How Brehanna Daniels Is Changing NASCAR, One Tire At A Time

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Races are won by more than just drivers. They’re won by people like Brehanna Daniels, who changes the rear tires on a NASCAR race car by jumping over a wall and onto pit road, sliding to the opposite side of the car and getting to work on a tire—all while other race cars are whizzing by. Daniels slams five lug nuts with a pit gun, removes the old tire, and slams on a new one in the same manner. She has to hit all five lug nuts in about a second, then she runs to the other side of the car and does it all again.

It is not a job for the faint of heart, or the slow.

And if there’s one thing Daniels says again and again when she goes to work, it’s that she truly believes “times are changing.” She’s leading some of that long overdue change in NASCAR, as a face who looks different from the rest—an African-American woman on a NASCAR national pit crew to jump over the wall to service a car, the first to ever do such a job.

She now finds herself an unlikely trailblazer in a deeply Southern sport that has often struggled with diversity and with growing beyond its core audience.

This weekend at Daytona International Speedway, she’ll go over the wall in the highest level of NASCAR—the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Daniels and her roommate Breanna O’Leary will pit Ray Black Jr.’s No. 51 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, a lower-funded Cup Series car, during a 400-mile race on Saturday night.

Daniels regularly changes tires for the No. 55 car at JP Motorsports, a team in the second-tier Xfinity Series with less funding than many competitors. Her team’s pit box is smaller than most others, many of which are development branches for top-level Cup Series teams with top-level cash.

That doesn’t stop her from drawing a crowd around the stall, as she makes peace signs and poses for selfies—even as the race is about to start—in front handfuls of camera people and spectators recording her at work.

“I saw this old man one day, he was recording me with his flip phone when I was cleaning and gluing my tires,” Daniels told Jalopnik at Texas Motor Speedway in April, where her race was cut short due to an electrical issue with the car after 53 of 200 laps. She re-enacted the scene with an imaginary phone in her hands. “He was like ‘Girl, you just keep doing your thing.’”

But Daniels never expected to end up on the other side of that flip phone.

Daniels, a former collegiate basketball player from Virginia Beach, Virginia, wanted to be an actress. It’s evident, as she tells as much of a story with her hands and facial expressions as she does with her words. She acts out things that have happened and can’t hold back a smile when she’s doing impressions of people she’s met while working in the sport.

When Daniels, now 24, was about to graduate from Virginia’s Norfolk State University, she thought about going to grad school for acting or continuing her basketball career. She was a point guard and a shooting guard at the time, and there was never “a thought or hope” in her mind of joining NASCAR. The only time she saw it on television was when she was flipping through channels.

Even then, she didn’t understand the appeal.

“Who likes driving in circles all day?” Daniels told Jalopnik. “That’s what I thought [at the time].” But she gets to watch a lot of circles these days, since she wound up in the sport thanks to a tryout with the sport’s Drive for Diversity pit-crew program.

Now she works at a place where teams are expected to jack up a car twice, change four tires, make handling adjustments and fill up the gas tank in about 12 to 16 seconds. But athleticism isn’t the only requirement in NASCAR. It’s dealing with the environment, too.

Cup Series team owners Richard Petty and Richard Childress said they’d punish or fire any employee who knelt during the national anthem, a protest of police brutality and racial oppression. The sport’s community also has a deeply rooted Confederate flag problem, and despite NASCAR and many of its top-level tracks asking fans not to fly the flag anymore in the summer of 2015, plenty of them adamantly refused. A fan even told NBC that officials would “have to come and get it” if they wanted him to stop flying that flag in the Daytona International Speedway infield.

After 70 years, NASCAR is just now hitting a lot of milestones in diversifying its fields—and, at the same time, losing some of the very people making those milestones.

NASCAR got its first-ever foreign-born national champion in the Xfinity Series less than two years ago, and this is the first year since 1971 that the Cup Series has had a black driver, Darrell Wallace Jr., racing full time. Danica Patrick lost her ride as the only woman competing in the Cup Series at the end of last year. Citing unnamed sources, Sports Business Daily reported in October 2017 that NASCAR was trying to help find race cars and sponsorship for both Wallace and Patrick.

Top-level pit crews are slightly more diverse than driver rosters, but before Daniels’ name became more well known due to the media coverage, she said she could tell some people didn’t understand why she was at the track.

“When people saw me at the track before I had the equipment on or anything, my gear, all of that stuff, they were looking at me like, ‘OK, what makes her want to join an atmosphere like this?’” Daniels said. “Too many people don’t look like me.”

Daniels knew that going in. She “wanted to be part of change,” she said, but she knew she’d have to prepare for the scrutiny that comes with that.

“Honestly, I was just thinking about old times—if this was back in the day, how bad that would be,” Daniels said. “I thought it would be the same way.

“But it hasn’t been that bad. There are some people who are stuck in their ways, but you do have to be a strong person to be in my shoes. Being the very first to do something, of course people aren’t going to be used to seeing you out there. They’re like, ‘What is she doing here?’”

