NASCAR's Daniel Suarez is latest in historic Mexican racing firsts

Daniel Suarez and his new ride with Joe Gibbs Racing. Suarez is taking over for Carl Edwards, who announced he is stepping away from racing. AP Photo/Chuck Burton

MEXICO CITY -- It seems only fitting that Daytona Beach, Florida, itself a longstanding and meaningful venue for auto racing, should welcome Daniel Suarez into the history books.

Following Carl Edwards' retirement from NASCAR, Suarez, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, will become the first full-time Mexican-born driver in the Cup series starting in the 2017 season.

Suarez is no stranger to making history, as he already is the first foreign-born champion to win a NASCAR title, when he took the 2016 Xfinity Series. His rapid ascent has taken him from debuting in the NASCAR Mexico Series six years ago to making the full jump toward the top category in 2017, following Edwards' retirement.

“Thank goodness Daniel was there to step in for us,” said Joe Gibbs, Suarez's team owner, at a news conference announcing the change.

“He's earned the opportunity and we are excited for his future.”

His rise comes at a time in which auto racing in general is experiencing a renaissance in Mexico, and quick success at the top level would likely mean increased fandom for NASCAR in a country where Formula One is far more popular. The organization's muted status in the country is a rarity when comparing usual Mexican attitudes toward American-based sports leagues. Most have a robust amount of fans south of the border, as evidenced by recent events held by MLB, the NBA, NFL and UFC within its borders in attempts to bolster the market.

Even then, the effect of Suarez's success is already being felt back home.

“When I got to the racetrack in Mexico City, it was unbelievable,” Suarez said in a news conference. “I was expecting a good welcome, but I felt like I was a rock star. It was something huge for me.”

Referring to a NASCAR Mexico exhibition event last December, Suarez served as the grand marshal at the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez, a track named for two brothers who became the country's earliest auto racing stars and paved the way for the country's later involvement with racing sports.

One of the brothers, Ricardo Rodriguez, became Mexico's first Formula One driver in 1961, also competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In 1962, at just 20 years of age and in his first full season driving for Ferrari, Rodriguez died at the famed Mexico City track which would later bear his family name. A perceived racing boom for Mexico during the 1960's included the Rodriguez brothers as well as Moises Solana, who also raced in Formula One during the aforementioned period before a crash claimed his life at just 33 years of age.

Ricardo's older sibling, Pedro, was Mexico's first Formula One GP race winner and its only 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, taking home the title in 1968. He notably traveled to every race with a Mexican flag and a recording of his country's national anthem, after an embarrassing episode in South Africa, where after winning he stood on the podium to the sounds of the Mexican Hat Dance, as the organizers were unprepared for his victory. Rodriguez would also die on the track, following a 1971 accident in Nuremberg, Germany. After the abrupt end to his career, Mexican drivers at the upper echelons of the sport would become few and far between, In the past 45 years, just three of his countrymen have made the leap to Formula One.

Other categories, such as the now-defunct CART and IndyCar circuits have housed several Mexican drivers since then, with only a few, namely Adrian Fernandez, Guillermo Rojas or Michel Jourdain attempting to scrape the heights that the Rodriguez brothers or Solana achieved in their respective careers. With the recent success of events hosted in Mexico, even non-auto racing circuits are being courted to get in on the action.

“We have MotoGP on our radar,” said Horacio de la Vega, the Mexico City government sports czar involved in bringing other events to the Latin American capital. “We know the [Autódromo] would have to adopt some changes to get that done,” he continued.

Meanwhile, Suarez looks ahead in an attempt to carve out a piece of history among a younger group thrilling his nation, including current Formula One drivers Esteban Gutierrez and Sergio Perez, the first Mexican to reach the podium since 1968. Highly thought of within NASCAR, Suarez will now embark on a rookie season hoping to elevate his status further, not just within the United States, but also back home.

When Suarez takes the wheel at Daytona, he will be following in the shadows of his predecessors. In 1963, Pedro Rodriguez took home the checkered flag there, one of the first major victories of his career.

More than half a century later, Suarez launches a new beginning for Mexican racing, a fact he made clear during his introductory news conference.

"It won't be easy. … Thanks for trusting me, a kid from Mexico."