DAYTONA BEACH, Florida — Threatening weather hovered over the Daytona International Speedway last weekend, but the storm never came. Instead, the 167,000 people at the Coke Zero Sugar 400 saw a piece of racing history when Brehanna Daniels became the first African-American woman to join a pit crew at NASCAR’s top level.
“It was [hard] in the very beginning,” said Daniels, 24. “People were looking at me like I was foreign and everything else, but now people are getting used to seeing me. And it’s like, you need to just accept me for who I am, and I’m here now. I might not look like everybody else, but times are changing.”
Approaching pit road before the race, she glanced over her surroundings. “The nervousness hasn’t hit me yet,” Daniels said, testing her pit gun. “I’m pretty sure I’ll get the jitters really, really soon, but I’m excited. It’s been a long journey.”
“I’m glad to be paving the way for others who look like myself,” Daniels said. “It’s important to get … many other faces in the sport of NASCAR, and not have it as just one face. It’s a beautiful thing seeing different varieties of people and not just one face.”
Daniels, a former guard for the Norfolk State University basketball team, kneeled in prayer against the wall that she would soon jump over to fulfill her evening duties as the front tire changer. There was one person on her mind: her mother, who died when she and her twin brother, Brehon, were 14.
“She never missed any of my games. I didn’t always see her face, but I always heard her voice,” Daniels said.
“Today she’d say, ‘Baby girl, I’m so proud of you. Keep doing the damn thing.’ ”
Just 10 minutes to start, and jitters finally settled in.
“I’ve got jitters now.”
There was no turning back. Daniels, at the end of stage one, went over the wall as part of her pit crew, the first black female tire changer in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
She replaced five lug nuts and a tire on each side in a matter of seconds. During any pit stop, the maintenance consists of tire replacements, refueling, repairs or mechanical adjustments. As a tire changer, Daniels is trained to operate an eight-pound impact gun. She hands off her tires to a tire carrier.
Daniels made it to the pit crew by way of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program. The recruitment efforts include stops at several universities, including one at Norfolk State by Phil Horton, the pit crew coach at Rev Racing, which hosts the training program for Drive for Diversity.
“It was the end of the basketball season,” Daniels recalled. “This lady who was the announcer at our basketball game, she came up to me and was like, ‘Hey, Brehanna, you know the NASCAR pit crew is gonna be at our school on Wednesday, I think you should try out.’ And as I’m sitting there eating my sandwich, literally, I looked at her like, ‘You’re telling me this why? NASCAR? Did I say I was interested in that?’ ”
Horton, the director of athletic performance and chief athletic evaluator of the Drive for Diversity program, is a North Carolina A&T University graduate. He spent some time as the strength and conditioning coach for the Milwaukee Bucks. He knows how and why athletes make great pit crew members.
After watching a video about what a pit crew does, Daniels attended the tryouts.
“I was like, let me just try something new, see where it takes me,” she said. “It wasn’t what I expected, because when I saw a video of a pit stop, I saw a car. I didn’t see a car in the gym. So I’m like, somebody’s got some explaining to do. There’s a lot of equipment laid out everywhere, what’s going on?”
Horton eventually selected Daniels and 19 others to attend the 2016 NASCAR Drive for Diversity Pit Crew combine.
“I ended up placing in the top 10 in order to come back and train to be a professional,” Daniels said.
For Daniels, the work ethic, agility, strength and swiftness of being an athlete was a plus. But the actual act of working on cars was something new, and it wasn’t second nature for her.
“It’s still growing on me,” she said. “When I played basketball, I played since I was 4. I just started this last year. I could not change a tire. I hadn’t needed to change the tire on my car, ever, until last year, just one time.”
One of the 20 participants in the combine was Breanna O’Leary, a white Alcorn State University student and softball player who worked in the strength and conditioning department at the historically black university in Mississippi.
The two became roommates in Charlotte, North Carolina. The bond they share carried over into the night’s race, where they were both tire changers servicing Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 Chevrolet, driven by Ray Black Jr, making history as the first female duo as part of a pit crew to participate in a Cup Series. Daniels was assigned to the front tires, while O’Leary was on the back.
Saturday’s race was O’Leary’s third appearance in the Cup Series and second in 2018.
“They [Horton and staff] had come to my university doing a recruitment thing,” O’Leary said. “So my strength coach said, ‘I want you to do it,’ and we were like, ‘OK, don’t know what it is … but it’s a competition, so see where it takes you.’ And so I did.”
O’Leary had never worked on cars before joining the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program.
“My car knowledge, my NASCAR knowledge at that point was zero,” she said. “It’s growing on me. I still have a lot to learn, but I enjoy keeping up with it now.”
Early in 2017, Daniels became the first African-American woman to go over the wall in a national racing series. She and O’Leary were the tire changers for ARCA driver Thad Moffitt at Toledo Speedway in Ohio. Daniels was also assigned a race at Dover International Speedway, but her car left the race before the first stop, so she never went over the wall.
“You know, I knew from the time that I recruited them at the mini-combines at Norfolk State for Brehanna and Alcorn for Breanna, they had some talent. And I knew that if they really bought into our system, I knew they could do it,” Horton said.
After the third stop at Daytona, Horton had some encouraging words.
“First one’s really good, the second one’s a crash repair, and then the third one was good,” he said. “I just told them that, ‘Hey, this is not stick and ball. There is no carryover, there is no flow.’ Because there’s such a long time in between stops, they just have to concentrate on fundamentals for the next one coming up. Once you learn how to do it, 90 percent of this is mental. So that’s what we went over, the mental game, to just remind them fundamentals is the key.”
After 160 laps, Daniels had gone over the wall eight times.
“It’s like God called me to do this,” Daniels said. “He’s like, ‘Brehanna, you need to do NASCAR. You need to make history. You need to change the game up a little bit.’ ”