Brehanna Daniels Is Making History as NASCAR's First Black Female Tire Changer

The 27-year-old joined NASCAR in 2016 as part of the organization’s “Drive for Diversity” program

At first, Brehanna Daniels thought her friend was kidding when she told her to try out for NASCAR.

It was 2016, and Daniels was wrapping up her senior year at Norfolk State University in Virginia, where she played point guard on the women's basketball team.

"I was sitting in the cafeteria, mid-bite of my Chick-fil-A sandwich, when my friend from the school's athletic department, Tiffany, tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Hey, NASCAR is holding tryouts for their pit crews on Wednesday, you should go," Daniels, now 27, tells PEOPLE. "I looked at her like, 'Girl, I don't even watch NASCAR."

Still, a voice in the back of Daniels' head — she thinks it was God — urged her to attend the tryout.

"I don't question that, man," she says, joking,

Daniels was the only woman in a group of men trying out for one of the coveted spots on a NASCAR pit crew team as part of the organization's "Drive for Diversity" program, which aims to recruit and train minority and female racecar drivers as well as pit crew members. The program started in 2004, and there are more than 50 graduates of the pit crew member division now working for the organization.

Brehanna Daniels Is Making History as NASCAR's First Black Female Tire Changer
Courtesy of NASCAR

At the tryout, Daniels says she fell in love with the competitiveness and delicate hand-eye coordination needed to be a tire changer. A few weeks later, she was invited to join NASCAR'S pit crew member program following graduation, and the rest is history.

In 2019, Daniels became the first Black woman to pit in NASCAR's historic Daytona 500 race. She's continuing to break barriers in the historically white, male-dominated sport as a tire changer on the No. 51 Chevrolet for Rick Ware Racing in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Brehanna Daniels Is Making History as NASCAR's First Black Female Tire Changer
Daniels smiles during a race at the Homestead-Miami speedway in 2019. Courtesy of NASCAR

On Sunday, she'll be joined by teammates Breanna O'Leary and Dalanda Ouendeno as the only women pitting in the Daytona 500.

"It's always nice seeing other women reach out to me and say, 'You're living my dream, how can I get involved?'" she says. "More people are seeing me do this and they want to do it, too … so one day, I hope there's a lot of women in this sport."

Reflecting on being the first Black woman, specifically, to pit in a NASCAR crew, Daniels notes, "God couldn't have picked anybody else better to do the job. It takes a strong person to be able to make that change ... knowing the history of NASCAR and the faces people are used to seeing on the track. Even though I was a little nervous at first, because I didn't know how I would be judged or looked at, I'm like, 'You know what? Somebody has to do this, and I guess I'm going to be the one to do this.'"

Daniels lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she's been busy preparing for the Daytona 500, practicing with her pit crew team at a local track and strength training at a gym nearly every day. In her free time, she relaxes by journaling, skating and spending time with friends.

So what exactly does a tire charger do? As the racecar comes in for a pit stop, Daniels will run over with a pit gun, quickly unscrew five lug nuts from the tire and replace them with new ones. Speed is critical — this has to be done in seconds. Daniels also helps carry and clean the tires (each weighing between 60 and 70 lbs.) used on race day.

Brehanna Daniels Is Making History as NASCAR's First Black Female Tire Changer
Courtesy of NASCAR

It's a high-pressure job, one made more difficult by snarky, sexist comments Daniels says people said behind her back when she first started at NASCAR.

"People were saying, 'She's not going to last long, she'll probably be here for a couple of months, if that,'" she recalls. "There's going to be those people out there, not everybody's going to be happy that I'm in the position that I'm in, but it just gives me the motivation to do more of what I'm already doing."

Last year, Daniels won the crew member award at the 2020 NASCAR Drive for Diversity Awards Ceremony, receiving recognition for her work as an industry ambassador and trailblazer for other women of color who want to break into NASCAR. She's still involved with the organization's National Pit Crew Combine, too, where she mentors and coaches aspiring athletes interested in joining the program that jumpstarted her career.

NASCAR has come under sharp scrutiny for alarming incidents involving race. Last year, a noose was found hanging in a garage assigned to Bubba Wallace, the only Black top-tier driver. An FBI investigation determined that Wallace wasn't the target of a hate crime and the noose had been there since at least October 2019, but NASCAR president Steve Phelps said "the noose was real, as was our concern for Bubba."

In April, NASCAR driver Kyle Larson was suspended from the organization for using a racial slur and then cleared to rejoin six months later.

Still, Daniels says the pro-racing organization is making strides to build a diverse, welcoming community on and off the track.

"NASCAR is very accepting of their Black employees, and they've been taking the right steps [to create an inclusive environment]," Daniels says. "Starting with how they banned Confederate flags at all events, every little step brings everybody closer together and makes a big difference … so hopefully we keep moving upward and elevating."

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