Growing up in Florida, Aric Almirola has wonderful childhood memories of visiting Daytona International Speedway and he’s hoping to add a new memory at this Sunday’s Daytona 500. He’s come close to winning NASCAR’s biggest race in the past, one turn away in fact, but that just continues to motivate the 35-year-old driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing car, who knows that it takes perfect execution, and maybe just a little bit of luck, to become part of racing history.
With a new crew team for 2020, Almirola spent a portion of the off-season adjusting to the new personalities and making sure the group was all on the same page for the upcoming season. He also spent some of the off-season helping Jason Belmonte, the world’s No. 1 professional bowler, throw a strike at 140 mph – the fastest strike in the world – at Charlotte Motor Speedway, as well as publicly sharing the story of his baptism to the world. We recently spoke with Almirola during Daytona 500 Media Day to talk about his busy off-season, what it would mean to win the sport’s biggest race and more. You can catch the Daytona 500 live this Sunday, Feb. 16, at 2:30 p.m. EST on FOX.
Dirtfork: How’s Daytona 500 Media Day treating you so far?
Aric Almirola: So far, so good!
Dirtfork: That’s good. First off, let’s start with your nickname, “The Cuban Missile.” Obviously, you have a Cuban background but how’d that nickname kind of stick?
Almirola: So, I was with Joe Gibbs Racing back in 2004 and I came there through the diversity initiative that they started with Joe Gibbs and Reggie White and when I showed up, obviously everybody knew that I came from a Cuban background and that was what got me the opportunity, through that diversity initiative. And so when I showed up to Joe Gibbs Racing, Tony Stewart just nicknamed me “The Cuban Missile” and it kind of stuck for a while.
Dirtfork: That’s not a bad person to get a nickname from.
Dirtfork: You had a pretty busy off-season. Back in October, you were baptized. How does religion impact your life both on the track and off of the track?
Almirola: Well, like you said, it is something that has a direct impact always not just at the race track or just at home — it’s everywhere. And so, for me, when I got baptized, it was a big deal just to publicly announce my faith and to just kind of let everybody know that that’s my new standard of living and that that’s the way I want to live from that day forward. So yeah, October was a big deal, getting baptized, and it was something I was really passionate about and still, to this day, am very passionate about and hope to be passionate about until my last day here on this earth. But, you know, I think for the way it pertains to racing, it just confirms that racing is what I do, it’s not who I am and that it’s based on a result on Sunday. And it just kind of helps keep me level. It doesn’t let the highs get too high, it doesn’t let the lows get too low and it keeps perspective on everything.
Dirtfork: Prior to getting baptized, was religion something that was very important in your life and you kind of kept it private or is this something that you’ve kind of been very open about in the past as well?
Almirola: Yeah, it was — it was something I kept more private. I’m a pretty private individual anyway. I’ve been working pretty hard at opening up and letting more people into my life, you know. We started a docu-series — I’ve got a videographer following me around. We started a YouTube series, you can go to my YouTube page and check out more of the behind-the-scenes about me and all that stuff. And that took a lot for me to open up, because I am more of a reserved, quiet guy, you know. I prefer to keep to myself. I’m not flashy, I don’t want to brag or showboat, or any of those things. My faith has always been important to me and I just felt a tugging and I felt convicted to get baptized and then when I decided I was going to get baptized my initial thought was just to go in the lake and get baptized on a Tuesday afternoon when I was home. The more I prayed about it and thought about it, I realized it was important for me to tell everybody and so that not only was I doing the right thing, as the Bible says, to publicly confess the faith, but for me it was even a great opportunity to put it out there so other people can see that and hopefully call into the same thing.
Dirtfork: You mentioned your YouTube channel. You had a pretty big YouTube video a few months back and it looked like a little bit of fun on the race track between you and Jason Belmonte, doing the “World’s Fastest Strike.” How did that idea come about?
Almirola: Ah, the world’s fastest strike (laughs). So, we went last January to a bowling tournament by Chris Paul, the basketball player, and while we were there, Belmo and I were talking and he was like, ‘Dude, I want to take a ride in your race car, that would be so awesome!’ And we got to talking about it and we were like what if you bowl out of my race car and he was like, ‘Oh, that would be awesome!’ And so my business manager helped brainstorm some ideas and put a lot of things together to make it actually happen and come to life. Then the execution part was a challenge — it was miraculous that we actually pulled it off.
