From clearing out the garbage at his grandfather’s Dirt Devils Speedway to being seconds away from winning the Daytona 500, Aric Almirola’s path to stock car’s elite racing series has not come easy. In an exclusive interview for Mobil 1 The Grid, Stewart-Haas Racing’s ‘Cuban Missile’ speaks to Lee Spencer to find out how the influence of his grandfather laid the foundations for a passion for racing and, eventually, a place in NASCAR’s Cup competition.
Growing up in central Florida, Aric Almirola could never had imagined competing on NASCAR’s top tour.
His formative years were spent at a race track. But not primarily behind the wheel. Still, the work ethic instilled in Almirola by his grandfather, Sam Rodriguez, would serve him well as his career arc progressed from the grassroots of his family’s Dirt Devils Speedway, just north of Tampa, to the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
While many of his peers simply showed up at Dirt Devils each weekend, helmet in hand and ready to race, Almirola’s responsibilities started days before the green flag ever fell.
“My first job was to do anything that was helpful,” Almirola said. “My most notorious job was to clean the garbage, clean the bathrooms, do all the things that needed to be done while my grandfather was working on maintenance to the grater, or working on the water truck.
“At 10 or 11-years-old, I was driving a tractor with a wheel packer on it. I was driving the water truck – an old Ford pick-up truck with a water tank on the back of it. It had a four-speed manual transmission, so when I was 10-years-old I learned to drive a manual transmission by driving the ‘Water Buffalo’. That’s what we called it. And driving the old Massey-Ferguson tractor around, packing the dirt after [Rodriguez] watered the track or would grate it. I did everything that needed to be done to the track except grate it. I never got to the point that I was good enough to grate the track.”
Rodriquez, a successful sprint car racer in the Southeast, hung up his own helmet to support his grandson’s budding career. Rodriquez’s dissatisfaction with the local racing facilities prompted him to develop his own motorsports complex. He acquired 10 acres in Land O’ Lakes, Florida and went to work.
“We would run a Saturday night go-kart race and the work at the track started on Tuesday of the week before,” Almirola said. “Just starting to prep the track, clean the concession stand and order the food for that week. Then Wednesday, after school, going out there with my grandfather and making sure the track was prepped – if it didn’t get any rain and if it did – and if you have to water the track or not. And make sure all the garbage cans were distributed out in the parking lot.
“All of those things that led up to Friday, the day before the actual race. You’re putting on the finishing touches, because it was a dirt go-kart track. So a lot of the work went into making sure the dirt was prepped and ready. But then there’s all the other stuff, making sure the scale house was clean. Making sure the tech barn was clean and ready. Making sure all the garbage cans had garbage bags in them. Then, you put on the race.”
Almirola’s sweat equity at the fifth-mile dirt track paid dividends for his own racing efforts.
“The race happens Saturday night, everyone goes home and guess who gets up on Sunday morning, goes to the track and empties all the trash cans and puts it in the dumpster? This guy,” Almirola said. “It was a full-time job for my grandfather… and me, when I was out of school. We fit in working on my go-karts and my race cars through all of that, but it’s an incredible amount of work that the track owners and the people running the event go through to put on an event for people to come to race and enjoy themselves. And then they get to go home and that promoter is doing the same thing next week.
“I never got paid a single dollar for all the work I put in at my grandfather’s shop. But the unwritten agreement was that I help him run the go-kart track where help was needed, and my repayment was that I got to go race. My grandparents spent a lot of money for me to go race. All of that money came from the profits they made from the go-kart track. My help and my work from the track went back into my racing.”
Rodriguez provided Almirola, 34, with life lessons that have fuelled his ambitions from go-karts to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
“His passion for racing taught me to be passionate about something,” Almirola said. “That’s what drives all of us in life: passion. If you don’t have a passion for something, you’ll end up being stale, just a bump on a log.
“Everybody in my family has a passion for something. I carried that on with my grandfather’s passion for racing.”
Almirola was an honour student in high school. He was offered a full ride at the University of Central Florida to study mechanical engineering through the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship program. In 2003, another door opened.
“I knew that if I had a degree in engineering, I would be able to move to North Carolina and make a living in racing,” Almirola said. “It wouldn’t be driving race cars. It would be working on race cars. I had almost reached the point that I was OK with that, if that’s what was going to happen, but all the while I kept racing a late model while I was going to college. As fate would have it, I got the opportunity to test a late model for Joe Gibbs Racing when they were starting their diversity program, and I got my shot. I got my opportunity.
“In all of my wildest dreams, I never could have imagined being a race car driver. My only hope was to one day make a living from racing—whether that was driving or working on race cars. That was my only hope. And making a living, back then, I was young and dumb, but I just wanted enough money to survive. I didn’t have that fame or fortune mentality. I wanted enough money to be able to buy pizza and burgers and hot dogs and be able to pay my rent for my apartment. That was all I really cared about. I was happy. I’ve been very blessed and fortunate enough that my career has taken off and continued to grow. Now, I make more money than I could have ever imagined and I’m racing at the very top, elite level of stock car racing.”
