Alon Day, a 24-year-old Israeli aided by a sexagenarian lawyer and a startup shop run by two brothers from Mexico, is trying to make it big in NASCAR
On a bucolic, late-September afternoon, NASCAR’s caravan rumbled into New Hampshire Motor Speedway for something called the UNOH 175—a truck race. And as is customary in this milieu, it began with a brief word of prayer.
So before a pixie girl chirruped through the national anthem, and before a jet roared over the mile-long speedway, an hoary man ascended to a large infield riser, gripped a cordless mic and heaved all the props he could muster onto “Our God and Our Father.” He gave thanks for the brilliant weather that had descended upon this leafy swath of New England. He gave thanks for the many stakeholders, seen and unseen, who conspired in the making of this UNOH 175. He asked for safekeeping for the drivers, their “crew teams” and even “those around the world who protect our country and protect our rights for us.”
As he prayed, thousands of spectators stood stock-still with hats off, heads bowed and hands clasped. The drivers on the grid appeared no less reverent as the closing words “in Jesus name that I pray, amen” were uttered.
Blending into that crowd, 14 rows back in the pack, was a 24-year-old named Alon Day, who, incidentally, does not roll with Jesus.
Day isn’t a skeptic. He’s Jewish—and from Israel, a motorsports hinterland, to boot. His place in this Day-Glo tableau is a testament to the years he spent clawing up the lower rungs of the open-wheel racing ladder and banging around the European stock car scene. That he now finds himself on the very cusp of his long sought-after major league break, and here—in NASCAR, an exalted proving ground that once only seemed accessible through video games—is something between a flight of fancy and a miracle. Until a few years ago, Day says, “my dream was being in Formula 1.”
His particular industry, though, works in mysterious ways. Only this much is clear: racing rarely rewards any ambition that isn’t anchored in strong devotion.
What does Day believe?
That years of gaming have charged him with plenty of pace. That he can indeed become “the standard bearer for American Jews and Israel” in a “quintessentially American sport,” as it was put to me by a 64-year-old attorney named David Levin, the man desperately trying to put Day forward. That Contreras Motorsports, a startup shop run by two brothers from Mexico, is an ideal place to raise this revolution. That a seat in the Sprint Cup series is not impossible.
So Day’s is a story fit for this time, when the High Holydays meet the business end of the NASCAR calendar, about the courage of conviction—a story in which God figures prominently, of course. So what if the greatest trials in Day’s path to racing immortality still loom large over the horizon. NASCAR, where they hardly anoint just anybody, makes quite sure of that.
Much of what makes NASCAR so “quintessentially American” is its blinding white maleness. It runs so deep—from corporate HQ, to the manufacturers, to the sponsors, to the teams, to the talent, to the fifth estaters who keep census here—that you’d never guess that Wendell Scott, a brother from Danville, Va., was bulling across stock car racing’s color line as Jackie Robinson was asserting himself on the baseball diamond. You wouldn’t know unless you had been following the career of Darrell Wallace Jr., a 23-year-old brother from Mobile, Ala., who’s ably carrying Scott’s legacy to places it’s never been before. Deep into this year’s Xfinity series championship chase, in fact.
But beyond Wallace and a handful of prominent race and gender pioneers—some household names (like Stewart-Haas’ Danica Patrick, or the NBA player turned owner-broadcaster Brad Daugherty), others not as much (like Gibbs pilot Daniel Suarez, or Carlos Contreras; keep reading for more on him)—the idea of a heterogeneous NASCAR, one that actually resembles America, has struggled to gain purchase. This despite NASCAR’s more than decade-long investment in Drive for Diversity, a program that seeks to pave new avenues in the sport, behind the wheel and in the pits, for nontraditional prospects.
And while there have been breakthroughs (among them Wallace and Suarez, who’s on his own historic charge for this year’s Xfinity crown), they haven’t come fast enough to help NASCAR open much of a gap between its inclusionary ideals and its enduring reputation as a sport by and for red-blooded white men. Really, if you didn’t know better, you might think NASCAR was circling the wagons. Consider that in the past year:
• NASCAR leadership asked fans, softly, to stop flying confederate flags. At some races they even offered trade-ins for Old Glory. They were met with more Stars and Bars.
