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NASCAR driver Daniel Suarez shares inspirational story at My Brother’s Keeper event

Ambassadors from NBA Cares and NASCAR talked about their journeys and the importance of diversity

Four-and-a-half years ago, Daniel Suarez had aspirations of becoming a NASCAR driver, but didn’t have the means to achieve that goal. At the time, he wasn’t in the United States — he was living with his parents and two sisters in Monterrey, Mexico.

Besides that, he didn’t come from a racing family. His father was the only one in the household working, so there wasn’t money for Suarez to pursue his dream initially. What his father did have was expertise in repairing cars, so when Suarez was in elementary school, his dad provided him with the tools for go-karting in 2002.

Eleven years later, Suarez’s biggest obstacle wasn’t having a car, sponsorship or recognition, it was finding a way to Charlotte, North Carolina, where NASCAR’s headquarters is based, and learning how to speak English. He had the official papers from NASCAR, so Suarez drove 26 hours cross-country from Mexico to Charlotte in a 1994 Volkswagen Beetle.

Fast-forward to 2016, and Suarez won his first race in a final-lap coup past Kyle Busch, which made him the first Mexican-born driver to win in a NASCAR national touring series. And just this month, the 24-year-old nabbed his second victory in the round of 12 in the Chase at Dover in October, making him eligible for the round of eight.

Suarez retold this story on Tuesday afternoon in front of approximately 130 Latino students visiting the White House for the conclusion of Hispanic Heritage Month and a two-hour conversation about opportunities in the Latinx community through sports and President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which focuses on creating an equal playing field for boys and young men of color to achieve their aspirations.

“The first couple of years, I was more focused on how to learn the language than to learn how to drive,” Suarez said. “That was something that was very tough in my racing career, but luckily, I was able to go through that.

“I got a shot with the Drive for Diversity team from NASCAR, we won our first race, as one of the first Mexican drivers to win in racing at all. We got a shot with one of the most famous teams right now, which is Joe Gibbs Racing.”

The group listened to four speakers, which included Julian Castro, the U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, and were treated to a preview of The Undefeated’s town hall meeting with Obama at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, North Carolina.

NBA Cares ambassador Felipe Lopez joined Suarez as one of the two athletes to speak to the group and recounted his journey from the Dominican Republic to the NBA, from which he retired in 2002. Lopez brought about 15 students, his mother and sister with him to the event and discussed his mentorship program in the Bronx, New York.

While the two compete in different sports, one thing the pair mentioned they had in common was overcoming the initial language barrier they experienced upon entry into the United States. Lopez opened up with a joke saying that, “If you can dunk a ball, you can play in the NBA.” He happened to be able to dunk when he was in eighth grade and explained that still didn’t save him from being teased by kids for his inability to comprehend English at the time.

But Lopez echoed Suarez’s sentiments when he told the students not to allow that or any other perceived weaknesses hold them back from what they want to do in life.

“The caring for each other, that’s where the My Brother’s Keeper comes about, about the mentoring,” Lopez said. “So when I came to the U.S. at 14, I wasn’t able to speak the language that I’m speaking right now, and I’ve been an NBA Cares ambassador for the past seven years.

“I never even imagined that I could actually be holding a microphone and speaking to you all at the White House. Imagine that, woo! Wow.”

Rhiannon Walker is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a drinker of Sassy Cow Creamery chocolate milk, an owner of an extensive Disney VHS collection, and she might have a heart attack if Frank Ocean doesn't drop his second album.