“Tunnel vision” is how 26-year-old Brehanna Daniels describes her last four years working inside NASCAR as its first black woman tire changer.
When the circuit announced last week that it would ban Confederate flags from its racetracks, Daniels’ phone blew up. Calls and messages on Twitter began to fill her phone’s home screen, with fans and media members expressing their apparent newfound interest in racing. The flag’s ouster was a welcome gesture.
“I’m glad that NASCAR has decided to go in a different direction. It’s like, we’ve been with it for this long, we’re going to go without it now,” Daniels said of the flag.
The icon has long been present in Daniels’ peripheral, but she has found a way to block it out over the years. The oppression it represents is a concept which, up until last week, she regularly ignored. After all, she has a job to do. And it was a love of competition, not politics, that drove her into the sport.
“Everyone’s not going to be happy with your decision,” she said. “Some people are going to be happy. Some people are going to be mad, but there is nothing wrong with changing.”
Daniels’ story — a feeling of conflict between a love for her job and unease over the values cemented into her workplace — is something many black people in this country fend off and compartmentalize on a daily basis.
Her journey to becoming an intricate part of a pit crew is thanks in part to an April 2016 NASCAR Driver and Diversity Program Combine, the first event of its kind. At the time she was wrapping up her last semester at Norfolk State as a point guard for the Spartans women’s basketball team. While on a solo trip grabbing lunch, Daniels feels a tap on her shoulder by a familiar face: Tiffany Sykes, Norfolk State’s NCAA eligibility specialist. Sykes wanted to know if she could count on Daniels to attend the NCAA’s Driver Diversity Program in two days.
“I looked at her, like, ‘Girl, you said NASCAR?’” Daniels said. “I never watched NASCAR a day in my life.”
Sykes pulled out her phone and navigated to a short YouTube video of a pit stop featuring tire changers, tire carriers, and jackmen.
Daniels was instantly shook.
“I was like, ‘Dang that is tough. That’s dope.’ Whatever they just did was really, really fast.”
When Daniels showed up for the combine, she was 1 of 8 students picked to attend. She was the only woman. To this day — with the exception of one member — all of the combine participants from Norfolk State are still members of a NASCAR pit crew.
When May 2016 arrived, it was finally time for Daniels to head to Charlotte. She was nervous, for obvious reasons. It was the big dance. Time to show off her skill.
But Daniels wasn’t just facing any average jitters — it was the first time she had ever picked up an impact wrench.
“I know this is going to sound weird, but I changed a race car tire before I changed a regular car tire,” Daniels said.
Hours with a wrench, a jack and tire, were followed by an around-the-clock ice bath for her hands, lasting until the next morning’s sunrise.
Day two: Things got tougher, but at the conclusion of the 12-hour day — her hands falling numb — Daniels learned she had made the cut.
“It’s a process, we want to see how athletic they are,” coach Phil Horton of what he’d been looking for from Daniels. “Can they understand the lingo? And if they can adapt to that, and we can see the interest, then we’ll choose them.”
Daniels would spend the next six months in pit-crew training at Concord’s Rev Racing, with her first competition coming at the ARCA Menards Racing Series at Nashville.
Her debut brought with it many curveballs.
Stepping onto the racetrack, sporting all black with sun shade covering her eyes, Daniels was already on high alert. Not because anything went wrong. She just wanted to blend in. She knew her gender — and moreso, her skin color — would draw attention. The unwanted kind, the kind that calls one’s legitimacy into question. She didn’t want to deal with that.
She was there to do her job, and that’s what she did.
“I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I hope people are not looking at me weird,’” Daniels said. “Hopefully they aren’t trying to see what I’m doing here.”
At one point, she quickly scurried off to the restroom to change into her fire suit, where she stumbled upon a white woman doing her makeup. The woman stopped.
“Are you a driver?” she asked.
Daniels said no — she would be on the track with the pit crew, she told her, working as a tire changer.
“Oh my God,” said the woman in the bathroom. She ran over to give Daniels a big hug.
“I was kind of surprised,” Daniels said of the encounter.
Daniels has broken tons of barriers changing tires for Mike Harmon, Dale Shearer, and Cody Ware, and many others on the national NASCAR race series circuit. Last year she became the one of the first women to pit a car in the highly esteemed season-opening Daytona 500.
Daniels is now one of two black women tire changers in NASCAR. Dalanda Ouendeno, her roommate, is the other. She credits the shift to her coaches — Horton, Max Siegel, and Rocko Williams — who made an effort to recruit athletes from HBCUs. Williams made history as the first African-American to go over the wall for Hendrick Motorsports.
“I really thank God for this program,” Daniels said.