• Brian France, NASCAR’s chairman, CEO and breathing embodiment, appeared at a campaign rally in Georgia for Donald Trump and publicly expressed his support for the Republican nominee. Five drivers also appeared with France. The kicker: when Trump later declared “NASCAR endorsed Trump,” France was moved to explain, in an email to his employees, that his endorsement was “personal.”
• NASCAR, while on record with its opposition to North Carolina’s bathroom law, has been careful not to say or do anything that might disrupt business as usual. Charlotte, as it happens, is home to most race shops, two mega NASCAR weekends, a corporate base and the sport’s welfare-assisted hall of fame.
It’s a pattern of self-sabotage that recurs often enough to leave NASCAR vulnerable to charges of purposeful discrimination—an accusation at the core of a $500 million lawsuit filed against the league and its teams last month. (Nevermind the bogusness of the claim.) The pattern even redounds to matters of religion—another NASCAR layer where homogeny, the evangelical Christian variety, rules. And there lies the fraught road ahead of Day. Jon Denning knows it all too well.
Once, Denning, 29, yearned to race in the highest level of NASCAR—in Sprint Cup. Spurred on by his father, Brad, a high-end auto repair shop owner, he turned his first go-kart laps in 1997, at age 10. Four years later they were commuting to the southeast for late model races.
Initially, Jon, a Jersey boy, seems like a misfit for the sport. But know this: Around the same time he was coming up, there was a ton of buzz around this other guy from downstate—Martin Truex Jr. “He was already a big deal,” Jon says.
Truex was not yet an obvious cast as a leading man in the Sprint Cup series—one who, in mid-October, sputtered out of the championship hunt in the second round of this year’s Chase. But his potential was too legit to ignore. Denning, meanwhile, distinguished himself in his own way. Not so much by his wonky approach to his job—“He could tell you what the car needed,” says his old man—but by his faith. Denning, like Day, is Jewish.
Denning was never the type to “wear the fact that I’m Jewish on my forehead,” he says. His faith certainly didn’t arouse much notice back home, in the Tri-State—“a hotbed for cultural diversity.” Nor did it stop anyone early in Denning tours through the Southland, on his climb up NASCAR’s lower rungs. But the longer he hung around, the more his Hudson coast inflected speech, his Union County swagger and his physical features drew suspicion.
Before long he seemed to be crashing into intolerance at every turn. “I would actually categorize it into three cases,” Denning says. “One of them was innocent, where they would use offensive terms as adjectives. One of them was malicious, almost disgusting racism or anti-Semitism.”
The third way was slyer. It would begin as an innocent conversation about religion—“which was fine,” Denning says—then segue ever so gently into a full-on baptism offer. Could be good for your career, he was told.
To make it through, Denning retreated into his faith like never before. Inside his gear bag, he stashed a pair of laminated notecards bearing lyrics from The Traveler’s Prayer—one card in Hebrew, the other in English. Before his races, he’d recite this:
May it be Your will, Lord, My G-d and G-d of my ancestors, to lead me, to direct my steps, and to support me in peace. Lead me in life, tranquil and serene, until I arrive at where I am going.
“Maybe the first couple times [I recited it] I was nervous,” Denning says, “and it gave me something to wrap my mind around.”
He went on an excursion called Taglit-Birthright Israel, a rite of passage to the homeland that allows members of the diaspora to reconnect with their Jewish identity, and marveled. He toured the Western Wall, laid tefillin and prayed. The extraordinary experience intensified his “questioning soul.” When he returned to the track, it was with renewed purpose. It was to understand the strong reactions he inspired around the paddock.
As for the common ground he found in the process, that was a welcome surprise. “I have so many relationships with very religious people in the sport who were curious about Judaism,” says Denning. He reckons NASCAR’s rigid evangelical orthodoxy has evolved into more of a bottom-up thing. “I think the development series, on the lower end of NASCAR, is more difficult than the upper end. When you’re in the traveling professional series, the top three—Cup, Xfinity or trucks—you’re dealing with a more diverse, more educated group of people.
