In just five years, Brehanna Daniels says she has seen a lot of changes in her life.
The Norfolk State women’s basketball point guard stated she never considered NASCAR as a sport, let alone a profession, while in college.
But here she is, at the age of 27, on the NASCAR pit road, changing racing cars’ tires and beating down stereotypes about women and people of color.
“Girl, you are crazy…” she told ABC News about what the person she was at 17 would think about her now, a NASCAR pit crew member.
“Especially, you know, a little black girl like myself at that time. [I] definitely was like, I’m never getting into NASCAR. It wasn’t even a thought in my mind,” she said.
Until NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity recruiters showed up on her college campus in 2016 and introduced her to the sport, which she had never heard of before. Her court talents were a natural fit for a NASCAR pit crew’s fast-paced demands.
“Brehanna was one of those who embraced it, came through the program, excelled,” said Max Siegel, the manager of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program.
Daniels became NASCAR’s first Black woman over-the-wall tire changer in 2017 after months of training. As part of the first female pit crew on a NASCAR pit crew, Daniels would make history again by the end of the year.
“I could not be more proud of what she’s accomplished both as an athlete, but she’s been amazing with her brand and social media and creating awareness and really getting people excited about the fact that if she can do it, there are other people that can do it,” Siegel told ABC News.
Siegel said he wants all of his recruits who go through the Drive for Diversity program to succeed. Siegel and his staff have worked over the past twelve years to enhance diversity in NASCAR by recruiting, training, and supporting minorities like Daniels.
NASCAR’s first highest-ranking Black executive was Siegel himself. According to him, the Drive for Diversity initiative has helped more than 60 women and minority drivers in NASCAR in just over a decade. The initiative has trained 75 applicants for NASCAR’s pit crews who are gender and culturally diverse since 2009.
Siegel said he was thrilled to see alumni of the program make about 10% of the field at the Daytona 500 this year.
“I feel like for the first time since I’ve been involved, a lot of those things are starting to be addressed head-on and progress is being made,” Siegel said.
Despite the fact that the Drive for Diversity program is eager to celebrate achievement, Siegel believes that achieving success will take a lot more effort. His efforts to increase diversity in NASCAR have met with a lot of pushback, but he says he remains devoted to the goal.
Even if some people praise her accomplishments in the sport, Daniels said she has to filter out a lot of hate.
“People were like, ‘oh, she sucks,’ ‘what does it matter that she’s Black?’ It’s like, why wouldn’t that matter? You don’t see that every day in NASCAR. Why wouldn’t that be talked about?,” Daniels said.
The majority of NASCAR fans are also white. According to data provided to The Associated Press by NASCAR, 25% of fans identify as multicultural, while only 9% identify as Black.
“It is very low. I think that you will get an honest admission from everyone in the sport that there is a ton of work to be done,” Siegel said.
Celebrities such as NBA Hall of Famer Michael Jordan and rapper Pitbull have recently invested in NASCAR, helping to broaden the face of the sport’s team ownership and maybe generating fresh interest.
“There was a time where when you think about race and sport, NASCAR would be on the not-so-positive end of the spectrum,” Armstrong said. “I think it’s really becoming more intentional in addressing its past, its racist past and things that they can do better to respond to this multicultural generation in this multicultural market in which it operates.”
Even though the Drive for Diversity program is still writing the next chapter, Daniels said she already likes where NASCAR is headed.
“There’s always room for improvement. But like I said, I’m very proud of NASCAR and for all the progress it’s made … yeah, I love to see it,” she said.