Brehanna Daniels, first African-American woman to work on NASCAR pit crew
Brehanna Daniels has always wanted to be famous for acting.
But over the past few years, she’s repeatedly turned heads all over the country for other achievements.
Next up? Daniels — who made national headlines in 2017 and 2018 as the first African-American woman on NASCAR pit crews at a variety of levels — will find her name in lights for a new reason: The 24-year-old Concord resident will be a featured competitor on Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s splashy new reality competition series, “The Titan Games,” which premieres at 8 p.m. Thursday on NBC.
To her, all of this — the attention she’s gotten for her work in NASCAR, which led to her casting on TV, which she hopes might lead to her realization of her acting dreams — is one thing: The fulfillment of her mother’s prophecy.
“My mom always said, when I was growing up, that I would be somebody special in the world,” Daniels says.
From about the time she was 4, she hoped that that meant someday she would be a movie star. But as she got older, she felt there might be a chance that basketball — which she also started playing around age 4 — could be her ticket.
Both dreams were welcome distractions back then: 4 is also how old Daniels was when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Kimberly Daniels died Brehanna’s freshman year of high school.
“I was real close to my mom,” Daniels says. “You won’t know how that feels until it happens. People say, ‘I understand.’ It’s like, ‘No. You don’t.’”
She channeled her grief into basketball at Salem High School in Virginia Beach, and earned the interest of colleges. A 5-foot-4 guard, she spent a year playing on scholarship at a Nebraska community college, but felt she didn’t fit in. Then she transferred to Louisburg College in North Carolina, but never felt settled there, either.
She finally found her place as a junior, back where she started — at Norfolk State University, less than a 20-minute drive from her old high school — and averaged 13.9 points per game her senior year at the Division I school.
But as it became clear that the WNBA wasn’t going to come calling, and neither were the Hollywood casting agents, she decided to take a leap.
‘Who said I liked NASCAR?’
Daniels has told this story probably a thousand times, but she still seems to relish it.
In April 2016, a month before she would graduate, she was eating lunch on campus when Tiffany Sykes (then the NCAA eligibility specialist for Norfolk State’s athletics department) tapped her on the shoulder, told her the NASCAR Drive for Diversity pit crew development program was holding a tryout at the school in two days, and that Daniels should try out.
“I looked at her, like, ‘NASCAR? What are you telling me this for?’” Daniels recalls. “‘Who said I liked NASCAR?’”
Sykes was responsible for making the arrangements with the NASCAR program, which recruits multicultural and female college athletes and tries to develop them into tire changers, tire carriers and jackmen. But she wasn’t having much luck convincing students at the historically black university to give a historically white (and historically male-dominated) sport a shot. But when Daniels woke up two mornings later, she says, “Something told me, ‘You have to go to this tryout.’”
She was the only female student out of the eight who showed up, and she aced Drive for Diversity pit crew coach Phil Horton’s test.
“She wasn’t intimidated, she wasn’t shy, she wasn’t standoffish,” Horton says. “She wanted to show us how athletic she was, and how she could beat the boys. She was special.”
Three weeks later, Daniels was at the Drive for Diversity program’s first-ever national combine in Concord, along with 17 other athletes. Of those, seven men and two women — Daniels and Breanna O’Leary — made the cut and were invited to spend the next year receiving expert pit-crew member training at Concord’s Rev Racing. The goal: full-time employment with NASCAR national series race teams.
Typically, Horton says, the jobs of tire carrier and jackman are more about power and strength, and a good deal of them are former football players. Tire changing, meanwhile, is more about finesse and hand speed. It’s about using a powerful impact wrench to hit all five lug nuts in 1.5 seconds — or, better yet, even faster.
Daniels was doing it in about a second flat within months. Within a year, she was making history.
On April 8, 2017, at an ARCA event in Tennessee, Daniels became the first African-American female to go over the wall in a national racing series, as the rear tire changer for Dale Shearer. Less than two months later, at a Camping World Truck Series race at Dover International Speedway, she became the first African-American woman to pit a vehicle in a national NASCAR series race, as a tire changer for Cody Ware. The next day, she broke another barrier when she leveled up to an Xfinity Series event and changed tires for Mike Harmon.
But perhaps the biggest break came this past July 7, when Daniels became the first African-American woman to work a pit crew in NASCAR’s prestigious Cup series (as well as half of the first female duo — along with O’Leary, now her roommate — to be on the same pit crew in a Cup race), for Ray Black Jr. at the Coke Zero 400 in Daytona Beach.
And she may well continue staking claims to firsts. She’s set on becoming the first African-American to work a pit crew at the Daytona 500, and the first to earn full-time employment with a Cup series race team.
But he worries, a bit, that being on this new reality TV series with “The Rock” might distract her.
Has she ‘made it’ yet?
It’s fascinating to talk to Daniels about her interest in becoming an actress because she seems to have put minimal thought and effort into it.
She talks vaguely about “some plays I did when I was younger” and that she appeared in a couple of commercials, but says she was too busy with her school and travel basketball teams and “sometimes you’ve gotta pick and choose.” In college, she says being a scholarship athlete made it impossible for her to study drama and theater, and instead majoring in mass communications because “that was the closest thing” that might set her on a path to acting.
(Says her father, Luxley Daniels: “Brehanna always seemed to think that everything was achievable, even though she sometimes had no concept of how to get there.”)
But stranger things have happened to Daniels when she wasn’t even really trying to make them happen.
She didn’t have to beg and plead for a chance to work in her current profession — Tiffany Sykes walked up to her on campus and dropped the NASCAR opportunity in her lap. She didn’t fill out mountains of applications and get a hundred rejections from reality TV producers, like most wannabes do — a producer for “The Titan Games” contacted her out of the clear blue about competing on the first season, their interest having been piqued by Daniels’s NASCAR backstory.
She’s not afraid of hard work, and she’s put in a ton to get to where she is, but she owes at least some of her stardom to happenstance.
And she’s loving it.
“Oh, she’s loving it,” Horton says of the attention she’s getting for being selected for the “American Gladiators”-style show. “But it was a distraction. We were in the middle of the season (when she left to compete), and it took away from some of her practice time. She’s got to get in here, she’s got to work on that speed, she’s got to be consistent at it.
“I have to remind her not to get too carried away with those things and not to let it take away from her ultimate goal. I have to keep her focused. ... She thinks she’s already made it. And I have to remind her, ‘You haven’t made it yet.’”
Of course, that all depends on how you define “making it.” If you define it as becoming the first African-American woman to earn full-time employment with a Cup series race team, no, she hasn’t made it yet. If you define it as becoming a famous actress, nope, getting on “The Titan Games” doesn’t count.
But Daniels says she knows exactly what her mother would have to say about all this.
“‘Baby girl, you’re doin’ it.’ She would say, ‘I always knew you’d be somebody special — very special — in the world, and you’re about to be on TV! You always wanted to be on TV!’
Daniels pauses, and tugs at her mom’s gold bracelet, which she’s worn on her left wrist every day since her mother died.
“I know my mom’s looking down on me from heaven. She’s looking down, and she’s going, ‘Girl, you just keep doing you.’”
Théoden Janes: 704-358-5897, @theodenjanes