Rule Breakers

A Day With Brehanna Daniels, NASCAR's 1st Black Woman Pit Crew Member

“It’s hard enough being a Black woman out here. People aren’t used to seeing me.”

Collage of Brehanna Daniels, NASCAR race car, and her pit crew member outfit
Phillip Faraone, Blaine Ohigashi, Jared C. Tilton/Stringer, Icon Sportswire, Chris Graythen/Getty Images

When Brehanna Daniels was a college basketball player, someone in the Norfolk State University athletics department suggested she try out for one of the spots on a NASCAR pit crew, the eight-person team responsible for quickly performing repairs and replacements on race cars. Her response? Laughter.

“Girl, the only thing I knew was that the cars drive around in circles. I was like, ‘People really enjoy doing this for a living? This is crazy,’” she tells Bustle. But after watching a video, she was amazed at how fast pit crews work.

Following a strenuous NASCAR audition five years ago, Daniels, now 27, can change two tires in 15 seconds and made history in 2019 as the first Black woman to pit in the organization’s prestigious Daytona 500 race. But those strides came with a few obstacles.

“It’s hard enough being a Black woman out here,” says Daniels. “People aren’t used to seeing me. Some of the guys made it obvious they didn’t like me, saying that I wasn’t going to last long. Things changed once people started seeing me more. They’re like, ‘She’s actually here doing this for real, so we might as well get used to her.’”

Receiving photos of young girls changing tires made it all worthwhile, says Daniels, along with the adrenaline rush that comes from performing in front of large crowds. Here, she takes us through her day working as a tire changer at a NASCAR race in Phoenix as she gets mistaken for Rihanna and jumps in front of moving cars.

Terrell Maxwell

Sunday, March 13, 2021

4:05 a.m.: I wake up randomly out of nowhere. My stomach finally settled from dinner last night and started feeling crazy.

7:04 a.m.: I wake up again and think, Maybe I should get ready to hop in the shower now so I’ll have a little extra wiggle room before we leave the hotel at 8:15 a.m. I hop in the shower. I naturally get a little nervous before every performance, but it’s a good nervous. On this particular morning, I feel pretty normal. I know I have to get after it like I always do.

7:20 a.m.: My teammate Dalanda starts knocking at the bathroom door and saying something, but I can’t hear her. I ask, “What’s going on?” She says Jeremy, who coordinates travel and lodging for pit crews, says we need to leave even earlier to get breakfast so that we’re not late.

8 a.m.: We leave to get breakfast at Starbucks with the rest of the pit crew. I order a turkey, ham, and cheddar sandwich; a butter croissant; and a caramel Frappuccino. The employee asks what my name was for the order. I say “Brehanna” through my mask. I get my food and drink back with “Rihanna” written on everything. I don’t mind it.

9 a.m.: We make it to the track. At this moment, I usually put my head under the cold AC vent to make sure I’m not overheated and my temperature isn’t exceeding the limit, which is 100 degrees. NASCAR checks our temperature, and mine’s good to go. After providing our credentials, they give us a sticker to put on our passes.

10 a.m.: I start moving the tires and cleaning the wheels and gluing on the lug nuts to make sure they don’t go flying off into the crowd. A NASCAR camera crew comes over to start recording us. They follow me, interviewing me about pre-race rituals and what typical race days are like. They’re probably getting some new content for Women’s History Month.

11:25 a.m.: I go to the hauler to get changed into my racing suit, which weighs about 20 pounds and protects us in case of a fire. The guys just change anywhere and everywhere. I can’t just do that because things might fall out... if you know what I’m saying.

11:30 a.m.: I’m heading to the pit road now. The camera crew follows me as I walk back to our pit stall. At this moment, I feel like a superhero. Of course, some of my teammates and the guys from other teams are looking at me to see what’s going on. They know what’s happening, but it shouldn’t be a surprise because they’ve been around me long enough to know that all the attention I’m getting is nothing new. It’s so funny to see them try and hide the fact that they’re looking through their shades. I see them anyways.

11:45 a.m.: NASCAR races are pretty loud, so I’m just trying to enjoy my peace and quiet time in the moments leading up to the race. I journal beforehand to get ready.

12:45 p.m.: Oh, hell no! The race has started at this point and the driver [Garrett Smithley] says he feels a vibration, so I jump over the pit wall. During a pit stop, we change the tires, but the vibration is still there, letting us know that it’s not because of a loose wheel. We decide it’s safe for Garrett to drive back out there. Most of the time, the drivers get all the attention, but we’re the ones helping them win the race. A driver is nothing without their pit crew.

1 p.m.: There’s a lot of downtime during the actual race itself. We watch the cars drive around in circles and listen to what the crew chief and the drivers are saying on our radios.

3:45 p.m.: Twelve laps to go. My crew and I start putting things away, and then, out of nowhere, the top of a pit box and canopy poles fly off when a gust of wind comes by. Someone could have gotten seriously hurt. It reminds me of a scene from Final Destination. It’s a hot mess.

3:51 p.m.: The race is finally over, and Garrett finishes 34th. Everything went pretty well — I had a really good day, but there’s always room for improvement. We take down the canopy and put the poles and the seats back in the cabinets. My front tire changer and I unhook our Paoli wheel guns, which is what we use to change the tires, and turn off the nitrogen tanks. We need to detach the ladder from the front of the box, so I grab a hammer and start hitting the ladder. I almost smash my finger in the process. When I get back to the hauler, I change out of my fire suit and into my regular clothes in like six minutes. That’s a record for me, because I often struggle to get out of my outfit after the race — it’s usually super hot out there, but today it was only between 70 and 80 degrees.

5 p.m.: We make it over to the airport. My dinner box has a honey baked ham sandwich, jalapeno chips, and a chocolate chip cookie inside. Yum! We’re on the same plane as the NASCAR officials, and we aren’t leaving until around 7 p.m. I get on the plane early so I can download a couple movies and shows before we take off. I download Middle of Nowhere because Omari Hardwick’s fine self is on the cover.

1:20 a.m.: We finally land in Statesville, North Carolina. I can’t go straight home because I have to drop off Dalanda. I scroll through my Instagram feed and see that Chloe Bailey made a remix to Yung Bleu’s “You’re Mines Still.” I had the original version on repeat for two weeks straight. Chloe’s cover sounds amazing.

2 a.m.: I finally make it back home, but I drive to my mailbox because two packages arrived. One box has two cases of water from BodyArmor, and the other has poly mailers for my clothing line. I’m still not tired at this point so I take a shower.

5 a.m.: I’m finally going to sleep. I’m going to be extremely tired in the morning — I don’t even know why I did this to myself by staying up so late. Clearly, I’m still stuck on Phoenix time.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.