With about 15 laps left in Saturday’s K&N Pro Series East race at Memphis International Raceway (airing at 6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN), Ruben Garcia Jr.‘s spotter came over his radio.
“Hey, just keep running the same speed you’re running,” Garica recalls him saying. “Second place is trying really hard to catch you and he’s not getting any closer. You’re fine.”
If Garcia, who was leading over pole-sitter Tyler Ankrum, made it to the checkered flag unscathed, it would be a huge moment for the 22-year-old driver.
It would his first win in the K&N East after three years and 34 starts of trying and he’d become the fourth Mexican-born driver to win in the series, following Daniel Suarez (2014), Rogelio Lopez (2007) and Ruben Pardo (2006). It would also be his first race win outside Mexico.
That final race stretch “felt like the longest laps of my life” Garcia told NBC Sports.
Minutes after taking the checkered flag and the win, Garcia was looking into his girlfriend Regina’s phone.
Via FaceTime, Garcia spoke with his family back in Mexico, who had followed along with the race on Twitter over dinner.
Among them was his father, who like Garcia, competed in the NASCAR Mexico Series.
Saturday’s race was the first this year he hadn’t attended.
“He was very very, excited,” Garcia said. “It has been a long time since I’ve seen him that happy.”
He’ll get to see his father for the first time this weekend after he competes in the NASCAR Mexico race in Guadalajara.
Garcia, who competes for Rev Racing, called his win in Memphis a form of “stress relief” after more than two seasons of futility.
“We were really close,” Garcia said. “I knew it was coming, but one thing or the other it didn’t happen. I tried to be as patient as I could. … It felt like it took too long. Everyone says the first win is the hardest. After that you have enough confidence to know that you can do it again.”
All three other Mexican-born drivers to win in the K&N Series are well known to Garcia and reached out to him in the days following his victory.
“I know Daniel, I’ve raced with him,” Garcia said. “I know Ruben Pardo, I’m still running against him. I know Rogelio Lopez, he’s a really, really good friend of mine and of my family. We were teammates last year. We’re very close to each other. The three of them called me just to congratulate me. It’s really cool for me because they know what it means, they know what I’m feeling right now and how it felt to take the checkered flag for the first time outside your country.”