“The sport’s come a long way in 20 years. Not all these guys are from the same town anymore. They’re bringing the nation’s best engineers. They’re bringing over F1 guys. It doesn’t matter. If you’re smart and can make a car go fast, they want you.”
So why, then, is Denning out of the game? Well, this sport has a way of aging its adherents in a hurry. In 2008, while barely 21, he hung up his helmet and firesuit for good. He got married, shifted academic focus from engineering to finance. Today he holds down “a big job” (says his proud papa) with a Wall Street investment firm, trading bonds in the energy sector. After closing bell, he heads uptown, to NYU, and works on an MBA.
And yet… as busy as Denning’s post-track life keeps him, he nonetheless finds the time to tune in a NASCAR weekend or 10. The in-car camera shots, in particular, are a powerful trigger, pumping his heart like a piston. “It doesn’t go away, man,” he says. “It’s a great sport. I have the utmost respect for anyone that’s chasing the dream.”
And while Denning’s stint in NASCAR didn’t end as he had hoped, he has no gripes. Not even the many prayers offered up in “Jesus name” before his races, or the countless robeless holy men who wandered the infield claiming a divine authority, left him permanently disturbed. Sure, those encounters were super uncomfortable. But now? He gets it. “I love America, I do,” he says. “But America’s a Christian nation. I understand NASCAR’s a Christian sport in a Christian nation. And, look, a little friendly prayer for everyone’s safety—more power to it.”
As for how he handled those moments, “Honestly?” he says. “For the most part, you’re kind of in a meditative state anyway. Half the time, I probably didn’t hear it at all.”
These days, it’s the calls to climb back into the car, from within or without, that he’s deaf to. Shoot, he can’t even be baited into the odd track day session. It’s a shame, really.
Denning, after all, still has youth on his side. Life experience, too. Surely, he’d have no problem finding the dough to go racing again, right? “Nah,” he says. “I’ll give it to Alon if I can get that.”
Lord knows David Levin is just raring to pass him the collection plate.
Levin, you’ll recall, is the sexagenarian lawyer who imported Day. Funny enough, Levin isn’t one of racing’s big wheels. For the longest, he was simply one of the rarer birds in fandom—a NASCAR-loving mensch. Credit goes to his wife, whose roots trace to a racing family in Maine, for turning him on to the sport.
Twice a year for nearly a decade, the Levins fled their home in Sarasota, Fla., for NASCAR weekends at Daytona. The blip came this spring, when Levin detoured through Talladega for a law school reunion at Samford.
A work colleague offered to upgrade his fan experience, to a full-blown VIP. His old classmates could get in on it too, she promised. Her brother, a Scottish racer named Johnny Jackson who races part-time in the Xfinity series, would totally hook it up.
Not wanting to freeload, Levin offered to pay for “one of those little stickers you see on the car,” figuring it might run a grand. Maybe two. When his colleague told him that four tires alone cost $2,500, a spooked Levin quickly settled on that and met up with Jackson at a downtown restaurant to seal the deal.
At first Levin didn’t pay any mind to the giant portfolio binder sitting on the driver’s side of the table. Then Jackson opened it. Inside was page after page of escalating sponsorship packages. Naturally, Jackson kept winding back to the biggest—a buy-in for the whole car. He even went to the trouble to put together a few mockups of what it would look like with Levin’s law firm and web address splashed all over his black and red Toyota. The offer was a steal—just $10,000.
So Levin gets to thinking—about his name in lights, about all the access that came with it, and about the chance to revel in his big-shot status with his college classmates, many of them influential. The moment he signed off on it all was like an out-of-body experience. Even now, it hardly matters that the race itself was a humdrum affair—for Talladega (no Big Ones) and for Jackson (who finished where he began, 32nd). Levin had the time of his life.
During a down spell he pulled aside Jackson’s team owner, a brave ex-racer named Carl Long. “You know,” Levin told him, “if you could find a qualified Jewish driver, I am certain that we could get sponsors.” He saw a mutual benefit, for the Jewish community and for NASCAR—which, frankly, still needs a bit more saving. From itself most of all.
