About four hours before Sunday’s NASCAR Cup series race at Sonoma Raceway, on the edge of Northern California’s wine country, Daniel Suárez followed a mariachi band onto a raised platform in front of about 350 people wearing red T-shirts that identified them as “Daniel’s Amigos.”
For nearly an hour, Suárez spoke to the crowd of mainly young Mexican-Americans about his journey, hoping to inspire them and introduce them to auto racing. It’s something he does frequently on the NASCAR circuit.
This time, however, he went out and drove home that message by dominating a 36-car field to become the first Mexican and second Latin American-born driver to win a race in NASCAR’s top series.
"It's crazy," Suárez said. "I have so many thoughts in my head right now. It's been a rough journey in the Cup Series, and these guys believed in me.
“I have a lot of people to thank in Mexico. My family, they never gave up on me. A lot of people did, but they didn't. I'm just happy we were able to make it work."
Suárez, racing in his 195th Cup Series event, took the lead from Chris Buescher on Lap 60, just below the large white tent where the “Daniel’s Amigos” crowd was gathered. Suárez ran on Buescher’s back bumper heading into Turn 7, at the end of a downhill portion of the challenging 1.99-mile road course, then muscled his way by when Buescher missed the sharp right-hand turn.
After taking the lead, Suárez said he looked up at the red-clad crowd of supporters on the hill. It was now they who were inspiring him.
“All of them were cheering. All of them were excited,” he said. “I wasn't going to let them down.”
He didn’t, leading through a caution and a pit stop for all but three of the final 50 laps, his margin over Buescher growing to half a straightway by the finish. When he finally passed under the checkered flag, it completed a journey Suárez said was as difficult as it is commonplace.
“My story is very similar to many, many Mexicans, Latinos,” he said. “Coming to this country, trying to find a goal or trying to find the dream. If I was able to make it happen, everyone out there can make it happen.”
Suárez, 30, started racing as a 10-year-old, competing in karting events in northern Mexico. Five years later, he won the class championship and by the time he turned 16 he was racing in the preliminary category of NASCAR Mexico, becoming the youngest driver to win a race in the mini-stocks series.
That earned him an invitation to Charlotte, N.C., which is to NASCAR what Nashville is to country music. But Suárez arrived with little money and even less familiarity with English, something he feared would derail his career before it had even started.
“I have known for a long time that I have a gift to drive cars. I wasn't worried about learning how to drive,” he said. “I was worried about how am I going to be able to communicate, because if you can't communicate, I won't be able to take it to the next level.
“I didn't have money to go to classes. So I had to learn by myself watching movies and reading. It was tough.”
So tough that Suárez said he almost returned to Mexico after only two years. But the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program, established to attract and groom female and minority drivers like Suárez, took him on.
“They gave me an opportunity,” he said. “That kept me alive.”
He didn’t just stay alive, he thrived, winning the Xfinity Series season title in 2016, becoming the first foreign-born driver to lead the championship points standings in any of NASCAR’S top three national series. And in his first three seasons on the Cup circuit, he had eight top-five finishers — and almost as much bad luck, which kept him from breaking through.
“He had this chip on his shoulder. And he wanted to prove to the world that he belonged in the Cup series,” said Justin Marks, a former driver and co-founder of Trackhouse Racing, a fledging sports and entertainment group that signed Suárez in October 2020.
That season, Suárez’s average finish was 26th. But in his first full year with Trackhouse, he placed in the top 10 four times.
He has already topped that in 16 starts this season.
“It's been quite a journey. But those tough moments and those ups and downs is what makes this moment so special,” said Suárez, who admitted he cried as he rounded the track for the final time Sunday.
One of the first calls he took after the race was from his mother, who was watching in Mexico. She was crying too. Suárez is flying Monday to celebrate with her.
On Sunday, however, he celebrated with his crew — and his amigos. After he crossed the finish line, his crew swarmed the No. 99 car alongside the small protective wall fronting the pits. When Suárez climbed out, he pulled off a helmet emblazoned with the Mexican and U.S. flags, embraced girlfriend Julia Piquet, daughter of three-time Formula 1 champion Nelson Piquet, and punched a hole through a chocolate-filled piñata his team has been carrying around, waiting for a win to break it open.
“I didn’t have a stick,” Suárez said of the punch.
The driver then grabbed a trackside microphone, turned to the tent on the hill above Turn 7 and addressed “Daniel’s Amigos” in Spanish.
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for believing in me.”
The feeling, they shouted back, was mutual.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.