DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — An hour before the biggest race of her life Brehanna Daniels warmed up like she would before any other race. Long lunges behind the pit box to get loose, toe touches to follow.
Breanna O‘Leary stacked tires, chatted with her over-the-wall teammates for the No. 51 team and driver Ray Black Jr., and prepped her helmet. In short, the night began as a normal pre-race on this summer evening in Daytona.
Until the green flag dropped. Then the Rick Ware Racing team pit box began to swell with well-wishers, with onlookers, with cameras and photographers as Daniels and O‘Leary prepared to pit together and make NASCAR history.
The two women and Drive for Diversity pit crew members — and roommates — both served as tire changers in Saturday night‘s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Daniels is believed to be the first African-American woman to compete in a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series event, and two women had never pitted for the same team at NASCAR‘s top level.
By the end of the night — after Black Jr. avoided the carnage that impacted so many drivers and finished a reason-to-celebrate 16th — there was barely any time to pause and reflect as the two immediately got to work in helping break down the pit box.
“This is bigger than me. It‘s bigger than you,” Daniels said of her Monster Energy Series debut. “I want this to open doors for other little boys and girls who look like me. I want to make a difference.”
Daniels and O‘Leary spoke while sweating under the lights, wrapping hoses and putting drills back in the toolbox. They didn‘t stop their jobs to give interviews.
It‘s a mindset and type of work ethic that has paved the way from the Drive for Diversity Pit Crew combine, to pitting at the NASCAR Xfinity Series level to Saturday night under the lights at the World Center of Racing in one of the biggest races of the season.
“I‘ve worked hard,” Daniels said of her ascension. “I think everyone can see what I‘m able to do. It‘s gone from people not believing in me, but then seeing my journey and seeing how hard I‘ve worked, seeing how I‘ve improved and seeing me get to this level.”
For O‘Leary, it was her third race pitting in the Monster Energy Series. She and Daniels formed a quick friendship soon after meeting and living together in Charlotte, North Carolina.
They spoke of this day often together, and the potential for it to actually happen. Well, it has. No more What if …
“We just knew we had to do what always do,” O‘Leary said with a smile. “When we were changing tires, it felt the same as any race. It was having all the people watching that made it feel bigger. We‘re OK with that.”
Those folks who came to watch the first pit stop seemed to return en masse once Erik Jones took the checkered flag and the No. 51 was visible just outside the top 15 on the scoring pylon. Some offered congratulations. Some asked for pictures.
Daniels and O‘Leary said thank you, and yes.
Then they turned around and got right back to work.