'My story is just one of millions'
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Aric Almirola knows that his good fortune can be traced to good family, good decisions and a great country.
“My story is just one of millions,” says the Richard Petty Motorsports driver, whose roots resonate with a patriotic bond to the third annual "NASCAR: An American Salute" program, a seven-week campaign to rally teams, tracks, fans and partners to collectively recognize and honor active and retired service men and women.
“I’m thankful for the opportunities we have on a day-to-day basis and for the men and women who put their life on the line to make sure we, as Americans, get to wake up and be safe each day,” he said.
Almirola’s patriotism extends far beyond the U.S. Air Force logo on the blue hood of his iconic No. 43 Ford and runs deeper than the commitment his sponsor Eckrich Meats has made in aiding military families.
It extends all the way back to 1966, when his paternal grandparents emigrated from Cuba, sacrificing all their possessions so their family might have the opportunity to live the American dream.
When Ralph Almirola Sr. and wife Eneida fled Havana with only the clothes on their backs and their two children, Almirola’s father, Ralph Jr., was four years old and his uncle, Roberto, was just two.
“It was at a time when Fidel Castro was offering freedom flights to Miami,” Aric Almirola says. “But if you wanted to go, you had to give all your personal belongings to the government.”
The Almirolas were not dirt-poor so the decision was not an easy one.
“My grandparents were middle class,” Aric says. “They worked hard for everything they acquired in Cuba. They had a car and a farm-style house. My grandfather always worked and so did my grandmother, who sewed dresses and other items. They made a decent living. But they didn’t like what they saw of the way the country was going. When it was time to make a decision, they made it for their family and themselves.
“When they arrived here, they felt instant patriotism. This was the country that accepted them and welcomed them and gave them an opportunity. All they were asking for was that opportunity to create a better life for their family than what they had in Cuba.”
Ralph Almirola Jr. would spend four years in the Air Force, serving as an environmental control specialist before joining the Hillsborough County Fire Department, where he continues to work. Aric, now 30, was born on Elgin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., and lived there for two years before his family’s move to Tampa.
As fate would have it, the family of Aric’s grandfather on his mother’s side had also emigrated from Cuba years before. His grandfather, Sam Rodriguez, was a sprint car racer of note – a three-time Tampa Bay Area Racing champ, who helped Aric embark on his career as a go-kart driver when he was eight.
Almirola grew up playing baseball as well as racing. At 14, when he won the pole at his first World Karting Association race, his sport of choice became more apparent. Almirola, who studied mechanical engineering at the University of Central Florida, got his major break in racing at 23 when Joe Gibbs signed him to participate in the Joe Gibbs Racing/Reggie White Driver Diversity Program.
“It’s one thing to live in a country that’s so inviting – a place where people want to be,” Aric says. “I’m lucky enough to be an American citizen. But I also get to drive a race car for a living and make really good money at it to support my family. I know this is all because of my grandparents’ decision to move here. There’s no way I’d be racing cars if I lived in Cuba.”
As blessed as he feels about his career, his family, including wife Janice and their two young children, and to be an American, Almirola feels equally fortunate about his ability to give something back.
The "NASCAR: An American Salute" program officially begins at this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 and runs through the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. During this period, Almirola looks forward to meeting many of the troops and their families who will be hosted by NASCAR through Troops to the Track, a season-long program that hosts active duty military, veterans and military families to races across the country. Some will be wounded warriors. Some will be family members who have lost a loved one.
Eckrich, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, has partnered with Operation Homefront in launching Operation Inspiration, designed to honor and thank military personnel and their families from all branches of the service. The campaign pays special awareness to wounded warriors. Recently, Almirola was especially happy to present a specially equipped Ford Fusion to a soldier who had lost his arm.
Almirola has regularly participated in swearing-in ceremonies for new Air Force recruits, including last year’s ceremonies in Charlotte, officiated by Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, Chief of Staff for the U.S. Air Force.
But much of Almirola’s interactions are less formal in nature. In concert with Eckrich, he has awarded shopping sprees, VIP race experiences and NASCAR gear to military families, many of them with special needs. He and team owner Richard Petty also joined Country Music Television in filming a special Operation Inspiration CMT Hot 20 Countdown show, which aired May 17.
“My dad was in the Air Force, I was born on air force base, and, now, it’s come full circle,” Almirola says. “I get to meet a lot of high school students who have just graduated and are just joining the Air Force and a lot of other people who fight every day for our freedom.
“I even get to hang out with some generals. That’s pretty cool – and so is seeing our partnership with the U.S. Air Force and seeing how many similarities there are at the Sprint Cup level and the military. It’s very much a team effort for both parties.”
Of course, Almirola and crew chief Trent Owens have another reason to be excited about the upcoming stretch. The 43 team is coming off an eighth-place showing at Kansas Speedway – their third top-10 finish of the season – and sits just outside the top 20 in Sprint Cup points. Additionally, Almirola has a history of speed at Charlotte, site of this Sunday's race and where he captured his first pole at the 2012 Coca-Cola 600.
“To see that No. 43 at the top of the pylon was pretty exciting,” he recalls. “I think we can certainly repeat that. Racing at Charlotte is cool because it’s home to so much of NASCAR. It’s the one race where you get to sleep in your own bed. The guys in the shop and the family of your crew members all get to watch, so it’s not only our longest race of the year, but a really special race to win.
“I’m excited about racing at Charlotte. Our mile-and-a-half program has been a little off, but I feel like we’ve zeroed in on some things and we hope to keep that pattern up. Our cars have shown some speed, so I’m actually really excited about the rest of our season.”