Now, Levin is not one who ruffles easily. Remember: he’s an attorney. And environmental coastal property law, his specialty, can get pretty thorny. When he’s not wading into those waters, he argues on behalf of Punta Gorda, a sleepy harbor town a little more than an hour southeast of Sarasota. One of the chores of the job is attending city counsel meetings, which always open with a prayer.
It’s a mindful tradition, though. “One of the things that we had to be aware of is when you give your invocation before each meeting that it be a non-denominational, non-sectarian type of invocation,” Levin says, “so that you don’t offend anybody.”
NASCAR, too, aspires to this. But it mostly leaves it to the event managers at tracks to fret over the details in this part of the weekend program. So it’s no wonder that pre-race invocations can vary. Sometimes they’re well intentioned, like the one before the late-September truck race at New Hampshire. Sometimes, they’re heavier handed, like the one that thundered before an early April Sprint Cup feature at Texas.
The given name for that event was the Duck Commander 500, for the reality TV dynasty that reigns supreme on A&E. The prayer was not part of the sponsorship package, because the prayer is not for sale. But when Phil Robertson, the grizzled family patriarch, volunteered to bless the spectacle anyway, track officials assented, happily. So before his grandchildren ordered the drivers to fire their engines, Robertson, in his trademark camo-pattern bandana and wraparound shades, stood tall on an infield dais and set the tone.
“We got here,” he boomed, “via bibles and guns. I’m fixed to pray to the one that made that possible.”
Then he bowed his head.
“Father, thank You for founding our nation. I pray, Father, that we don’t forget who brought us. You. Have faith in the blood of Jesus and his resurrection. Help us, Father, to get back to that. Help us, Dear God, understand the men and women on my right of the U.S. military—on my right and on my left—[that] faith in you and the U.S. military is the reason why we’re still here.
“I pray that we put a Jesus man in the White House. Help us do that. And help us all to repent to do what’s right, to love you more and to love each other. In the name of Jesus, I pray, amen.”
Back in Sarasota, Levin watched the whole thing live on TV, aghast. Again: between his government work and also his days at Samford’s Cumberland School of Law, a proud Baptist institution, Levin had heard plenty of New Testament-inspired paeans. But this offering by Robertson, who couldn’t be more serious about his messiah, felt alienating. Intentionally so.
The “Jesus man” line landed especially hard. “Not only did he say that there should be a man of particular faith [in the White House], but there also should be a man,” explains Levin, the father of a teenage daughter. “Now, that’s not to say I’m a supporter of Hillary [Clinton], but I just thought that was an inappropriate invocation to a huge audience that’s gonna include people of all faiths.”
This prayer…well, it “changed things,” as they say in church. It lit a fire in Levin’s bones, sent him on a quest to bring the track into greater spiritual balance. Not even a delirious VIP weekend three weeks later, at Talladega, would distract Levin from this mission. A true believer might even posit that Levin’s whole reason for being there was to sell Carl Long (his Xfinity beneficiary and gracious race host) on his idea for a Jewish talent search. “I’m not even sure he was paying attention,” Levin says.
Then a week later, Long rang. He had put out some feelers on Facebook, called one of his old track rivals—a big-time Wall Street bond trader who, alas, “didn’t have [any leads] at the time,” says Denning. Nevertheless, four recommendations came back. Two seemed most worth interviewing. And then there was this other guy, who really stood out.
Alon Day made himself easy enough to find. Not long after Levin initiated his talent search, Day was recognized as part of a class called NASCAR Next, the stock car approximation of a preseason watch list. To say his CV, which is studded with great triumphs in sports cars and single seaters, leaped off the page would be putting it mildly.
Even his sudden pivot to stock car racing, in NASCAR’s Europe-based Whelen Series, had gone smoothly. In his past two years competing there, Day had six victories and finished inside the top three in the points—in 2015, he says, as “vice champion”—twice. The results become even more impressive once you learn that, until recently, racing was basically an underground sport in Day’s homeland.
Decades ago, before the formation of the State of Israel, before images from its fiery conflict with Palestine became a nightly news staple, the British (who controlled the region for nearly a quarter century under League of Nations mandate) banned the importation of vehicles that could be used for anything other than commuting. Over time, the law relaxed and allowed for things like tractors and amusement park bumper cars—but still nothing that could be considered “sporty.”
