at 10 p.m., stayed open until 11:30 for the celebration.
“Everyone who works at the restaurant was there,” said Suarez. “It was really fulfilling to connect with those guys. And having my teammates there to see it and be a part of it, that was something really cool.
“But this isn’t something we can build in a week. We will build it slowly. One day we will have a strong fan base and we will bring a lot of people to the race track.”