DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Daniel Suarez wore a suit but ditched the tie the first time he spoke at the White House. The classy, yet casual, attire seemed to fit the moment for a speech in front of about 150 Latino students not much younger than him.
Suarez was invited to talk as part of President Barack Obama's My Brother Keeper's initiative, designed to help young people stay on track and think broadly about their future.
Growing up in Monterrey, Mexico, where Suarez's love of cars blossomed as he tagged along at his father's auto-restoration shop, the White House may as well have been as far away as the moon. He loved karting and VW Beetles and dreamed of racing stock cars at Autodromo in Mexico.
Those moments flashed for Suarez before he addressed the kids last October. He was still just a relatively unknown — at least in the United States — Xfinity Series driver, a month away from being crowned NASCAR's El Campeon. Two months away from landing the NASCAR ride of a lifetime.
Speaking English that he taught himself from years of watching American movies and cartoons, Suarez kept his topic to one he knows best.
"All the time that I need to talk to new kids in a new generation," the 25-year-old Suarez said, "the only thing I try to tell them is a little bit of my story."
Suarez is akin to, say, Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona when he returns home to Mexico.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto tweeted in Spanish to Suarez, and called him "a pride for Mexico and Latin America." Weeks after Suarez became NASCAR's first foreign-born champion, he was greeted in early December with a rock-star reception at a parade in Mexico City. He was mobbed by screaming fans chanting "Dani! Dani! Dani!" and was stopped every step or two for a selfie or to sign autographs. Suarez waved a Mexican flag, addressed the faithful fans over a public address system, and had few moments to spare and think about how life could get any better as his country's racing hero.
The high from the championship bash still hadn't subsided weeks later when Suarez's dinner with his family was interrupted by a call from NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs. He wanted Suarez patched in on a conference call with other Joe Gibbs Racing executives.
"Something is going on here," Suarez told The Associated Press inside his motorhome. "I hope it's something good. I have to step out from the table, start talking with him. They told me what was going on with the car."
Suarez had steeled himself to prepare for another year racing in NASCAR's second-tier series. Carl Edwards, winner of 28 career races, accelerated Suarez's career path with a stunning decision to walk away from NASCAR and leave a Cup vacancy in the 2018 No. 19 Toyota Camry.
"They asked me if I was ready. I said yes," Suarez said. "We came up with a plan and started moving forward with everything."
How was the rest of dinner?
"We didn't quit the celebration from the championship when we got the news we were moving up to Cup," Suarez said, smiling.
Suarez will make his first career start in NASCAR's elite racing series Sunday at the Daytona 500.
He snared a good car, too, ready to ride with a JGR team that fell just 10 laps shy of winning a championship last season. Suarez is in demand, as well, as the fresh Mexican face with the carefree attitude NASCAR is counting on to diversify its fan base and bring Latinos to the tracks and their televisions.
Suarez is all energy, answering reporters' questions in both English and Spanish, his sentences all seeming to need an exclamation point.
He wants to share a story from his previous night. He was at an area restaurant when he was stopped outside by a Mexican couple. He looked familiar to them and one of them asked him his last name.
"When I said Suarez, they said, 'Man, you're the race car driver!' My fiance told me there was a Mexican driver and we are going to the race because of you!"
Suarez, a top rookie of the year candidate groomed as NASCAR's next big star, has embraced the Speedweeks spotlight.
"I don't know what's wrong with me that I don't feel a lot of pressure," Suarez said. "I've had pressure my entire career. This is normal for me."
Alejandro Suarez had packed his car and trailer with Suarez's karting gear for the States the first time when they road tripped to Las Vegas for an event. Just 12, Suarez finished strong enough to further fuel the idea of he could have some sort of racing career.
As the younger Suarez grew fascinated with stock cars, Alejandro knew he needed to raise the whopping amount of money needed to support this pricey new venture. He sold his auto restoration business and Suarez's stock car career soon took off in Mexico. Suarez had a ride in NASCAR's Mexico series (winning five times in 2014) and NASCAR's low-level K&N Pro Series East series, and morphed into a teen sensation at home.
"I never even thought about racing in the United States. My goal was to race in Mexico," Suarez said. "Once I got there, I was like, now I'm with the big guys. Less than a year later I was winning races over there. I was the new kid that was winning everything."
Gibbs, who won three Super Bowls as coach of the Washington Redskins, can only hope Suarez is as adapt at taking checkered flags this season.
"When sponsors come in to Charlotte, we have outings, go bowling, indoor kart racing. Daniel shows up whether it's his sponsor or not," Gibbs said. "Hey, it's 7 in the morning and he's in the weight room. We couldn't get Tony Stewart or Kyle (Busch) or anybody else to do it. This guy may be too good of a guy to drive a race car. He's just a dream as a young guy."
Alejandro Suarez helped his son pack again for the U.S. years later, stuffing a 1994 VW Fire Beetle with all the belongings Daniel needed for his move to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Suarez had two thoughts in 2011 as he embarked on the 1,530-mile drive that would transform his life: "How am I going to learn English. My second one was, how am I going to get some opportunities to race."
Suarez crashed with a friend and studied in front of the TV, watching two movies a day in Spanish with English subtitles. He loved "Speed Racer," ''Driven," and "Gone in 60 Seconds."
The animated Suarez now gets to cameo in one — he'll voice Danny Swervez , a next-gen racer who's ascending the Piston-Cup ladder against all odds, in the upcoming "Cars 3."
Suarez flashed enough talent in Mexico and made the proper connections to earn a spot in NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program. Gibbs signed him to his Xfinity Series program in 2014. He won three poles in 2015, had three wins and became NASCAR's first Mexican champ a year ago, and now has a premier ride.
"There's not a lot of rookies that get to get in stuff like that right away," JGR teammate and 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth said. "The expectations will be high but that's a huge advantage for him to be driving for a team like that."
Suarez's charm, success and popularity beyond the border kept his primary sponsors on board after Edwards quit. Arris, a telecommunications company, upped its primary sponsorship from 17 to 22 races; Stanley stayed and Subway (with 1,068 locations in Mexico) is set to film its first commercial with Suarez on Tuesday.
"As opposed to just advertising NASCAR to NASCAR now, we're going to advertise NASCAR to our Hispanic consumer," Chris Carroll, chief advertising officer for Subway Restaurants, said by phone from Dubai.
Around the Daytona infield, flags fly from campers not just for Junior and Jimmie Johnson, but for President Donald Trump and the confederacy. NASCAR took a whopping PR hit last year when CEO Brian France publicly endorsed Trump — who has called Mexicans criminals and promised to erect a wall along the Mexican border — and the good ol' boy image still hasn't faded even as the sport evolved into one with an $8.2 billion television TV deal.
Suarez was welcome at the White House under Obama.
With Trump in charge, politics gets thorny for a young man still finding his way in the States.
"Like everything, when I went racing in Mexico, I had a lot of people that liked me, I had a little bit of people that didn't like me," Suarez said. "Here, that's exactly how it works. It doesn't matter what you do. The little bit of people that don't like you won't change it and they'll be bad.
"I can tell you something, I feel more than ever, super proud to be Mexican and represent the people in Latin America."
It's the same message he delivered to the Latino students at the White House: Stay strong, stay proud, stay focused.
"They like the way I came into the sport," he said, "the way I came into this country."
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