Daniels said she’s there to make a difference, and that she feels more accepted in that now than she did two years ago. The challenge is making others feel the same, and Daniels said she helps with that just by being out there.

“I don’t want to be part of something when I don’t see people who look like me there,” Daniels said. “But now others get the chance to see me in the sport and they’re like, ‘Hey, she’s in it, I can be in it too.’”

Daniels came through NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, coached under its director of athletic performance, Phil Horton—a former collegiate sports and NBA trainer who became a race- and championship-winning pit-crew coach.

Horton, who is also black, worked in racing for 12 years by the time Drive for Diversity hired him, and said he has conversations with trainees “all the time” about what they could face because they don’t fit the typical mold.

Daniels had to be ready to face that, times three, Horton said.

“She catches it three times—as an African American, as an African American female, and as a female,” Horton told Jalopnik over the phone. “You could say that those are one in the same, but they’re really not. Those are three separate things that individuals have three separate thoughts about. She faces a difficult, unique challenge, and so far she’s done very well.”

The Stars Just Really Kind Of Aligned’

Horton probably would have never met Daniels, and Daniels probably would have never taken on that challenge—at least, in NASCAR—if it weren’t for Tiffani-Dawn B. Sykes, a former college athlete who was Norfolk’s NCAA eligibility specialist at the time.

Sykes brought a Drive for Diversity pit-crew tryout to Norfolk after meeting a NASCAR representative at a conference, who mentioned the diversity program.

“Norfolk State is a historically black college—not too many NASCAR fans just walking around the campus,” said Sykes, who now works at Grambling State University in Louisiana, in a phone interview with Jalopnik. “In many jobs, we have skills that are transitional, and I don’t know that [student athletes] were aware that they had the speed, strength, agility and the hand-eye coordination that these men and women are [using] professionally in NASCAR.”

The rep told Sykes NASCAR had yet to field a black woman on a crew. Yet when Sykes brought the diversity tryout to Norfolk, she said no women came forward as wanting to try.

That’s when Sykes found two women, Daniels and a teammate, she felt would do well. “One did not show up, and the other was Brehanna,” she said. It was April of 2016, a month before Daniels would graduate.

Sykes tracked Daniels down to tell her about the tryout, and found her sitting near a Chick-fil-A in the student union.

“It was completely random,” Daniels said. “She said, ‘You know, the NASCAR pit crew [program] is coming to our school Wednesday for a tryout, and I think you should go.’

“I’m looking at her like, ‘What? What makes you think I like NASCAR? Girl, what makes you think I’m going to do this? Let’s be real.’”

Sykes was being real, and said Daniels’ face lit up once she said NASCAR crews required the same kind of athleticism Daniels already had.

“I’m like, ‘You’re an athlete,’” Sykes said. “‘You’re going to do fitness drills you’ve done a million times. This is going to be easy. You can definitely do it.’”

Daniels did do it, choosing the tryout over recording a professional baseball game with her internship. Daniels said she was the only woman who tried out that day—and that she “kicked the guys’ butts,” too.

“A few weeks later, I got invited back to the national combine and there were more people,” Daniels said. “My coach went to different schools around the country, and I placed in the top 10 spots in order to train professionally.”

Her friends were surprised that she chose a sport like NASCAR, but Daniels said it’s all about not “putting yourself in a box.”

“They were like ‘Girl, what? NASCAR? What made you want to get in that?” Daniels said, shrugging.

“I just told them that I wanted to try something new and that it was growing on me. It really doesn’t matter about where you’re from, it’s about what you want to do. If you want to do something, you do it.”

Daniels started training September, practicing twice a day with Horton for six months to prepare for a real race. Not knowing the techniques or equipment frustrated Daniels at first, but she kept telling herself it might be worth it.

“I’m like, ‘Man, what if this isn’t for me? I don’t know how to do this,’” Daniels said. “I was icing my hands every night. But Coach Horton told me to be patient—this is not stick and ball, I don’t have a basketball anymore. I have an impact wrench.”

Horton said he has to tell athletes that a lot because of the sheer physicality of being on a crew, especially as a tire changer.

“One of the things about lug nuts is you have to hit those things hard,” Horton said. “Your hands are not conditioned to do that. She comes from bouncing a basketball as opposed to picking up an impact wrench and slamming it into lug nuts as fast as she can to try to get them off in one second.”

What really convinced Daniels she would make a change in the sport, despite the struggle to learn it, was something Horton said while the Drive for Diversity trainees were watching film together.

“He was like, ‘Y’all, I think Brehanna might be the first African-American female in NASCAR,’” Daniels said. “They were like ‘Really?’ and he was like ‘Yeah, I think so.’ From that moment on, I knew this was for a bigger reason—to be opening doors for others.”

Horton said from the moment he recruited Daniels, he knew that if she worked hard, she could be the one to open those doors.

“Me being in the sport for as long as I had, I knew there weren’t any African-American females who had ever done it,” Horton said. “Once we brought her in and she showed that she had the talent to do it, it was just a matter of time.”

Norfolk kept doing the tryout even after Daniels left. The “stars just really kind of aligned” for her to find Daniels in the student union that day, Sykes said, and the stars aligned for Daniels, too.

