Toni Breidinger has experienced many firsts in her racing career — from her first wreck in go-karts at 9 years old to her first crash in a stock car at age 21 — but never did she think she’d be the first to do anything in the sport’s history.
Well, she was.
Breidinger is the winningest female driver in United States Auto Club (USAC) competition with a record 19 victories. She’s also bound to become the first-ever female Arab-American driver to compete in a NASCAR national-series event when she makes her debut in the Camping World Truck Series with Young’s Motorsports in 2021, though a specific date has yet to be announced. She has already made two starts in the ARCA Menards Series this season, and her next race is April 24 at Talladega Superspeedway.
“I just don’t have the mindset of I want to be the best female driver,” Breidinger told NASCAR.com. “Yeah, it’s a cool title. But I want to have the most wins out of anybody. Not just the females.”
Her first crash
As Breidinger eased up to navigate the big sweeping turn at CalSpeed Karting Center – right outside Turn 4 of NASCAR’s Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California – another competitor overdrove the corner behind her. The two made hard contact. Breidinger knew she was in trouble.
The other go-kart managed to get underneath her rear bumper, practically stacking the tires for a hot second.
“Then I went for a bit of a ride,” Breidinger said.
On the concrete.
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Nothing like that truly scares me.
Briedinger’s fraternal twin sister, Annie, who has curly red hair opposed to Toni’s straight brunette locks, was also on track. Annie was further back in the pack and didn’t see the wreck happen. Only the aftermath.
“I was coming around the corner, I just see a kart flipped over and I’m like, ‘Oh no, that looks like Toni’s kart,’ ” Annie said. “So I pulled into the pits and kind of sat there. I was like, ‘I hope she’s OK,’ because I had no idea what was going on. That was pretty scary. I was lucky to never get into a crash that was that big. But I just remember waiting for my dad to come back and tell me what happened.”
Toni broke her arm.
It was only practice, too. The main event wasn’t until the next day.
“I was like, ‘I want to go race,’ ” Toni said. “They’re like, ‘No, you can’t. You’re in a cast.’ ”
Toni had to sit out and watch.
She eventually returned to CalSpeed. There were lingering nerves about that turn. But the fear wasn’t enough to keep her off the track.
“For the most part, nothing like that truly scares me,” Toni said. “It’s more so like I don’t want my car to get messed up.”
Her first move
Like most high-school graduates, the Breidinger twins moved away from home at 18 years old. They packed up their belongings in Hillsborough, California, and embarked on their next chapters. For the first time since birth, though, the sisters went their separate ways.
While Annie headed off to Purdue University in Indiana, Toni chose to forgo college and take a shot at her dream of becoming a NASCAR driver in North Carolina.
“It was almost too easy of a decision,” Breidinger said. “So many people were like, ‘Oh my gosh, it must have been so hard.’ I don’t know, I just knew it would help my career. I didn’t have any hesitations about it.”
At age 15, Toni had driven a stock car for the first time. NASCAR was her desired destination from that moment. She just didn’t know how exactly to go about getting into the sport, let alone reach the top level. Sure, her dad was a big racing fan and taught her and Annie everything he knew, but no one in her family had ever raced professionally.
Toni had to do the research herself.
Relocating to North Carolina was Step 1. Climbing the NASCAR ladder is the ongoing Step 2. Building a personal life was an unexpected difficult part that carried over from step to step.
“I was almost kind of naïve about like oh yeah, there are going to be so many drivers, so many people I can hang out with,” Toni said. “But at the end of the day, I don’t know. Everybody kind of has their own groups. You have to find a group you fit into. I feel like it was hard.”
Until this past year. Toni found her own close group of friends. She feels like she grew a lot personally in 2020 – a silver lining in the COVID-19 pandemic – and it actually translated onto the track, too.
Because regardless of any hiccups, Toni never gave up on racing.
“She definitely doesn’t listen to people’s doubts,” Annie said. “There are a lot of people doubting her and doubting her abilities to actually make it as a NASCAR driver. She’s really good at tuning those out and focusing on her end goal.”
Her first test
The racing world is all about connections. Tyler Young, founder of Young’s Motorsports in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, just happens to be neighbors with Toni’s late-model team owner, David “Buggy” Pletcher with DLP Motorsports. So when Young explained how he’d like to break into the ARCA Menards Series, Pletcher had the perfect driver suggestion: Toni.
Since Young respected his friend’s judgment, he took the time last year to watch Toni compete in person.
“It was like wow, she is doing good,” Young said. “I actually met with her back in November and said, ‘No matter what you do, I want to be part of it.’ ”
I want to make sure Toni is here no matter what.
