(Photo: Rob Foldy, USA TODAY Sports)
While soccer hinchas still can’t get Brazil’s impressive and heartbreaking downfall (on their own soil no less) out of their heads, last Sunday burning-wheel enthusiasts experienced a particularly rousing coup at Daytona International Speedway. No slight feat: Cuban American driver Aric Almirola won his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, becoming the third Latino to ever win a race at this level, after former F1 Colombian superstar Juan Pablo Montoya and Brazilian Nelson Piquet Jr, son of the three-time F1 world champion who bears the same name.
Almirola is not only a gifted driver but also a passionate one. He knows his stuff and this could be the milestone for Latino racers to finally breakthrough. (Ed Note: readers may remember our foray into the Daytona 500 last year — since then, the sport has continued its campaign to diversify its fan base and competitors.) After Almirola’s impressive win in 2014 Coke Zero 400, we had a brief chat with our new favorite NASCAR Series driver. If you haven’t heard of him yet, we broke down the most important things you need to know to make sure that next time you hear “Cuban Missile,” you don’t even dare to think of a bunch of soviet comrades placing firecrackers in La Habana Vieja.
Almirola has been around boxes and wheels all his life and started racing go-carts when he was only 8. He grew up in Tampa, only two hours from Daytona, and attended a lot of races as a kid with his grandpa, Sam Rodriguez, a former dirt sprint car racer back in the day and a legend in Florida racing circles. He was the one who taught Aric all the basics. Later on, his own father became Rodriguez’s crew chief and every week the whole Almirola bunch took to the road and travelled around the East Coast looking for some action. When he retired from the tracks, Sam passed down his own old rocket to his grandchild… and that was the beginning. Since NASCAR isn’t exactly known for having Hispanics among the best contestants, Aric’s groundbreaking deed is something we should be proud of.
El Cuarenta y tres.
As he zipped toward the checkered flag at Daytona Speedway, Almirola not only made history for himself and for Latino racing, but also for his team: Richard Petty Motorsports. It is not a coincidence though that of all places, Daytona had to be the one. Thirty years after the NASCAR legend Richard Petty drove his trademark blue No. 43 to his 200th Cup win in this same circuit, Aric Almirola took No. 43 to the victory lane again. No other driver had placed the celebrated number back on top since 1999. Petty, also known as “The King,” is a seven-time series champion who won a record 200 races. “He was my childhood hero” said Almirola “A great driver and a true gentleman. If you wanted his autograph you had to make a long line, but he would give an autograph to every last kid no matter how long it took”. Un caballero, indeed.
We love epic triumph stories. And what is more epic in sports than an upset? That’s what happened here. Would you believe that a guy who never finished higher than 18th in the Sprint Cup Series standings, would manage to get a wild card to NASCAR’s great party this fall? Neither did I. Well, Aric did it. Not only did he win a major race, but it was one of a kind: a rainy and wrecked one with two massive collisions of 16 and 26 cars, respectively. Plus, NASCAR’s new win-and-in Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff system this podium means we’re going to see Aric compete against the best this season, and maybe he can challenge the great names of NASCAR once again.