Nick Sanchez will never forget the day his father first took him to a car race. The metallic beauty of the vehicles, the roar of the motors, the passion of the fans. Homestead seemed to be the center of the world. He loved speed at first sight.
Now he's 16 and in NASCAR's sights as a future driver. But back then he was 5, and knew only that he loved racing more than his toys, and more than many other things.
"Ever since I went to the Homestead Speedway I knew that the meaning of my life would be behind the wheel," said Sanchez, one of six promising drivers selected by NASCAR for its Diversity Development Team in 2018. "From early on, I knew my goal was to be a race car driver."
His father Rene never imagined that future. He came to the United States at the age of 8 as part of the Mariel boatlift, when more than 123,000 Cubans left the island in search of a better future.
After all, most Cuban fathers want their sons to play baseball in the Major Leagues. But Rene learned very quickly that Nick was not all that interested in balls and strikes.
"I always liked cars, but with Nick that was something special since he was little," said Rene, who was born in Central Havana and now owns a heavy equipment company. "People used to ask me, 'Who does this boy take after?' "
A partner in Rene's business persuaded him to buy Nick a Go-Kart. By age 12 he was already racing in competitions around Miami -- and trying in an organized way to improve his performance.
During the past four seasons, Sanchez has showed off his talent in several national circuits, including the Rok Cup USA and the Florida Winter Tour. He drove in more than 45 races and took five top-five finishes in the junior, senior and shifter categories.
He wound up in fifth place last year in the Bojangles Summer Shootout held at the Charlotte Motor Speedway as part of Rev Racing's Youth Legend Drivers program, and plans to race full time next year in the Late Model category.
But he would not have achieved any of that without the support of Rene and his mother Shanie, who sacrificed greatly to keep Sanchez's dreams alive.
Thanks to the NASCAR Diversity program, the Cuban American from Homestead will have the chance to rub elbows with top-level drivers, executives and directors of racing teams who will act as mentors and help the prospects develop their potential.
"It's a privilege to have been selected for this program to help the NASCAR prospects," Sanchez said. "It means they know me, and that they expect big things from me. I hope I can meet that challenge and others down the road."
That road leads this weekend to the same track where he discovered his life's ambition. He will also get to witness the retirement of his favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"It will be something unforgettable because Earnhardt Jr. meant a lot for those of us who chose this sport," Sanchez said. "The mere fact of being on the Homestead track is tremendous, an experience that never tires me, that remains as passionate as the first time."
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