It is not too often that a gaggle of reporters and fans jostle for position at pit row in a NASCAR race just to watch a tire changer. Then again, it is not too often that the tire changer is a woman. And it had never been an African-American woman.
Brehanna Daniels was beaming after working her first pit stop during Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway, saying that she was nervous, that she did not want to mess up and that she was not used to feeling the eyes of so many people observing what she does.
She understood why, though. She knew the magnitude of what she was doing, why it was more than just changing tires, and why a sliver of spotlight shined on her.
“It feels great,” she said, as fellow team members and friends of NASCAR driver Ray Black Jr. high-fived and fist-pumped her with race cars still motoring around the track. “It’s breaking down barriers, opening doors for other people who look like me.”
Not only was Daniels, 24, the first African-American woman to work a pit crew in NASCAR’s top series, but she was also half of the first female duo in the modern era to work in a pit crew together at a Cup race. Daniels changed the front tires and Breanna O’Leary, 26, changed the back tires on Black’s No. 51 car.
Daniels and O’Leary are graduates of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, the goal of which is to broaden the sport’s fan base beyond a predominantly white and male demographic.
NASCAR sends Phil Horton, its director of athletic performance, to college campuses around the country in search of candidates for the program. He takes athletes through a grueling mini-combine to test agility and strength. Those who make the cut are invited to a national combine in Concord, North Carolina.
Daniels heard of the program two years ago after she completed her college career as a point guard on the Norfolk State basketball team. Around the same time, O’Leary finished her eligibility as an Alcorn State softball player. Neither had any interest in, or so much as a working knowledge of, NASCAR.
“I was eating at a Chick-fil-A on campus when the woman who announces our basketball games came up to me and said, ‘Hey, Brehanna, the NASCAR pit crew is coming to our school for a tryout. I think you should go for it,’ ” Daniels said. “And I’m like, ‘Girl, what are you talking about?’ Then she showed me a video of what a pit crew does and I was like, ‘Dang! That was fast!’ ”
O’Leary heard about the tryout from her college’s strength and conditioning coach. Horton immediately saw talent in both of them, along with two other key ingredients: athleticism and enthusiasm.
“I knew they would make it,” he said.
A longtime trainer for college and pro athletes, Horton cited Daniels’ exceptional hand speed, essential for a tire changer, who is expected to get two tires on and off, each with five lug nuts, in roughly 15 seconds.
Before Daniels and O’Leary, only five women had ever worked on a NASCAR Cup pit crew, which until this year had been a six-member team. NASCAR reduced pit crews to five members, forcing teams to place a higher premium on speed and athleticism.
Like in any professional sport, there is money to be made if you make it to the highest level but little money otherwise. Daniels worked 35 races on lower NASCAR series, where a tire changer can make anywhere from $250 to $600 per race, plus expenses. That figure increases to $600 to $800 plus expenses for the top series, the Monster Energy Cup.
Once a pit crew member makes it on a regular basis with a Monster Energy Cup race team — and if they do, it usually takes three to four years — Horton said the average salary was $80,000 to $120,000 a year. Pit crew superstars can make anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000 a year.
Daniels majored in communications at Norfolk State, and O’Leary hoped to get into athletic training. But now they have thrown their lot into this career, eager to see how far this ride will take them. They room together at home in Charlotte, North Carolina, and on the road.
Part of breaking into the sport is working as an independent contractor for itinerant drivers like Black, who started the Coke Zero Sugar 400 in the penultimate position, 39th, and finished 16th.
“In some ways, it’s more difficult for them than it is for me,” he said, adding that he trusted his team owner to hire top talent, no matter their gender. “I have a contract for the whole season. As a driver, if you mess up or wreck, there’s always next week. But for them, there really is no margin for error.”
Horton said the stakes were high for someone on the pit crew. “If you don’t perform, there’s not a whole lot of patience,” he said.
Daniels not only recognized that — she embraced it. A few hours before Saturday’s race, she posted a message on Twitter to let the world know what she was about to accomplish, saying: “Once the green flag drops, history will be made, barriers will be broken, another milestone will be complete. I’m changing front tires on the 51 Cup car.”
Afterward, Daniels was beaming.
“I still can’t believe it,” she said in between hugs from friends. “I finally got a Cup race, and I did it in a little under two years. It’s a great confidence boost. I didn’t sleep much before the race. And I was a little overwhelmed, kind of smothered by all the cameras following me around. But now I feel great.”
As the throng of news media, gawkers and friends thinned, Daniels still had more work to do; she hasn’t made it as a regular on the Cup series yet.
That meant that after packing and storing equipment well into the evening, it was time for Daniels and O’Leary to grab the wheel. With the race over and a bit of history secured, they saved on a hotel bill by driving seven hours overnight, back home to Charlotte.