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Young Mexican Driver Rises To Top Of NASCAR Ranks


NASCAR has been trying to broaden its appeal beyond the traditional base of Southern white men. One of its strategies is to put more people of color and women on the race track. Those efforts are starting to pay off. One of the hottest racers at the Daytona 500 this weekend will be Daniel Suarez. He's from Mexico. And last year, he became the first foreign-born driver to win what is essentially a NASCAR minor league. From member station WFAE, Michael Tomsic has more.

MICHAEL TOMSIC, BYLINE: Daniel Suarez dominated the championship race last year in the series one step below NASCAR's top circuit.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: As he comes out of turn number four, he will be the first ever international champion in NASCAR.

TOMSIC: Suarez was born in Mexico, and grew up racing there. Last year was only his second in what NASCAR calls its Xfinity Series. And now, at age 25, he'll compete at the top level for Joe Gibbs' racing team.


DANIEL SUAREZ: It is hard to believe that I'm in this position. I feel like I - it's just a perfect place to be for a rookie like me that is really hungry to learn and to go out there to perform well.

TOMSIC: He came up through NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program, which helps develop minority and female talent. It's already made a significant difference in the diversity on pit crews. This season, Suarez will become its second driver to make NASCAR's top circuit. His success is helping NASCAR gain fans in the Latino community, says Ruben Garcia Jr., a 21-year-old from Mexico City.

RUBEN GARCIA JR: People are starting to look into the world of NASCAR way more than they used to.

TOMSIC: Garcia is now in Drive for Diversity, and says he's trying to follow in Suarez's footsteps. He says the sport's popularity has also grown among Latinos because NASCAR started a series in Mexico about 10 years ago. NASCAR also has staff dedicated to creating Spanish-language content online and on social media. Jill Gregory is NASCAR's chief marketing officer.

JILL GREGORY: Any brand that's trying to make sure that they have growth in their sales or in their consumption, they need to get younger and more diverse. That's where our country is going. And so that's why you've seen us really make an investment in this area.

TOMSIC: She says Suarez's success helps. But she emphasizes he does all the things NASCAR needs any successful driver to do, regardless of ethnicity. He's skill on the track, charming with fans and great with sponsors. He's also earned the respect of fellow competitors, including Matt Kenseth.


MATT KENSETH: He's a really hard worker. He asks a lot of questions. He always, you know, wants advice, wants help, puts a lot of time into it.

TOMSIC: Another driver, Kyle Busch, jokes that Suarez may ask too many questions.


KYLE BUSCH: His rookie season at Xfinity, he came to me every single Thursday. I pretty much knew, it was set on the calendar - Daniel Suarez phone call, 3 o'clock. And we would talk about that weekend's race track and about what to do and what to expect.

TOMSIC: Busch says it showed how eager Suarez is to succeed. NASCAR has had Latino drivers since its early days. But they've been a small minority. And only three have won races at NASCAR's top level. Ruben Garcia Jr., says he's heard some trash talk from fans.

GARCIA JR: There is some times where people will think that it's better to have just American drivers in their sport because they feel like it's their sport, like they really own the sport. But NASCAR has been growing so much that it - now it is a international sport.

TOMSIC: Garcia says the positive comments he's heard vastly outnumber the negative ones. And Suarez takes pride in helping the sport grow.


SUAREZ: It's amazing to be able to be a role model for so many future new drivers or so many fans. I have seen how a lot of people from the entire Latin-American community follow the sport.

TOMSIC: They'll see Suarez compete on one of NASCAR's biggest stages this Sunday, The Daytona 500. For NPR News, I'm Michael Tomsic.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEFF BECK SONG, "ROY'S TOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Tomsic became a full-time reporter for WFAE in August 2012. Before that, he reported for the station as a freelancer and intern while he finished his senior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Heââ