One month before the Daytona 500, more than 100 drivers from NASCAR’s top series converge on Charlotte’s downtown convention center for a two-day media event. Decked out in their fire suits, they speed-walk from meeting room to meeting room for interviews, photo shoots and promotional video tapings. For all but one of them, the day’s agenda is a breeze. Cup rookie Daniel Suárez, however, battles a few headwinds.
For starters, English is Suárez’s second language. When he first turned up in this town six years -ago—after a 1,500-mile road trip from his native Monterrey, Mexico, in a beat-up VW Beetle—he didn’t speak a lick of it. And while a steady diet of movies and cartoons has equipped him with a practical (if still heavily accented) fluency, there’s still so much that’s Greek to him.
Like the word -reliable—which Suárez keeps pronouncing as re-AL-ible while reading ad copy off a teleprompter. “I just can’t say that word,” he tells the production crew with a sheepish grin. “It’s been . . . for years. . . .”
Or, like the words to “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” the request of another crew taping promos for Texas Motor Speedway. When Suárez tries to oblige, with a producer feeding him the lines a few words at a time, his efforts prompt another driver to interrupt a photo shoot in a neighboring stall. “I gotta hear this!” Austin Dillon howls.
Every Suárez shoot, it seems, elicits the same note ultimately: That was great, but would you mind doing one more en Español? “I have to translate pretty much everything on the fly,” he explains later, noting how rare it is to see another Spanish speaker or a script on these pop-up sets. “I try to figure it out, put the best words together.”
That a NASCAR driver can shift gears like this says plenty.
NASCAR is, of course, a distinctly American show, one in which the good ol’ boys have always taken center stage. Now here comes the 25-year-old Suárez, striding into the -spotlight—not from the Deep South but from South of the Border. This season, while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, the most dominating franchise on the grid these days, he’ll make history as the first Mexican driver to race in the Cup series full-time, behind the wheel of the number 19 Toyota.
Suárez, meanwhile, appeared to be in for more seasoning. “I’ll never forget standing with Coach [aka JGR team owner and Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs] in Victory Lane after Daniel won,” says David Wilson, the general manager of Toyota’s racing program. “We were looking at each other like, Now what? How are we gonna convince him to run Xfinity one more year? We just didn’t have a place for him at the Cup level at that time.”Suárez made a persuasive case for the job last year while racing in the Xfinity Series, where he won three races on the way to becoming the first Latin American to claim a NASCAR championship. It was a stunning breakthrough, not least because his Gibbs teammate Erik Jones, just 20, had seemed to be the more likely breakout driver. Twenty races into the 2016 Xfinity Series, Jones was tapped to drive for Furniture Row Racing, a JGR affiliate competing on the Cup level, in ’17.
But then, just before Christmas, a spot opened up. Carl -Edwards—the back-flipping, muscle-rippling Missourian who came a restart away from taking the 2016 Cup crown—told JGR brass that his heart wasn’t in racing anymore and called it a career after a 13-year run on the Cup circuit. His abrupt departure follows the recent retirements of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, two of the sport’s major stars. Even more disconcerting: Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has been voted NASCAR’s most popular driver for the past 14 years straight, turned 42 last -October and is coming off a concussion-related- health issue that kept him off the track for half of last season. All the while, attendance figures and television ratings have trended downward.
So it’s no wonder that NASCAR moved to shake things up for the new year. In December a new partnership was announced, replacing Sprint as the primary sponsor of the Cup series with noted youth brand Monster Energy. Then, in late January, the sanctioning body rolled out a slew of new competition regulations in a bid to appeal to younger fans. Among the changes, races will be divided into three heats, with points awarded for each segment, in an effort to increase on-track action (sidebar, opposite).
NASCAR is also counting on a new generation of fresh-faced racers like Suárez to draw more millennials to the track. Never mind that the idea that fans would rally around a Mexican driver who—oh, by the way—drives a Japanese car seemed unthinkable once. But Suárez isn’t your typical foreign driver. He’s more familiar.
Suárez doesn’t really wear his heritage on his sleeve. A small Mexican-flag belt patch is the only hint of country you’ll find on his livery. What’s more, his trim build, ruddy cheeks and permanent five o’clock shadow conform to the young NASCAR driver stereotype. Really, unless he opened his mouth, you might reckon he was from North Carolina or Kentucky.
When Suárez does speak, it’s with marked confidence. His capacity for schmoozing is quickly becoming legendary. “We have a lot of things where we have sponsors come in here and do different two- and three-day events,” says Gibbs. “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. Or he’s driving go-karts. Stuff like that—he’s all over it.”
Suárez’s sparkling affability makes it difficult to imagine a time when he was more of a wallflower. But Joey Logano was a witness, some six years ago. “First time he came over to my house, we’re grilling burgers,” the Team Penske standout recalls. “He pulls up in this old Beetle. Didn’t know hardly any English. At the time, he was driving in the K&N series, and my roommate, Coleman Pressley, was his crew chief. I’m like, ‘Coleman, how do you even understand anything he says? How do you fix the car?’ And he’s like, ‘He has a translator, an actual person, to do that.’ He’s come a long, long ways.”
Suárez chuckles at the memory now. “Maybe for him it was just another day,” he says. “But for me it was a big deal to meet Joey Logano. And now that I’m going to be racing with these guys, it just feels very cool. It just feels like slowly I’ve been making my friends here in the United States [after] starting from the very bottom.”
Another of Suárez’s endearing qualities: He isn’t some open-wheel expat attempting a career crossover. He was made in the USA. The bulk of his racing background is in stock cars. Apart from his 58 starts in NASCAR’s Mexico series, Suárez climbed his way up as homegrown talents do, rising steadily from the ARCA level to K&N cars to the Truck -series—where he made a different sort of impression. “I thought he was a weapon on the racetrack,” Logano says, “the car you didn’t want to get near, for sure. To go from someone that you were scared to get around to now winning races? In, like, two years? That’s impressive.”
It has been a growth spurt that augurs well for Suárez’s most recent promotion. When he climbs into the number 19 for the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26, it will mark his first-ever point-scoring race in a Cup car. Beyond a test in Phoenix, a 75-lap all-star race, and the Can-Am Duel at Daytona (a 60-lap feature that sets the field for the 500), Suárez’s opportunities to acclimate to the bigger, more powerful Cup car are scarce. In the meantime he crams by turning laps inside Toyota’s dynamic simulator and studying video at home.
The pressure is enormous, but Logano can relate. Eight years ago he was an 18-year-old Gibbs rookie when he ran his first full-time schedule, starting at Daytona. “Daniel is far more prepared than I was,” says Logano. “He’s older, he’s more mature, he’s got a lot more experience. All I can say is just, Be patient. And I’m not saying for him to be patient. I’m telling everyone that’s reading this -article—be patient with him. Judging from his past, he struggles, but then he figures it out.”
Single-mindedness has been Suárez’s constant seatmate from the moment he followed a friend into go-karting at age 12. “I don’t really know where it came from,” he says. “My dad, he has some of that. I’m just one of those persons who likes to get things done. And when I get something in my head, I’m just thinking about it until I get it done.”