“I mean, she was about to graduate, and I don’t know that she really, really had what her next step was cemented,” Sykes said.

“But then my life took a left turn, literally,” Daniels said.

‘I Can Be That Example’

Despite Daniels saying she’s had people see her at the track without a uniform and give her puzzled looks, the confusion doesn’t stop when she suits up.

“Once I put on my fire suit, people [are] like, ‘So this girl is actually in racing?’” Daniels said, speeding up the cadence in her voice tilting her head to mirror their confusion. “People are shocked.”

Some of those shocked reactions are good, others aren’t. The first time Daniels showed up to the track around a sea of people who didn’t look like her, she could tell she stuck out.

“I wouldn’t say that I was uncomfortable,” Daniels said. “But the way some people were looking at me was like, ‘OK, like I’m a human being, don’t look at me like that.’

“At the same time, people aren’t stupid. If they say things, they’ll say them under their breath, never to me. The only thing is really the stares at the track. There are people who don’t care if I can see them staring at me, and there are others who will wait until I go by and they’ll break their necks to look. I can see them out of the corner of my eye.”

Sykes expected that for Daniels, but said she “trusted the Drive for Diversity program and the people who were running it.”

“Did I anticipate challenges?” Sykes said. “Yes. But I’ve always had someone in my corner who would keep it very real for me in my profession—proactively, while I’m in the moment, and reactively, in things as far as gender and race.

“As much as I’ve encountered racism or sexism, you’re really never prepared for it when it happens. But I felt that Phil would be that person who would have those hard and honest conversations with them up front.”

Horton said he does have them, and that he tries to prepare athletes for what they could face in a white man’s sport instead of avoiding it.

“I try to be as real with them as possible,” Horton said. “Sometimes the athletes listen, sometimes they don’t. That’s a tough process there. That’s probably the toughest part of my job.”

Negativity isn’t a defining factor, though, and Daniels can’t recall a particularly bad experience she’s had yet. There have been a lot of good ones, even.

“This other lady, this caucasian lady, she was hugging me really tightly, like, ‘Oh my god, thank you so much for joining,’” Daniels continued, changing her voice to reflect the woman. “She almost made me cry, witnessing that times are changing.”

Daniels said one of the experiences she remembers most was at Atlanta Motor Speedway, when she felt intimidated near a bathroom.

“There were two officials standing at the doors like body guards,” Daniels said. “They walked over, and it looked like they were cornering me. I didn’t know what to expect, and they had their helmets on, so that was a little scary. I was backing up.

“Then, [an official] lifted his helmet up and said, ‘Are you the girl I saw in the articles?’”

Daniels said she was, to which one of the officials responded “Oh my god,” took his glove off and started shaking her hand.

“He said, ‘Thank you so much,’ and they were hugging me, and I was like ‘Aw,’” Daniels said, laughing. “They saw me on Yahoo Sports, and they said, ‘That’s so cool, you keep doing your thing girl.’ That made my day.”

The attention, good or bad, doesn’t bother Daniels. She said her father and late mother, who died of cancer, made her confident in who she is and in how to handle hard situations.

“I’m a strong person,” Daniels said. “I knew what I had to get ready for, just having talks with my dad and my family members. My mom passed away a long time ago, so I always remember things she would talk to me about, saying that you can’t please everyone. And you really can’t.”

And while she can’t please everyone, Daniels expected to have their attention one day.

“When I was younger, I always knew I would be somebody really important in the world,” Daniels said. “I didn’t know it would be because of NASCAR. So, the attention doesn’t surprise me, but it’s like, ‘Wow, this is actually happening.’”

Horton said that kind of drive for importance, to “want to be a superstar,” was what it was going to take for Daniels “to even consider being a pit-crew member in a man’s world.”

Daniels wants to make it all the way to the top in that man’s world, saying she hopes to be in the top-level Cup Series more regularly within the next couple of years. She’ll be one step closer to that after the Daytona race this weekend.

“I didn’t join to settle for the bare minimum,” Daniels said. “I’m just getting started. This is my second year, so of course I’m going to reach for the top.”

Horton said Daniels is ahead of the typical four-year trajectory to regular employment in the Cup Series, and that he hopes the trend continues—for her sake and the sake of others who want to join the sport.

“She has a lot riding on being who she is and what she has accomplished,” Horton said. “We just hope she can make it all the way to the highest level of the sport. She’s a trailblazer.”

Daniels said she doesn’t have any exact dates planned for when she wants to be in the Cup Series full time, but recognizes that she’s already doing a lot as is.

“I’m making people feel more accepted and welcome,” Daniels said. “People who look like me, and just minorities period, can see me and maybe follow those dreams they’ve always had of being in the racing world—being a tire changer, being on a pit crew, being a driver.

“I’m just glad I can be that example people can look up to and feel like they can pursue their dreams now.”

Clarification: This story originally called the NASCAR pit gun a hydraulic wrench, but has been edited to say “pit gun” for clarity. The company NASCAR began supplying its pit guns through for the 2018 season makes both pneumatic and hydraulic wrenches.