Almirola was anything but an overnight success. His first NASCAR start came in 2005 behind the wheel of a truck. Although he scored two top-10 finishes, he was sidelined in his other two starts. He ran a limited nine-race schedule in what is now the Xfinity Series for Gibbs in 2006, and again in 2007. He earned three poles, including at Milwaukee where received credit for the win in an awkward situation where he had qualified the car for Denny Hamlin, who was delayed in transit and took over driving duties after 58 laps, 43 of which Almirola led.
Almirola parted ways with Gibbs at the end of the season but had transitioned to a part-time Cup ride with Dale Earnhardt Inc., over the summer. That’s where he first met his current crew chief, Johnny Klausmeier, whom he considers a great friend. After DEI merged with Ganassi Racing, Almirola ran just eight races before moving on again. In 2011, he was recruited by JR Motorsports and ran his only full season of Xfinity Series competition and finished fourth in the standings. Richard Petty Motorsports came calling with Smithfield Foods in 2012. For the next six seasons, Almirola had found a home behind the wheel of the No. 43 Ford.
Although he earned his first career win at his home track – Daytona International Speedway, in July 2014 – Almirola quickly learned that not all rides are created equal.
“That’s the tricky thing about our sport,” Almirola said. “Nobody ever really knows how good the driver is because the equipment is always to blame, whether it’s good or bad. Jimmie Johnson has won seven championships, and I don’t think people give him enough credit because they’re always like, ‘Well, he’s in the best equipment at Hendrick Motorsports and obviously [Johnson’s crew chief] Chad Knaus is very smart and he has the best race cars’. Yes, absolutely, the best race cars help, but he had to perform and get the job done as well.
“Then you have guys that run in the back of the field that people automatically assume are terrible race car drivers. Well, that’s not the whole story. Their equipment might not be where it needs to be to be competitive. It’s a slippery slope in our sport trying to determine talent based purely on results, because all of these cars – although they might appear equal from sitting in the grandstands – they’re not.
“I feel like that’s what separates us from a lot of stick and ball sports. Athletes that are really talented can still show how great they are on a team because they can distinguish themselves in a play or during a game. A great hitter can be on a terrible team, hit two home runs and their team can still lose. But you know that guy is a superstar. In racing, it doesn’t work that way. If you run great, everyone thinks the driver and the team are great. If you run bad, no one knows whether it’s the driver, the crew chief, the cars or the pit crew. That’s the challenging part of our sport.”
Initially, Almirola was thrilled just to have a full-time ride with RPM. But as a single-car team, it was nearly impossible to compete against the powerhouses in the sport. After a while, the mediocrity weighed on the driver. He questioned whether he really belonged among NASCAR’s elite.
“You spend the first couple of years in shock and awe,” Almirola said. “You’re cheery and happy and life is great. You know you’re not getting the results you want all the time but life is good. You feel blessed and lucky just to be in the Cup series because you’re one in 40 in the whole world that gets to race at the highest level of stock car racing.
“But after a while, my competitive nature told me that wasn’t good enough. At that point, I wasn’t happy just to be a part of the show anymore. I felt like I had put in the time, I [had] put in the effort and I didn’t want to be just part of the show. I didn’t want to just run 20th or even 15th anymore and call it a good day when I ran 12th.
“I wanted to be competitive. I wanted to challenge to win races. I honestly wasn’t sure – and still am not sure – if I’m good enough to do that. I think time will tell. But I knew the only way to find out was to be in the best equipment. You can’t run in average equipment and know where you stack up as a race car driver. But put yourself on a level playing field with equipment, and the rest is up to you and your team. I feel like that’s where I am today.”
At Stewart-Haas Racing, Almirola has no excuses. He’s with one of the top organisations in NASCAR teamed up with two champions – Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch – and the team’s most recent Cup race winner Clint Bowyer.
Harvick has noticed a difference in both Almirola’s demeanour and the overall performance of the team with a new driver behind the wheel of the No. 10 Ford. While there’s a stark difference between Almirola’s average qualifying effort of 22.7 and his average finish of 11.2, Harvick believes the overall effort will improve considerably with time.
“Where he’s been is not good for his confidence,” Harvick said. “Where he’s at now, it takes him a little time to get the car the way he wants it and get the confidence he needs to run it fast, and qualifying has a lot to do with confidence.
“When they get their notebook situated and go around to these tracks a second time, his confidence will follow. It builds every week. You can see it the way he acts talks and walks.”
In the season opening Daytona 500, Almirola was less than a half-lap away from winning the Great American Race before he was dumped by Austin Dillon. He finished 11th, and did not finish outside of the top 15 in any of the first six races of 2018.
“I got the race team,” Almirola said. “I’ve got all the resources and technology and everything I need at my fingertips. And I’ve got the best equipment in the garage. So now, it’s up to me, Johnny Klausmeier, my engineers and my team to put all of that to its best use to go and try to win races and perform.”
And with Almirola’s drive and determination it won’t be long before he finds himself back in Victory Lane.