Martin Fennelly Columns
Almirola keeping racing in the family
DAYTONA BEACH - In the Almirola home in Tampa, they knew something was up the first time the child stormed off after losing at checkers. They knew every time the kid's maternal grandfather, Sam Rodriguez, put his No. 1 handshake on the boy, that vice grip that steered the wheel and helped make Sam a Tampa Bay car racing legend. "Aric, he'd squeeze my hand back as hard as he could, and I'd squeeze a little more and tell him, 'Say Uncle,' and he'd keep squeezing," Sam said. "He'd keep squeezing. Me, too. And even when it hurt he wouldn't say a thing, tears coming out his eyes. He wasn't going to give in. He doesn't accept defeat." The Daytona 500 is today. In the starting grid, driving the iconic No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports, is Aric Almirola, 27, son of a Tampa firefighter, at the start of his first season-long ride in the Sprint Cup series. "I live two hours away, so I've sat in those grandstands and watched the Daytona 500," Almirola said. "I sat up there as a kid and I'd think about how cool it would be just to turn a lap at Daytona International Speedway. So, I'm living way outside my dreams ... To be racing for Richard Petty, with my name above the door on the 43, it's an amazing thing."It took Almirola a while to get here, up from go-karts, from open-wheeled modified cars, up from truck racing. It took hard work, loads of ups and downs. It took a belief, a leap of faith – like the one his dad's family took when they fled Cuba for America on the 1966 freedom flights. "It hasn't been an easy climb," Ralph Almirola said of his son's career. The kid doesn't accept defeat. "We think Aric has all the makings to be the next bright star in our sport." The man who said that: Richard Petty. Aric Almirola attended Hillsborough High School. He played baseball growing up, but racing grabbed hold early. Weekends were spent at tracks, where his truest race hero was his grandfather. Sam Rodriguez, 64, owns R & S Auto Body on North Armenia in Tampa. Sam was born and raised here. He was a great driver, a three-time Tampa Bay Area Racing Association sprint car champion in the early '90s. Ralph was Sam's crew chief. Sam raced at East Bay Raceway, foot to the floor. "I was 110 percent all the time," Sam said. "Checkers or wreckers," Ralph said. "My grandfather was a huge inspiration to me," Aric said. He was 8 when Sam bought him a go-kart. Away Aric went. It nearly ended when he was 13. He was driving a four-wheeler in an open field when the vehicle flipped, grabbing his left leg. It shattered bones and tore his leg to pieces. Aric was airlifted to Tampa General Hospital, where Sam got a look at the leg. "My legs buckled when I saw that deal," Sam said. "It just missed the artery," Ralph said. "The doctor told me if it hadn't, we would have been having a different conversation. By the grace of God …" The walls at R & S Auto Body are covered with pictures of Aric, in go-karts, in modifieds, trucks – he finished second in the NASCAR truck series in 2010 – and in cars he ran in NASCAR's Nationwide series. People knew he had something. In 2004, Almirola was studying mechanical engineering at the University of Central Florida, racing weekends, when he was chosen to participate in NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program. He also signed with Joe Gibbs Racing as a developmental driver in a partnership with NFL Hall of Famer Reggie White. A man of Cuban descent is racing Richard Petty's 43 car. It matters to Almirola. "When I was a kid, I took for granted that my family had come from Cuba," he said. Now he fully appreciates what his paternal grandparents did in leaving all they knew and had to start over in Florida. Ralph was a child when his family made the freedom flight. His father, Rafael, was a TV repairman in Tampa. He watched on TV in 2009 as Aric raced in his first Daytona 500. Rafael died a few months later. "Now I know about the sacrifices, the courage it took," Almirola said. "It makes me proud to know I represent what they gave up, everything for creating a better life for their family, and I get to live that." Almirola won races for Gibbs and White, but then Reggie White died. "He loved the racing," Almirola said. "He was totally involved. He was ate up with it." Almirola never forgot what White once told him: "I played football because I was good at it and I won – I love winning ." It's never about the losing. Almirola still couldn't land his own full-time Sprint Cup ride. He was hired by Dale Earnhardt Inc., and in 2008 he and NASCAR great Mark Martin were co-drivers for the No. 8 car in the Sprint Cup. "Mark was the guy," Almirola said. "I thought I could learn a lot from him and I did." In 2009, Almirola took over the No. 8, but seven races in he lost his ride because of lack of sponsors. There was no full ride in 2010, though Almirola did start nine Cup races and took fourth at Homestead, his best Cup finish. He longed for a real shot. Then came the phone call. The King rang. "Well, are you going to come drive my 43 or what?" Richard Petty asked. He'll race Daytona today, 500 miles. It's a full-time ride. It's Aric Almirola's turn. "It's an American success story," Ralph said. "There have been a lot of obstacles I've had to jump over, climb under, crawl under," Aric Almirola said, "walls that you've had to knock down, doors that you've had to bust open, but a lot of perseverance, a lot of faith. …As long as I didn't give up. I wouldn't. I wouldn't." Hey, you say Uncle.