‘No scenario is too big’ for barrier-busting NASCAR star Daniel Suarez

Suarez has been a barrier-breaking star as the sport’s first Mexican-born driver to win a Cup Series race and has established himself as a perennial top-20 driver.

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Daniel Suarez is coming off his best season in the NASCAR Cup Series. He finished 10th in the driver standings in 2022. He’ll have strong support from Chicago’s Hispanic population at the street race.

Daniel Suarez is coming off his best season in the NASCAR Cup Series. He finished 10th in the driver standings in 2022. He’ll have strong support from Chicago’s Hispanic population at the street race.

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

When Daniel Suarez arrives at the NASCAR Chicago Street Race, he’ll be enamored with the thrillingly tight turns and striking skyline, like all the other drivers. But he’ll also be scanning his surroundings for something even more meaningful to him.

Suarez has been a barrier-breaking star as the sport’s first Mexican-born driver to win a Cup Series race and has established himself as a perennial top-20 driver. He’s coming off his best season, finishing 10th.

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His success has propelled him from modest means growing up in Monterrey to all kinds of accolades. He already has had cameos in multiple movies — he’s the voice of Danny Swervez in ‘‘Cars 3’’ — and has been invited to tell his story to students at a special event at the White House. That’s quite an arrival for someone who began his racing career in a go-kart, as he and his dad learned how to maintain them on the fly.

For all he has accomplished, though, he still feels like an outsider at times, and it’s refreshing when he competes in parts of the country that have a significant Mexican fan base. Knowing he’ll get that in Chicago, where 29% of the population is Hispanic, makes the race even better.

“Every time I see a Mexican flag in the grandstands, I know who they’re supporting,” Suarez told the Sun-Times. “There’s only one.

Daniel Suarez fans display a variation of the Mexican flag bearing his name.

Daniel Suarez fans display a variation of the Mexican flag bearing his name.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“It’s very special to me. I wouldn’t trade my position for anything else. It’s very special to be different and be in a sport where it’s not very common to see drivers from different countries. Hopefully we look back, and I can see myself as one of the drivers that was able to take a step to make the sport more diverse and more international.”

As Suarez ascends, his clout has grown beyond his home country. He’s one of the most recognizable names in NASCAR and figures to be in the mix to win in Chicago.

He never dreamed about something like that as a kid. He didn’t even know the job of professional race-car driver existed.

He was 11 when he got started on go-karts, racing at a track about an hour from his home, and just kept winning. From there, he got a shot in the NASCAR PEAK Mexico Series and won some more. That led to NASCAR recruiting him to its Drive for Diversity program, in which he earned his way into the Cup Series.

But nothing came easily for Suarez. When he got the invitation to Charlotte, North Carolina, as a 21-year-old to enter Drive for Diversity in 2013, he had to drive 2,400 miles from Monterrey. He and his dad rebuilt the engine, ignition and suspension on a black 1994 Volkswagen Beetle — he still owns it and said, “It’s one of my babies” — and it took Suarez three days to reach Charlotte.

“Beetles aren’t very quick,” he said with a laugh. “It was in good shape but not great shape. . . . I was just hoping it was gonna make it.”

The other hurdles were more substantial. He’d eventually be racing against drivers who grew up immersed in the sport and had every advantage. He also didn’t know much about life in America and spoke almost no English.

Language was the biggest obstacle, and because he couldn’t afford classes, Suarez taught himself by watching cartoons and movies, reading and trying his best to pick out words and phrases when he heard people having conversations. Ten years later, he still humbly downplays his fluency but handles interviews in English without skipping a beat.

“It’s very cool to see what I have been able to get without having money, experience or contacts, really,” he said. “It’s been a hell of a journey.”

Daniel Suarez (left) finished 17th in the NOCO 400 at Martinsville Speedway on April 16.

Daniel Suarez (left) finished 17th in the NOCO 400 at Martinsville Speedway on April 16.

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

NASCAR has enjoyed his rise, as well. As it pushes to draw new audiences — and certainly a novel idea such as racing on the downtown Chicago lakefront is part of the broader effort — Suarez has sparked a surge of interest among Hispanic fans.

“It’s been huge,” said Brandon Thompson, NASCAR’s vice president of diversity and inclusion. “We’ve been fortunate that his ascent through the sport has coincided with some of the things that we’ve done on the marketing side. It’s worked out well for us.

“Given the rise in the Hispanic population here, it’s been really cool for us to see his talent come full circle and intersect with some of the things we’re doing to open the door more to Hispanic fans.”

Suarez remembered a warm welcome when Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet was part of the tour — he raced there in 2017, ’18 and ’19 — and “definitely” anticipates a similar vibe at the Chicago Street Race.

“There is a huge Hispanic population there, so that will be special,” he said. “And on the competition side, having a racetrack on the streets in the center of Chicago, that’s something super-cool that we’ve never seen before.”

As usual, Suarez is undaunted by the thought of taking on something unprecedented. Some drivers have predicted crashes because of the narrower parts of the course resulting from fitting a 2.2-mile track around Grant Park and Buckingham Fountain, and it creates a wide-open field in which the driver who figures out the best approach to the 90-degree turns and other quirks and stays intact for 100 laps can take the trophy.

It’s a sparkling opportunity, and Suarez has always embraced those.

“I tell myself, ‘No scenario is too big,’ ” he said. “I’ve been working my entire life for this. Yeah, the odds were against me maybe . . . but my dad had a lot of passion — along with myself — and we worked really hard. We’re not here by coincidence or luck; it’s the product of a lot of work and dedication.”

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