Editor’s note: This story is an excerpt from “Friday 5: Female pit crew members making their mark in NASCAR” and was originally published on NBC Sports’ NASCAR Talk.
By Dustin Long
On the morning of this year’s season-opening Cup race, Brehanna Daniels stood alone and shed tears.
A few hours later, she was joined by Dalanda Ouendeno on pit road, marking the first time two Black women changed tires for a team in the Daytona 500.
“It meant so much to me,” Daniels told NBC Sports. “From where I started, I was the only (Black woman). I’m just sitting there thinking like, ‘Dang, I don’t want to be the only one.’ … I was hoping for someone to see me and then actually want to be a part of the sport. Now she’s here. Even though it’s three years later, it still happened.”
Daniels made her Cup debut three years ago this week, joining Breanna O’Leary as the first female tire changers for the same team in NASCAR’s premier series. Daniels and O’Leary remain in the sport. Ouendeno joined them on pit road this season, but a pit crew diversity program does not have any females this year.
O’Leary and Daniels both were in the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Development program in 2016. O’Leary made her Cup debut in June 2018 at Michigan. Daniels’ Cup debut came a month later at Daytona, teaming with O’Leary.
Since that night in Daytona — where spectators and media crowded the team’s pit stall to witness the two female tire changers in action — the journey has been challenging for Daniels, 27, and O’Leary, 29.
“Just like anything, it’s had its ups and downs,” said O’Leary, who has changed tires for Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series teams this year and trains with Chip Ganassi Racing. “There were even times in between then and now that I’ve questioned what I’m doing and wondering why I’m doing it. But it’s one of those things, I guess, when you have moments like that first Cup race I did or getting to do the 500 with Brehanna (in 2019) … all that makes it worth it.”
Daniels admits it would have been easy to quit when she started, but she wouldn’t allow herself to do it.
“I’ve always known that my hard work paid off and it continues to pay off,” said the former Norfolk State University basketball player. “I’ve always had that competitive drive, competitive nature. I like competing, so going out there and doing pit stops, you’re competing against other teams and trying to get better within yourself. I just want to get better and do better.”
Ouendeno, 23, joined Daniels at Rick Ware Racing this season after going through the pit crew diversity program. The Paris native played soccer at the University of Miami before joining NASCAR.
“When I first started the program, training to be on a pit crew, I didn’t even have my driver’s license because you don’t have to drive (to get around) Paris,” Ouendeno told NBC Sports. “I definitely learned a ton about cars. Now my friends come to me for car advice.”
While Ouendeno has joined the sport, it will take time for more growth. Danica Patrick’s entry into NASCAR didn’t suddenly increase the number of women seeking to race stock cars. The same has been the case for female pit crew members.
Still, Daniels, O’Leary and Ouendeno each said they get a lot of support from fans.
“I have parents that reach out to me … they send me pictures of their kids working on a car,” Daniels said. “(They’re saying) ‘Look at my son trying to be like you,’ or ‘my daughter trying to change this tire.’ Just sending me pictures like that. That’s a big deal.”
This year’s Indianapolis 500 featured Paretta Autosport, which had female team members as a majority of its over-the-wall pit crew. O’Leary said that was important to see.
“I loved it,” she said. “It wasn’t a gimmick. These women earned their spot. They earned their positions to be where they were and to able to bring this team to competition at the Indy 500.”
Phil Horton, director of Athletic Performance at Rev Racing, oversees the pit crew diversity program. He says a dozen women have come through the program in about the last decade.
While there isn’t a woman in this year’s program, Horton noted that a program to train those for roles as a car chief or crew chief has a woman. That program also will include pit training.
Horton, a strength coach with the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks before moving into NASCAR in 1998, said the diversity pit crew program goes to colleges to show male and female athletes potential opportunities in stock car racing.
“For the individuals that have decided to do that, it works,” he said. “It is definitely possible.”