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NASCAR's Aric Almirola chases opportunity in family tradition

Tampa’s Aric Almirola gets a Chase for the Championship spot this year for the first time in his NASCAR Sprint Cup career.
Tampa’s Aric Almirola gets a Chase for the Championship spot this year for the first time in his NASCAR Sprint Cup career.
Published Sep. 14, 2014

Every now and then, Aric Almirola thinks about the sacrifices that took him to NASCAR's top series.

Not just the ones the Tampa native made — all the hot dogs and grilled cheese sandwiches he had to eat after dropping out of college to race a car for a living.

But the ones his family made long before he won at Daytona and became one of only 16 drivers this year in the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship, which begins today at Chicagoland Speedway.

How his grandparents gave away their home, their wedding rings and everything else to Fidel Castro's government to flee to Florida. How a family of 11 crammed into a three-bedroom house and picked oranges in Bartow to make ends meet. How one generation gave up so much to give the next line of Almirolas a chance at a better life.

"Fifty years later," Almirola said, "I'm living proof of that."

•••

Almirola's dad, Ralph, is too young to remember the glory days of Cuba, when wages were high and American cars ruled the roads. And he was too little to remember the food rations and revolution that followed. All he knows is that when he and his brother were toddlers, his mom started the paperwork to get them out of Cuba.

"She didn't believe the words coming out of Castro's mouth," Ralph said.

The Almirolas spent a year waiting for their turn to take the freedom flight to Miami. Finally in 1966, they left Cuba with three changes of clothes apiece and landed in Florida. When they made it to Bartow, where other family members were already living, a U-Haul full of goods and toys welcomed them. The next day was Christmas.

Ralph's dad picked oranges before getting a job repairing TVs, as he did in Cuba. The Almirolas eventually settled in Tampa. Eighteen years later, Aric was born at Eglin Air Force Base in the Panhandle before the family moved a few years later back to Tampa.

Like his dad and his maternal grandfather, local sprint car champion Sam Rodriguez, Almirola fell in love with racing, even if it meant sitting in an idle go-cart or scraping mud off of his grandpa's car.

"He was pretty natural early on," Rodriguez said.

But in an expensive sport where sponsors are king, Almirola's talent was no guarantee of success. He raced well in go-carts at the dirt track Rodriguez built in Land O'Lakes before deciding his best chance for a career in racing was in the garage, not the car. He studied mechanical engineering at UCF until his mom saw a newspaper story about a new NASCAR diversity initiative.

Team owner Joe Gibbs and Packers legend Reggie White were starting a program to get more minorities involved in NASCAR. They needed drivers.

When Almirola beat out a pool of hundreds for one of the two spots, he wondered whether a slim shot at a successful career was worth dropping out of college. His dad gave him the same advice he learned from his parents: take the risk and don't look back.

"For me, that's just the way I was brought up," said Ralph, a Hillsborough County firefighter. "My parents came from Cuba. There was no turning back."

•••

Almirola left UCF and had his first win in one of NASCAR's smaller series by that summer. Money was tight, and a good week meant splurging on frozen pizza for dinner.

"I didn't care — it was all about the opportunity," said Almirola, 30, a Hillsborough High alumnus. "I was determined to do whatever it took to make that situation work."

His heritage gave him a ladder to climb, but Almirola still had to fight his way up the ranks. He drove for four different teams before landing a full-time Cup ride with Richard Petty Motorsports for 2012.

Almirola validated his career in July, taking the No. 43 Ford to the front to earn his first Cup victory at the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. A stack of victory T-shirts his dad ordered still sits at his home in Brandon.

"I couldn't have scripted it or planned it any better if I could have got one wish from a genie in a bottle," Almirola said. "It was everything I thought it'd be."

Now Almirola has a chance for more. If he can survive the first three knockout rounds of three races each in the Chase, he'll enter the season finale with a 1-in-4 shot at a series champion­ship.

The final race is at Homestead-Miami Speedway, just south of where his family entered America almost 50 years ago, after his grandmother sacrificed everything.

"She didn't know what racing was," Ralph said. "All she's worried about is making sure her kids have a bottle of milk at night and that they have an opportunity."

And once they have an opportunity, the Almirolas never look back.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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