Daytona 500 BEACH, Fla. — For the first time in the Daytona 500, female pit crew members from the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program will go over the wall, changing tires for the No. 52 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet.
Brehanna Daniels and Breanna O’Leary were college athletes recruited in 2016 by the diversity program, which helps female and minority athletes train as drivers and pit crew members and break through in the predominantly white male sport. Daniels is also the first African-American female tire changer to pit in a NASCAR national series.
“I had no thought of being in the Daytona 500 this soon, but now that I think about it, I’m ready,” said Daniels, a 25-year-old tire changer who played basketball for Norfolk State. “I found out I was on a deal for this race, and I was like, ‘Let’s go!’”
Also roommates in Charlotte, Daniels and O’Leary first pitted together on the same team in the 2018 Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway in July — it was also Daniels’ Cup Series debut – and only five other women before them had pitted in a Cup race.
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NASCAR said doesn’t have the records to confirm if they’re the first women to pit in the Daytona 500’s 61-year history, but they’re the first from the diversity program, which began in 2004. The 2019 Daytona 500 is Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET on FOX.
Breanna O’Leary (Photo courtesy of NASCAR, Rev Racing)
Although they were on different teams, Daniels and O’Leary also got some race practice in the days leading up to the Daytona 500, pitting in the Truck Series race Friday and the XFINITY Series race Saturday.
“I get nervous all the time, but it’s about controlling that nervousness, and my adrenaline kicks in so it balances out,” Daniels added. “I’m very very excited, and it’s a dream come true.”
But it wasn’t always her dream — or O’Leary’s.
Neither woman knew much about NASCAR, other than it existed, when they were first recruited. Like so many other college athletes who transition to NASCAR, training to be on a pit crew offers an opportunity to still be a pro athlete, just in a different sport. While Daniels was a point guard, O’Leary played softball for Alcorn State.
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“Going into this, I didn’t understand the impact I could have,” said O’Leary, the now-27 year old who pitted her first Cup race at Michigan International Speedway in June 2018.
“It was just me trying something new. But now, I think the most rewarding part is having parents tell me, ‘Oh my gosh, my daughter has somebody to look up to. She can see her face in the sport.’”
Brehanna Daniels (Photo courtesy of NASCAR, Rev Racing)
O’Leary said she was handing out lugnuts to fans Friday when she met a dad and his toddler daughter. The girl took a lugnut and said, “‘Good job, Bre,’” O’Leary explained. Daniels said parents also regularly send her photos of their kids helping change regular tires and pretending to be her.
Those are just a couple examples of the profound impact representation can have when people, particularly children, see others who look like them doing something cool or impressive.
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While it typically takes Drive for Diversity pit crew members three to five years to get to their first Cup Series event, Daniels and O’Leary did it in about two and a half, said Phil Horton, the director of athletic performance for the Drive for Diversity program, which is managed through Rev Racing.
But their presence on driver Cody Ware’s pit isn’t a publicity stunt, he said.
Any time a graduate of the diversity program goes over the wall, Horton’s reputation as a pit crew coach for nearly two decades in NASCAR is on the line. They’re held to the same performance standard as male pit crew members.
Program graduates @Mindless_BMD and @breoleary3 will compete TOGETHER on #52 @RickWareRacing at the #DAYTONA500 pic.twitter.com/raCjUImGqx
— Drive for Diversity Pit Crew (@dpitcrew) February 15, 2019
“They did a really good job,” Horton said of their performance at Daytona last summer on the No. 51 Chevrolet, which finished 16th. “If they had failed last summer, they wouldn’t be here today.
“It might be a publicity stunt if they were with a top team running up front. They’re in their developmental stage, and they still have some growing themselves to do. If they were on one of the top teams, that would be a publicity stunt because they wouldn’t be ready for that.”
Following the Daytona 500, they are expected to pit the full season with Rick Ware Racing, but nothing is guaranteed, Horton said. The end goal for all diversity program graduates is eventually working full-time at NASCAR’s highest level.
“Me and her have been through a lot, so we appreciate each other and the whole process,” Daniels said.
“We actually understand each other and can talk about everything that we’re doing and things that are going on. That makes the process smoother, to have somebody always in your corner.”
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