Aric Almirola a great ambassador at Homestead as NASCAR taps into Latino market

Photos by Homestead-Miami Speedway

By Yvonne Jones, Staff Writer

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — The sun was setting in the South Florida skies and there was the blue and white iconic No. 43 car of Aric Almirola in Victory Lane at Homestead-Miami Speedway Tuesday evening.

Yes, true story.

It had nothing to do with a race though. But on this day, confetti should have been falling because Almirola was a champion to the members of the Latino community he was hosting at the 1.5-mile track that crowns NASCAR champs annually.  The Cuban-American driver gave pace car rides, used his No. 43 car as a simulator, took photos and dined with some 17 groups of Hispanics who are competing in NASCAR’s next star influencer contest. The initiative coincided with Hispanicize, an annual event that started in 2010 for Latino trendsetters and newsmakers in digital content creation, journalism, marketing and entertainment that’s being held in downtown Miami’s JW Marriott Marquis from April 3-6, 2017.

“It’s always cool when you get to see those Smithfield colors in Victory Lane,” said the Richard Petty Motorsports driver with a smile. “It’s really fun to do an event like this, the Hispanicize event here at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  It’s a really cool event and it gives us a chance to engage in the Latino community and help promote the sport.”

NASCAR had been a part of Hispanicize at different levels. But this is the first time it has partnered with Homestead-Miami Speedway and brought influencers out. The influencers have the chance to win a contract worth $5,000 with NASCAR to cover the Ford Championship weekend in November.

All they have to do is create a fun 10-30 second video telling why they should be the next Latino NASCAR star talent showing their love for the sport and how they will spread interest with their audience. The winner and runner-up will be chosen later this week.

The influencers who were on hand at HMS on Tuesday had plenty to share after the pace car ride given by Almirola in a white Ford Mustang.

“It’s very cool,” said Ali Saleh, a participant. “This is an experience that most people don’t get to experience. You know, most people just come and watch the drivers just drive. To be in the actual ride with a professional on a different level, I enjoyed it. It’s definitely a memory that I’m not going to forget.”

Almirola cheerfully made the trips around the South Florida track, picking up and dropping off up to three people at a time in the two-door car until around 9 o’clock that night. He said the most common words uttered during the rides were “holy crap.”

Monica Taher wasn’t one of those folks. In fact, she asked Almirola to pick up the pace from 150 mph.

“It’s was incredible,” she said. “I actually asked Aric if he could go 200 mph and he said ‘no.’ So I said OK that’s fine. I was not nervous at all. I was using my phone and my camera to record.”

That’s the experience Almirola was hoping to provide when he heard about the chance to visit his home state as an ambassador for the sport.

“I had a great day,” he said. “It’s so much fun to come out to Homestead-Miami Speedway and bring so many heavy influencers in the Latino community and bring them out and show them what NASCAR is all about. Show them the track. Show them how fast we can go around the track and give them an experience of what we do so they will be able to reach and engage the people that follow them on social media and hopefully promote NASCAR and myself, and our sponsors, Smithfield Foods, and be able to generate interest.”

For the 33-year-old Almirola, whose family came from Cuba in 1966 and is the first person in his family born a Cuban-American, he has a lot in common with the youngsters he was showing around HMS.

“I get to live the American dream and I’m so relatable to so many of the other kids my age in the Latino community and younger that their parents have moved from another country and tried to create a better life for their family here in America,” he said. “And so to have that opportunity to engage with them and reach out to them and connect with them through NASCAR, is fantastic.

“We want so badly to continue to grow that market for our sport because it’s such a big market and NASCAR is truly the All-American sport. But in order for us to be the All-American sport, our fan base and our drivers and everybody need to look like all of America. “

Julian Terriquez, another influencer, said the Homestead visit was a good first step in changing how NASCAR is viewed by many in the Hispanic community.

“A lot of people, especially, I want to say Latinos are not open to this, you know what I mean? They think it’s more of a Caucasian sport, I don’t want to sound racist, but it’s not,” Terriquez said. “It’s for everybody. It’s one family. It’s really entertaining. It’s fun. And if you get the chance to get into an actual car, it’s a big adrenaline rush.”

A native of Tampa, Florida, Almirola said he returns to his home state probably four or five times a year to visit family, but not nearly as much as he’d like. So when the idea came about to host the event, he jumped on it.

“This is a big deal for me, to have the opportunity to reach out to these people and to connect with these people that are just like me,” he said. “They live in a Latino community but they’re mainstream Americans and they speak fluent English. They live just like me and you do. The only difference is that their family left another country.

Almirola said he can’t even imagine what it’s like to come to another country to start your life over. He said he sometimes contemplates moving just within the city that he lives, moving to a new house and it’s a big decision.

“But could you imagine like picking up like your family and moving to another country that you don’t speak their language? It’s unbelievable,” he said. “And to know that my family has done that; so many of the people here that we’re connecting with, their family is like that. I love having this opportunity to get to know these people and to have that connection with them.”

Almirola is making the connection in his own household as his 4-year-old son, Alex, has already caught on.

“My son is really big advocate and loves the sport of NASCAR,” he said. “He knows every single driver. He watches every race whether he is there or on TV. So he’s definitely got the itch, the bug. We are trying to harness that right now. We’ve got him a BMX bike and we take him to some BMX tracks and let him ride. So we’re trying to let him get his competitive juices flowing on the bike and we’ll see where that leads to.”

Almirola is starting to see his impact on the sport as a Cuban-American. He said there are more 43s at the race track these days.

“I think it’s really noticeable when I come to the race track and I do autographs sessions and I walk through the fan area, and I have that opportunity to engage with the fans, I’m really happily surprised over the last three or four years the turnout that we’re getting from the Hispanic community and to know that I have something in common with them, that I have that genuine connection, it makes me feel really proud,” he said.

“So I love the fact that NASCAR and the race tracks like Homestead-Miami Speedway are continuing to engage that community because it’s an important community, not only in NASCAR but just in our population in general, in the United States, and so for me to kinda be able to fly that flag and be one our leaders in the sport for the Latino community, it’s great.”

So will NASCAR make the influencer contest a yearly thing? Edwin Gotay, NASCAR’s director of Hispanic marketing, said he wasn’t sure but it’s highly likely given the response from the groups.

“We don’t know yet,” he said. “We have had such success actually this time around. We are quite happy seeing how much engagement we are getting from them; the number of posts that they are already putting up. In fact, we looking at some their accounts earlier and we got a guy up here with a million followers, who posted a picture on the track. How amazing is that in reaching a younger, more diverse fan base?

“So we don’t know yet. We have to look at the results to see if we delivered the kind of engagement we were looking for. But I feel strong in saying we would probably do this again.”

One thing is certain: Almirola is a good messenger and host.

“The drivers aren’t obligated to do this with us,” explained Gotay, referring to Almirola. “We put the request in. We just make an ask. We say here’s what we want to do; here’s the goal and then they choose whether or not they want to be a part of it. But he’s really passionate about what we’re doing.

“I think last year at one point, he said he felt a sense of pride knowing that he was carrying kinda the Latino flag in the Cup series. I think there is a sense of pride for him and knowing he is of Cuban descent and he’s racing in NASCAR for one of the most famous teams in history – Richard Petty Motorsports. This is something he loves to do. In fact, just look at his face in the car, he is smiling the whole time.”

 

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