News & Media

Only in America: Almirola appreciative of all he has

January 09, 2012, Joe Menzer,

Almirola appreciates his shot in 43 car, and those who made it possible

When one of the sport's good guys gets a good break, it's refreshing.

Such was the case when hard-working Aric Almirola was named driver of the No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports last week. Almirola, 27, once seemed to be on the cusp of a great future at some of NASCAR's finest organizations -- first Joe Gibbs Racing, then Ginn Racing (when most everyone was fooled into thinking Ginn Racing was a legitimate operation with a long-term future) and then at Dale Earnhardt Inc., just before DEI became irrelevant as far as fielding relevant race teams.

"I remember being a kid and driving through that tunnel many a times wondering how cool it would be to get on that race track and race. And not just to get on that race track and race, but to race in the Daytona 500."


But Almirola's journey to the seat of the car wearing the number Richard Petty made famous is more than about his individual perseverance since 2007, when fate dealt him blow after blow and sent him reeling backward into the Camping World Truck Series in his racing career. It's about more than how he doggedly reestablished himself as a potential up-and-coming star by running competitively in the Trucks and earning a full-time shot in the Nationwide Series at JR Motorsports, where Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one of the owners and offered a full endorsement.

It's really about much more than all that. It's about the story that began before Almirola was even born in March of 1984, long before he became the first driver of Cuban descent to capture a pole and a victory in two of NASCAR's three national touring series.

It's about a young man whose family fled Communist Cuba in the 1960s and ultimately fulfilled the American Dream not just for himself, but for everyone who sacrificed to help him get his shot at it.

Family story

Even Almirola candidly admits that he didn't always understand the significance of what his grandparents gave up then so he could have the opportunities in racing -- and in life -- that he has now.

"It means a lot. And I say that honestly. It means a lot to me," said Almirola, who was born and raised in Tampa, Fla. "I was just home for Christmas and got to see all my family. When I was over with my dad, I went and saw my grandparents on my dad's side of the family -- and they're the family that came over from Cuba in '66 on the freedom flights.

"When I was younger, I didn't really appreciate it. I didn't really think it meant anything. But the older that I've gotten and to now pay my own bills and now that I'm married and possibly thinking about having a family, I understand a lot better what they went through when they gave up everything they had. They gave up their house, their cars. My grandmother gave up her wedding ring.

"They gave everything back to the Cuban government to come to America and to live the American Dream and to create a better life not only for themselves, but for their family. So I get to be living proof of that. I get to drive a race car for a living, so that means a lot to me -- coming from where my family has come from and the sacrifices that they have made to get to the U.S., to create a better life for themselves and their family, and then for me to be able to live out that dream that they had in 1966 when they decided to give everything back to the Cuban government."

The gradual realization of what his grandparents did, and what it has meant for him, has been humbling.

"Like I said, I took that for granted when I was a kid growing up. I didn't really think anything of it," Almirola said. "But the older I get the more that sinks in and I realize what a huge sacrifice that was to leave everything that they knew to come here to America and start over."

Best Christmas ever

To say that Almirola appreciates the opportunity he'll have driving the No. 43 car full-time in the Sprint Cup Series is a massive understatement.

That's part of what makes it so neat -- and certainly makes the choice look like a strong one, knowing that he treasures the "iconic and historic" nature of the car number he will represent quite a bit more than some others who were mentioned as possible candidates would have. (Did someone say Kurt Busch?)

Almirola has fond memories of Christmas that make it seem like he was meant for this moment.

"Growing up in Tampa watching my grandfather race dirt

sprint cars all around Florida and the southeast and then myself, I

started racing go-karts when I was eight, so I've always been involved in racing," Almirola said. "When I was racing go-karts we would go over to Daytona. Every year right after Christmas, they would have kart weeks there and I would go and race my go-kart there at the municipal stadium on the dirt oval.

"And every time we went, we would go and watch the go-karts run on the road course over at the big track. I can remember being a little kid driving over from Tampa to Daytona the night of Christmas, because everything usually started in Daytona the day after Christmas. So usually we'd open up our presents and hang out and do whatever Christmas Day and by Christmas night we were driving to Daytona to go race."

He remembers what it was like to be a passenger as his parents or grandparents drove the family car through the tunnel leading to the infield at Daytona International Speedway.

"I remember being a kid and driving through that tunnel many a times wondering how cool it would be to get on that race track and race. And not just to get on that race track and race, but to race in the Daytona 500," he said.

He's had the opportunity to do that one other time in his still-young career, but this year it will be different. It will be the start of something new and the culmination of the best Christmas gift he's ever received -- his first full-time Sprint Cup ride in perhaps the most famous car of them all.

If it seems like it could happen only in America, that's because it's true.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.