Daniel Suarez doesn’t hesitate when it comes to crediting his father, Alejandro, as the reason he made it to the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
When Daniel began racing at a young age in Mexico, Alejandro put his life on hold. Sensing that his son could be successful, Alejandro dedicated his time and what money the family had toward pushing Daniel as far as he could. But it was without connections or sponsors, without Daniel having much experience, and when the family wasn’t deep in money.
“Honestly, if I was in his position and I had a son, I’m not sure I would have done it because it takes a lot of risk,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “He didn’t know if I was going to make it or not. Ninety-five percent of the time you don’t make it, it’s tough … With all that, he gave (us) a few shots, not just one because so many different times we were close to just giving up, and somehow we kept digging.”
Alejandro bet on his son. That meant closing his car restoration shop that was well-known around Mexico. The garage is where Daniel grew up and developed his love of cars. Working alongside his dad fixing cars, mostly Beetles, Daniel was there every day after school and even when he had a vacation.
The shop meant a lot to both he and his father, and Daniel knew Alejandro didn’t necessarily want to close the doors. Now, however, he respects his father even more for the sacrifices he made — ones that helped Suarez land at Joe Gibbs Racing. In 2015, Suarez earned Rookie of the Year honors in the Xfinity Series and has won twice in 2016.
So when Suarez started to make a name for himself, he immediately thought of his father.
“I went back to him a couple years ago, and I said, ‘Hey, I really want to fix my cars, and I really want you to fix them like you used to, so here’s the deal: I really want to put the shop back together,’ ” Suarez said. “So we put the shop back together, and we build everything together. And a lot of people were super excited because he was coming back in the business that he was very well-known for a long time.
“Right now we’ve been two years with the shop, and it’s been great. A lot of fun working with cars. Really he’s the one having fun because the shop is over there (in Mexico), but every single time I go (visit) I get in trouble with my girlfriend because I spend more time in the shop than with her. It’s just a lot of fun. It’s what I like to do and what I grew up doing, and I’m very, very happy that I’m able to give my dad a little bit of what he gave me five years ago.”
The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.
NBC Sports: You’ve said your first go-kart race was nothing more than you, your dad and a couple of tools. What do you remember about that day?
Suarez: We had the go-kart in my house. It was in my garage. We didn’t have a hauler. We didn’t have anything. We just had a pickup truck, and we put the go-kart in there and grabbed some tools, and we went to have fun. I remember it was Good Friday on the practice day, and we were running well, we were decent, and then on the second day, Saturday was the race, it was a rainy day, so it was a little difficult, different. We didn’t expect to have to race in the rain, and it actually ended up being a really good race, we finished third.
Since I was very little, I was loving cars, old cars, new cars, and I liked to drive, but I didn’t know how to get into this. So, my dad, he likes the same stuff that I like, and somehow we started getting into the sport, and I was very lucky that he was there to support me all the time. Even when he didn’t have all the economy support, he was able to find a way either with sponsors or with friends, something, somehow, to put me at the next level. He did that since I was 10 years old until I was 17 when things started to get more and more expensive, and I got a contract with a different team, TELMEX. After that, he pretty much relaxed and let me go try to do my career on my own.
NBC Sports: What was your situation in terms of living arrangements and a job when you decided to make the move to the United States?
Suarez: I was racing in Mexico at that point in just my first year in NASCAR Mexico. I was with TELMEX, and I got an invitation to race in the Toyota All-Star Showdown in California, I think it was 2011, and my team in Mexico didn’t want me to go because they thought I wasn’t ready to go. They say, ‘Daniel, we got a plan for you, just wait a little bit, wait one more year and get more experience and then you can go to the U.S., and you’re going to do well.’ Two other drivers, the winningest driver from Mexico was going, and the champion from Mexico was going, and somehow some people got a sponsor for me to do that race. So my dad say, ‘Daniel, give yourself a shot and see what happens.’ I was a little scared at that point because I didn’t know English, I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t have experience, and we just went out there to see what was going on here in the U.S.
We end up being the best driver from Mexico, finishing in the 11th or 10th position and once that happened everything started to change. A lot of people in Mexico started to put a lot more confidence in me because of the people we beat. After that, the team (I raced for) was based in Buffalo, N.Y., and I went to live there for a few months in the owner’s house to work in the shop and to learn English. I went back home for a few months to continue school and then said if I want to do this, I need to move over there because definitely I need more experience and I needed to learn English. So I moved to North Carolina, and in the beginning, I was living with one of my friends for a few months, and then I lived with another friend for a month, and after that, I found a cheap place in Mooresville. I was just trying to follow a dream, and it was very tough. The first two years in the U.S. were maybe the toughest I had in my career, but slowly things started to work out.
NBC Sports: Why do you say that was the toughest years of your career?
Suarez: Well, because I didn’t know English. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t know the race team. I didn’t have a sponsor. It was just unclear, my career. I didn’t know if I was going to make it or not and a few times I just wanted to go back to Mexico because my family was far away. I wasn’t having fun because most of the time I was thinking how to get money to race instead of how to drive. So it was just very tough two years, but I knew if I was going to make it through those two years, everything else was going to be way easier. Somehow we made it. We got a little luck, and some people started to support me and the people from Mexico have been on my side all the time. Even when I was almost on the ground, they helped me a little bit to survive and to learn how to survive in those environments, and I feel like that helped me a lot to be in this position right now.
NBC Sports: What was the biggest shock coming to the United States from Mexico?
Suarez: I didn’t realize how big of a change it was to move to a different country with really different people. I didn’t know anybody or the language and just being without family. It was my first time moving out, and it was just a little tough. My family at that point didn’t have a lot of money to come here often, either. The first year, I got to see my family just a couple times. It was very tough, but I just kept fighting, and we keep getting opportunities slowly, and right now, it’s fun to talk about all this because, definitely, we worked really hard to be at this point, and after this, I think everything is going to be easier than how it was in the past.
NBC Sports: How do you split your time now to be able to see your family?
Suarez: Every time I have free time, I try to go over there to spend some time with the family, at least a week or five days. But they come here as well. I feel like right now we are in a better position to try and see each other more often, and they’re having more fun because I’m having fun and because I’m enjoying everything that is going on.
NBC Sports: To learn English, you watched cartoons. Which ones specifically and how did that help you?
Suarez: First I started watching movies with subtitles in English, and that was helping me a lot. But they were talking a lot of words I didn’t understand. Then one of my friends told me, ‘Hey, just remember how people learn language when they are kids.’ They learn by TV and talking to people, watching cartoons most of the time. If you think about it, cartoons are always more simple in the words and the way they talk. They talk more slow. I said ‘Man that makes sense.’ Honestly, it was all kinds; I don’t even remember what exactly, but I was watching everything, everything that was on the TV. Not to watch the cartoon –because I didn’t care about the cartoon — I wanted to listen. Even when I was doing dinner or lunch or whatever in the kitchen, I was watching the cartoons, listening to the cartoons to try and pick up something.
NBC Sports: On social media you often share about finding sushi places to eat while traveling. How did the sushi craze start?
Suarez: Since I was little, my dad likes a place in Mexico that we used to go a lot. That place is still there in Mexico, and now I know the owner. The owner is my friend, and I used to go to that place since I was 8 years old and now when I go to Mexico we have dinner together. I just like that. My sister is a nutritionist so in the last few years she’s been teaching me how to eat well, and sushi is one of the best things. So I like it, and it’s healthy, too!