Trackhouse Racing Team co-owner Justin Marks was discussing his driver Daniel Suárez’s maiden NASCAR Cup Series victory at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday when he received a congratulatory text.
“Literally Pitbull texting me right now,” Marks said, relaying a message from the rapper and singer with whom he co-owns the team.
“‘Congrats,’ and I can’t say that word,” he said. “‘I’m taking a couple tequila shots right now. Dale, history in the making. See you soon, step on the gas and haul ass.'”
Suárez had just become the first Mexican-born driver to win a race in NASCAR’s premier series and the fifth non-American driver to do so.
Suárez, 30 and in his sixth full season in the Cup Series, led a race-high 47 of the 110 laps completed Sunday, the sun breaking through early afternoon overcast skies just before Suárez himself broke through.
“I’ve been working very hard for this moment,” a wine- and champagne-soaked Suárez said after the race. “Not just myself but my entire team. I’m very, very lucky to have great people around me.”
Marks and Pitbull – whose real name is Armando Christian Pérez – launched Trackhouse Racing prior to the 2021 NASCAR season with Suárez as the team’s sole driver at that time.
After winning races in NASCAR’s lower series and a championship in the second-division Xfinity Series in 2016, Suárez was thrust into the Cup Series in 2017 following the sudden retirement of then-Joe Gibbs Racing driver Carl Edwards.
Suárez showed speed over the ensuing years, but lagged behind his teammates at Gibbs, finishing 20th, 21st and 17th in the driver standings between 2017 and 2019 while other Gibbs drivers finished as high as second in 2017 and 2018 and teammate Kyle Busch won the Cup Series championship in 2019.
Suárez was dropped from Gibbs after 2019 and struggled with Gaunt Brothers Racing during the 2020 season before signing with Trackhouse before the 2021 season.
On Sunday, Marks said Suárez “checked a lot of boxes” when Trackhouse was searching for a driver and said he knew Suárez had a “tremendous amount” of potential behind the wheel.
“I have almost never met a more determined, focused, hardworking race car driver in my 20 years in this sport,” Marks said. “Every single morning, he wakes up and says, ‘I’m going to be the best version of myself that I can be today, and I’m going to do all the work I possibly can do today to win this race.”
Suárez said he’s always felt comfortable on tracks like the 11-turn road course that sits at Sears Point just north of the San Pablo Bay after growing up racing go-karts on road courses.
He noted that he led early and had the fastest car at the series’ prior road course race this season at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, before suffering a flat tire and losing his power steering.
Suárez’s teammate, Ross Chastain, would go on to win in Austin, but Suárez said the speed his team showed that weekend gave him additional confidence ahead of Sonoma.
“We had a good car – we didn’t have the best car today,” he said. “I felt like we were able to make the right calls, maximize what we got and the result shows for that.”
NASCAR officials and track executives likely would’ve lauded Sunday’s race as a success regardless of who ultimately won as the event marked the first full-capacity NASCAR race at the track since 2019.
NASCAR skipped its annual June visit to Sonoma in 2020 amid state public health restrictions on large events and in an effort to reduce cross-country travel for the Cup Series.
The Cup Series returned in 2021, but the race was held nine days before the state lifted its COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions on both indoor and outdoor events.
As such, Sonoma Raceway was forced to limit attendance to just a fraction of the facility’s capacity of 47,000.
Sonoma Raceway General Manager and Executive Vice President Jill Gregory said Thursday at a news conference that track officials hoped to gather fan feedback over the weekend and into the future about how to improve the race weekend experience.
“It is one of those weekends that we all want to come to, but we want to make sure that the track is doing everything that we need to do to make sure that we are a premier venue to host an event like this,” she said.
Gregory was named the track’s chief executive last year after working for NASCAR itself as the executive vice president and chief marketing and content officer.
Gregory said she drew on the experience of being in NASCAR’s executive suite and running a track to prepare for this year’s return to full capacity and to promote the event to new fans while also catering to long-time attendees.
“We want new fans to come out,” she said. “We’re seeing the increase in new fans buying tickets for the first time is through the roof, and that’s been because of some of the things that we were able to do at NASCAR and us delivering on our end at Sonoma Raceway.”
NASCAR officials pointed to the new generation of Cup Series cars in use for the first time this year as one factor that has boosted the sport’s popularity while also bringing in new teams and team owners like Trackhouse Racing as well as 23XI Racing, which is co-owned by current driver Denny Hamlin and NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan.
NASCAR President Steve Phelps also noted that both television ratings and fan attendance have risen across the board for the sport in 2022.
“I couldn’t have dreamed that it would go as well as it has,” Phelps said Thursday. “The racing has been simply extraordinary.”
Phelps also pointed to efforts by NASCAR officials to make the sport more socially conscious, including banning displays of the Confederate flag from every track the sport visits.
On Sunday, fans visited an LGBTQ pride booth tucked among concession stands and pre-race activations for partner sponsors like DoorDash.
Sonoma Raceway also participated in the Sonoma County Pride Parade this year for the first time, Gregory said.
“We have a whole new set of race fans who are coming to the racetrack, watching on television, participating in digital and social, and it’s working,” Phelps said. “This is a welcoming environment, and we want different people to come to our racetracks and feel special and feel welcome.”
Suárez is currently the only non-American driver competing in the Cup Series full time and a product of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, an effort the sport launched in 2004 in an effort to attract more women and non-white fans, drivers and team employees to a sport historically dominated by white men.
“I feel extremely, extremely lucky and fortunate to be that driver that the whole Hispanic community can connect with … I feel like I have an entire country and community behind me,” Suárez said.
He also said he drew strength as the race wore on from the attendance of Daniel’s Amigos, a group of a few hundred fans and sponsors who cheered him on while adorned in red “Daniel’s Amigos” T-shirts.
Suárez spent roughly 90 minutes Sunday morning visiting with the group, which attended the race at Sonoma for the first time.
“That fuels me, that’s energy for me,” he said of their support. “And I knew that I wasn’t going to let them down.”
At one time, Suárez said he was worried the language barrier would prevent him from ever racing in the United States; he ultimately learned to speak English more than a decade ago in part by watching cartoons.
He equated his long road from growing up in Monterrey to Sunday in Sonoma to the journey so many Mexicans and Latin Americans in general take to reach the U.S., and said he hopes he can serve as an inspiration to them.
“Every NASCAR driver has had a tough journey, and everyone has a different journey, but my journey is definitely the most different of everyone else: leaving my family and my country and coming to a different culture, different language,” he said Sunday. “So thinking of all those things, it makes today very, very special.”