In January, Toni ran an ARCA test with Young’s Motorsports at Daytona International Speedway. It went better than expected. There were butterflies at the beginning, but Toni quickly shook those off and showed not only her current skill level but also her potential. She was – and still is – a sponge with feedback.
Young was pleasantly surprised by how easily Toni bonded with the team.
“By the end of the day, it was like we’d been doing it for years,” Young said. “Even on my end of it, after the test, I was like all right, I want to make sure Toni is here no matter what.”
He went from wanting to be involved to making sure she ended up specifically with Young’s Motorsports.
A month later, that became reality. Young’s Motorsports officially named Toni as one its 2021 drivers on Feb. 4. The team committed to nine ARCA races with hopes of adding more opportunities, including NASCAR.
“I’m such the type of person where I don’t really get my hopes up until I actually sign something on paper; it’s not official until you sign something,” Toni said. “So that definitely meant a lot to me.”
Her first team
On the first lap of her second 2021 ARCA Menards Series race with Young’s Motorsports, Toni was caught up in a wreck that sparked in front of her and sustained enough damage that the team had to garage the car for the day. It marked the only crash-out in her five career starts so far – three of which came in a part-time role in 2018. She ultimately placed 30th out of 30.
Definitely not an ideal finish, but an educational experience nonetheless.
“I told her, ‘Don’t get down on yourself,’ ” Young said. “There’s nothing she could do in that situation. She did a phenomenal job all day.”
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And by all day, he means during practice, where he saw a lot of promise for qualifying and the race. Unfortunately, qualifying got rained out and the lineup was set by the rulebook. Toni ended up with a 21st starting position, which led to her black, white and red No. 02 Chevrolet getting collected when the fifth- and eighth-place starters went for a spin as soon as the green flag waved.
Practice, though, proved Toni is willing to take instruction.
“Obviously, Phoenix, it’s easy to overdrive the corner,” Young said. “So we just told her, ‘Hey, you may need to arch it in a bit more, maybe back the corner up a bit.’ It was immediately corrected the next lap like OK, I did that, what do you want next?”
And she got faster as the day progressed. That’s why Young was confident about the rest of the day. She could adapt on the spot.
That, on top of her 18th-place result at Daytona in the season opener, left Young impressed. Though neither of them are in any rush, Young already has enough confidence in Toni that he has made it known she has a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series ride with Young’s Motorsports when they’re ready.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel pressure,” Toni said. “But I also feel like I’m in this bigger series, there are more eyes on you naturally. I don’t necessarily feel pressure from being a female. I think it’s just more pressure that I want to do well. I hear so much about this: I know how well I do determines my career.”
Being the first
Not only is Toni a woman, she’s an Arab American. There have been – and currently are – other female drivers in NASCAR. There has never before been a female Arab-American driver.
That detail shocked Toni when she found out. She has no intention of shying away from her background.
“It’s been such a big part of my life,” Toni said. “I’ve always been proud of it. But also kind of nervous how people would react just because, you know, going to these short tracks, for the most part, there isn’t too much diversity there. And I’ve heard comments in the past about other diverse people. So I was kind of apprehensive in a way, how people would take it.”
As she likes to remind people: The car doesn’t know gender. The track doesn’t know gender. Once the helmet goes on, everyone is just a driver ready to race.
Of course, not everyone sees it that way. Keyboard warriors are an unfortunate given. It’s those bold enough to make remarks in person who are more disappointing.
“After one of our races, the announcer made a comment about her gender and finishing in the top three,” Annie said. “It was like … you don’t really expect it in this day and age. You’d think people would know better.”
Toni actually remembers that exact moment. At the time, she didn’t react.
“Man, I wish I said something because there were so many little girls there,” she said. “I don’t want people to think it’s OK or it’s OK to let that slide. I do feel like I need to have some sassier responses sometimes. I’m a little too calm.”
She’s learning as she goes.
That was actually a conversation Toni and Young had when she joined Young’s Motorsports. They acknowledged the obvious – it’s a male-dominated field – and he reminded her to keep her confidence up and don’t let the naysayers get to her. She has earned her spot.
“Obviously we have her back 100 percent,” Young said. “But she’s very strong. She’s got her own back.”
She has all along.
This is the same girl who wanted to race the day after breaking her arm in an on-track accident, the same teenager who moved across the country knowing nobody to pursue a career in a competitive male-dominated industry and the same woman who’s more worried about setting a good example for the younger generation than she is about herself when it comes to public displays of defense.
That’s bravery. That’s, hopefully, the future of NASCAR.
“I’ll take the hate and mean comments all day if it means I can inspire a few little girls,” Toni said. “To me, it’s all worth it.”