Dirtfork: How many attempts did you expect?
Almirola: I expected it to take most of the day to try and accomplish it. We had, I think we had, 16 bowling balls with us and so we expected some of them to disintegrate and blow up and all of those things because we were going 140 mph and they had never built, the bowling ball company, had never built a bowling ball to withstand that kind of an impact like when it hit the concrete wall. So, we didn’t really know what to expect, it was all just kind of a hair-brained idea and for it to not only come together and work with his schedule, which is a very busy schedule — and he lives in Australia — and then for my busy schedule to work — we had one day, so we couldn’t have bad weather or anything go wrong. And then to actually pull it off within probably the first hour of making attempts was pretty incredible.
Dirtfork: How does that compare to winning a race, to know you were part of the world’s fastest strike?
Almirola: It was pretty satisfying. I don’t think it was quite as awesome as winning a race because that’s ultimately my profession and my job and that’s what I want to achieve more than anything else but doing a stunt like that and pulling it off — it was definitely exciting. It’s something I’ll never forget. We had an amazing time and it went viral on the internet and so many people loved watching it. It was really neat.
Dirtfork: Alright, let’s get to a little bit of on the track stuff. You’ve been close to winning the Daytona 500 a couple of times in the past. How does that motivate you for Sunday’s race?
Almirola: Any time you come close at something it gives you a little taste of being close and fuels that fire to want to, you know, accomplish that feat but at the same time I know a lot of things need to fall perfectly for that to happen. You have got to have a fast race car, which I know we’ll have, you’ve got to have a good strategy, you’ve got to have luck to miss the big wrecks and for things to go your way. For us, it’s really about doing all of the things we know how to do and execute properly. And then you’ve just got to hope for good fortune and, you know, if that’s the case we could, on Sunday night, be holding up a trophy in Victory Lane, which would be awesome.
Dirtfork: Speaking of “we”, you have a new crew team in 2020. Is that an easy transition to kind of swap over different crews?
Almirola: Yeah, it is. So, Mike Bugarewicz and that whole group of guys are within our shop anyway. Even though it’s a new team and a new group of guys that I’m working with, I worked alongside of them at Stewart-Haas Racing, so it’s not totally unfamiliar, it’s not awkward or anything like that. It’s been a very smooth transition and we’ve worked really well together, just in the first couple of months of off-track and gearing up for the season. I feel like it’s been very productive and we’ve built a relationship not only within myself but with a lot of the guys on the team really quickly.
Dirtfork: Was there much of an adjustment at all, even in the off-track stuff and kind of the end of the off-season?
Almirola: Yeah, there is an adjustment, you know. You go through — this is different people and everybody has a different personality, everybody is wired a little bit different and has different things that motivate them or different things that aggravate them or get them excited. You kind of have to learn that person and so, for me, that’s kind of been something that I’ve put a lot of focus and effort into, just getting to know all of the guys on my team and getting to know my new crew chief, Mike, and really understanding him as a person and as a crew chief and making sure we’re on the same page as we get ready to start the season again.
Dirtfork: You were born in Florida and you’re a Tampa native. Do you have family that comes to Daytona to watch or is it kind of your normal crew?
Almirola: No, I do. I end up with a lot of family here in Daytona, just being from here in the area. I end up with a lot of family and friends and stuff that come over to watch the Daytona 500. It’s always a fun event, it’s our biggest event and then for me to have family and friends over makes it even more special. So, hopefully we can go to Victory Lane with all the added guests and make it enjoyable.
Dirtfork: Where does Daytona International Speedway rank on your track list? Is it one of your favorites, because it’s obviously one of the most stressful?
Almirola: Yeah, Daytona is one of my favorite places to come. I just have so many childhood memories of coming here and it’s just a special place. It’s the world center of racing and it’s a special place for everybody but just the fact that I grew up two hours away makes it that much more special and a place that I enjoy coming to.
Dirtfork: And what would it mean for you to win the Daytona 500 and to finally, after all of these years, claim NASCAR’s top prize?
Almirola: It would mean a lot to me. I don’t know really what it would mean until you experience it. You know, it’s something I have a burning desire to achieve. I want to be the Daytona 500 champion — it’s a really big deal in our sport and it would be a really big deal for me personally. And so, hopefully, after Sunday night, I can tell you what it feels like.