Brehanna Daniels cannot be stopped. The 24-year-old former basketball player, who balled her way from walk-on to full ride for her last two years of college, is now a quick-footed tire changer making sports history with each new step: At Dover International Speedway last year, Daniels went "over the wall" and onto the track, becoming the first African American woman to pit a car in a national NASCAR race.
Daniels has been up against it all—racism, sexism, the experience of losing a mother to cancer, new beginning after new beginning—but she has also suddenly inherited a seeming responsibility to change the fabric of an entire sport, one that has been slow to evolve and see people of color and women at the wheel: In 2005, Danica Patrick saw a glass ceiling in motorsports and raced right through it, finishing fourth at the Indy 500. In 2013, Christmas Abbott became NASCAR's first full-time female member of a pit crew. Now, there's Bubba Wallace, the first black driver to drive at the Daytona 500 in almost 50 years.
Daniels welcomes being a source of pride and a face of change. She embraces her role in helping to remake the way people look at a sport that is actively recruiting and training through its Drive for Diversity program, which specializes in transforming athletes—football players and hoopers among them—into trailblazing pit-crew members. And in a new Bleacher Report short film for B/REAL, a new inspirational miniseries that connects real-life heroes with all-star athletes through life-changing surprises, Daniels takes us into her daily grind, revealing why she's one of the most ambitious individuals a sports fan can encounter.
"Personal role models would definitely be my mother—just seeing a person go through that much and still not give up," Daniels says of her mom, who died from cancer in 2009. "Athletic role models? Candace Parker—she did it all, so I really looked up to her, definitely basketball-wise, growing up...she was a versatile player, she was just a go-getter in general, so it'd be super cool to meet her one day, too."
Watch the full story of Brehanna Daniels...and stay tuned for the surprise ending:
The following are excerpts from interviews with Daniels, before and after the B/REAL surprise.
On getting into motorsports
I didn't know anything about NASCAR. I'm sitting here looking like, people really enjoy driving in circles, like, for a living, and they're going too fast. ... So I walked in the gym. I saw all these guys, these big football players. But I was the only girl that tried out, and I could feel people, like, saying how women really don't make it in this sport. And I was like, Dude, why are you telling me this? Cuz that's not gonna stop me from performing the way that I do, you know?
Some people were like, "Why does her skin tone matter?" And other ones are like, "Yes, girl! You are paving the way for others!" Some people are stuck in their own ways and hate to see times are changing. It's hard to be in my position to do what I did as a young black female.
In the beginning of the season, like, before I did my first race in February, I got a call like, "Brehanna, uh, is everything all right? Because I've been getting phone calls from people saying that they've been looking at your tweets, and they're just worried about you." And I'm like, Dang, like, people are really lookin' at my social media like that. I said it's hard being a black woman in this sport. And I was like, Wow. That's, like, the moment I realized people were actually paying attention to my stuff.
On meeting Candace Parker for B/REAL
I still can't believe it. When I was on the track, they told me to turn around. I was like, How did this happen? Where did you come from? I thought it was a dream. Then I was like, Wait, it's not—it's real. My heart stopped. I was so in shock that I couldn't even cry, but I wanted to. But the fact that she took her time out to come see me all the way from L.A., that meant a lot—just chopping it up with one of your idols.
On making history
When I was in Dover [working at a NASCAR race in September and meeting Parker], I caught up with some family members I haven't talked to in a while. And they are asking me, "How does it feel to make history? You don't understand what you did." I know I made history, but then I'm like, Dang. History at 23 years old: I'm young. I am taking it day-to-day, but I really feel like when I get older, I'll be like, Wow, I really did that.
On the surprise of drawing so much attention as, of all things, a pit-crew member
Low-key? It is. But at the same time, it's expected with what I've accomplished. One time, I heard someone ask one of my crewmates, "Why is she getting this much attention?" and my crewmate responded, "Why wouldn't she get this much attention?"
On evolution in race-track culture
I had an idea of how certain things would be coming into this sport. I did my research. As time went on, I noticed they really aren't used to seeing females—especially a black female like me. As time went on, people started to become more accepting of all the women. I remember me and my roommate were getting those looks like, What are they doing here? Just how they doubt women in general because they think we can't do something when we really can. How about give us a chance first? And now you aren't even saying anything, because we proved you wrong.
When people act like that, I feel like they are blocking their own blessings. Why do they have to be salty? Be happy that times are changing.
On what's next—and life beyond the track
Opportunities arise, but I'm like, What can I work on next, without adding too much on my plate? You should water one plant at a time. Don't put all your flowers in that same garden.
I'm not signed to a NASCAR team, so nothing is consistent—I never know anything months ahead of time. But I will say: tune into The Rock's new show called The Titan Games, coming out in January. Lovely project, you know?