Daniel Suarez learned to speak English by watching cartoons more than a decade ago. What he screamed after winning his first NASCAR Cup race Sunday at Sonoma Raceway was something that could not air on any children’s program.
His exclamations revealed relief and the reward of a journey that has challenged Suarez in ways he could not have imagined before he arrived in the U.S. from Monterrey, Mexico.
“Every NASCAR driver has had a tough journey,” said Suarez, whose win came in his 195th series start. “Everyone has a different journey.
“But my journey is definitely the most different of everyone else, leaving my family, my country, and just coming to a different culture, different language.”
Never had a driver come from Mexico and won a Cup race. Suarez became only the fifth foreign-born driver to win a Cup race in series history, joining Mario Andretti (Italy), Juan Pablo Montoya (Colombia), Earl Ross (Canada) and Marcos Ambrose (Australia).
It was a long time coming.
“Very few people know how much work, sacrifice, tears, sweat this has cost me,” Suarez said after leading 47 of the 110 laps at Sonoma. “So we have to enjoy it. After a few days, we’re going to keep working because we want more.”
Suarez could not have gotten to this point without his family. When he was 16, Suarez’s father sold his car restoration business to help continue his son’s racing in Mexico.
“For whatever reason, he just put everything on the table for me,” Suarez told NBC Sports in 2017.
Suarez said that his father’s action “was for me, a lot of pressure. Luckily, things worked out, and I started winning races in Mexico.”
His success created an opportunity to run in the U.S.
Suarez arrived in the U.S. in 2011 and went to the Buffalo area, living with the owner of his team at the time. Suarez didn’t speak English. Without money for English lessons, he watched TV to pick up the language. He tried to learn from movies but that wasn’t helpful — even with subtitles.
“Then one of my friends told me, ‘Hey, just remember how people learn language when they are kids,’ Suarez told NBC Sports in 2016. “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.’ “
What cartoons did he watch?
“Honestly, it was all kinds,” Suarez told NBC Sports in 2016. “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.”
As he learned English, his racing career neared a crossroads.
“If it wasn’t for the Drive for Diversity, I don’t think I would be sitting here right now,” Suarez said Sunday of NASCAR’s program that provides opportunities for minority drivers. “Back in 2013 and ’14 they saved my butt.
“I was about to come back to Mexico. They gave me an opportunity to keep racing in 2013. That kept me alive. I was able to win races that year and keep the momentum going. Before that, it was very, very tough.”
He won one NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race in 2013 and scored twice in 2014.
He joined Joe Gibbs Racing in 2015 to run a full-time Xfinity schedule. He also ran a partial season in the Camping World Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports.
Suarez won the Xfinity Series championship in 2016. He moved up to Cup in 2017 when Carl Edwards suddenly retired less than six weeks before the season.
Suarez’s time with Joe Gibbs Racing did not produce any wins in two seasons, and he was replaced in 2019 by Martin Truex Jr. Suarez ran for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2019 but was replaced the following year by Cole Custer.
Suarez then went to Gaunt Brothers Racing, an underfunded team. Suarez failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 and had only two top-20 finishes.
He left after the season to join car owner Justin Marks’ Trackhouse Racing team, a new team offering hope and promise but one that faced challenges many new teams face.
“He had a chip on his shoulder,” Marks said Sunday of when he hired Suarez. “He wanted to prove to the world he belonged in the Cup Series. 2020 was a difficult year for him.
“He checked all the boxes for us, and I knew he had a tremendous amount of potential, that he was a winner at this level. I told him from day one, ‘This is your team. This 99 team is your team. You come to me and tell me anything and everything that you need. We’re going to put that behind you.’ ”
While teammate Ross Chastain won the first two races for Trackhouse, it could have been Suarez who won the team’s first race at Circuit of the Americas. Suarez won the opening stage but mechanical issues slowed him that day. He finished 24th, while Chastain celebrated the win.
That started a 10-race streak that saw Suarez finish no better than 10th.
“We keep pushing,” he said. “I told them that bad luck doesn’t last forever, and tough people do.”
Sunday, he got to celebrate.
“Today was amazing,” Suarez said. “We did a lot of things right. But we believed that our car could have been a little bit better.
“So when you look at the big picture and always try to see yourself as ‘What I could have done better or different?’ That’s when you become a great team. I feel like we’re on our way there.”