It wasn’t until 2005 that a special committee finally mounted a seven-year campaign to overturn the law. When that started, however, Day was nearly a decade removed from turning his first go-kart laps as a 10-year-old. As soon as his talent was plain, Day’s parents—whom, he strains to note, had no history in this sport until they started nudging him along—sent him to Europe for seasoning. There was some early concern that a video game habit, one that subsisted primarily on racing titles like “Grand Prix Legends”, might spoil him. “But the funny thing is that’s how I fell in love with racing, through video games,” says Day.
It was through gaming, through NASCAR’s PC and PlayStation offerings, that Day developed an interest in American stock car racing. When he finally came to the States, in 2012, to race in the Indy Lights series (IndyCar’s triple-A division), “I just watched more NASCAR, got deeper into NASCAR,” he says. No surprise, then, that his open-wheel job, which saw him finish about where he set off (ninth) through six starts, didn’t really work out.
No matter. Day landed safely back in Europe, into an endurance racing gig with Mercedes. It was a comfortable seat until late 2014—when a major sponsor dropped out, costing Day his track privileges. At this point, he figured the ride was over. He withdrew into his gaming habit once again—opening, essentially, a racing gamer’s paradise in Tel Aviv.
Some might call it an arcade. He calls it “a gym.” When he established it with his business partner, whom he met while serving a three-year tour in the Israeli Defense Forces (all citizens are required to serve), they thought they’d be lucky to get seven members. When 40 signed up in the first week, Day says, “we were not prepared for that.”
Day only had about eight simulators, or one for ever 10 members he has now. The machines, car-like in appearance, can be calibrated to render disparate driving experiences. Day took the lead on instruction— imparting everything from the rules of the road to teenagers, to evasive maneuvers to cops. In between, he’d cobble together at least five hours virtual track time for himself in preparation for his next opportunity.
That came finally, by lark, in the spring of 2015, in the form of an invitation to Italy to test a Whelen Series NASCAR. An ace grade earned Day a contract with CAAL Racing, a family-owned outfit. In a flash, he says, “I found myself from the lowest point of my career to getting very deep into NASCAR.”
Even crazier: Day could just as easily find his career rebooted once more.
You could say that Day has been tempting this fate since that first improbable go-kart outing. In stick-and-ball sports, talent and dedication usually win out. In racing, it only takes a driver so far. Getting the rest of the way takes money. Heaps of money. A driver has scant chance of landing in winning equipment, surrounded by a first-rate crew, without it.
Levin, the lawyer, had feint sense of this when he finally met with Day, at a restaurant near Charlotte Motor Speedway on the same late-May weekend that the NASCAR caravan rolled through, for a marathon interview session. After the first hour Levin asked Long and Jackson, the Scottish Xfinity pilot, if he and Day could have the room. “I knew that I would be saying some things that would not be permissible in an employment hiring context,” Levin says. “And I told Alon, ‘Look, I am going to put you in the spotlight as being the standard bearer for American Jews and Israel, to have you be a spokesperson for something that has previously been unrepresented in what is, in my view, the quintessential American sport.”
Two hours later the two men emerged. Levin felt like he had come off overeager. A few too many times, he asked the young racer, “Have you met with any other teams yet?” When Day said their interview was his first, Levin thought he was being coy. It wasn’t until the next day, when Day giddily approached Levin in the speedway infield to tell him the good news, that the lawyer rested.
“I’m coming to America! For you!” he gushed.
“I was so honored by that,” Levin says. “I told him, ‘I’m not gonna let you down.’”
Fundraising around Day seemed like it would be the least of Levin’s worries. After all, here was a young driver who was Jewish and from Israel! Who wouldn’t want to get in on that? There were so many generous parties worth approaching within that community alone. What’s more, Day wouldn’t be competing against any other drivers for those dollars. Levin figured he was on easy street.
He drafted 200 query emails, addressing most of them to businesses with Jewish affiliation or leadership. (“I started with emails because I didn’t think that anybody reads letters anymore,” he says.) He made the pitches personal, weaving elements of his own biography into Day’s. The few replies he received were not positive.
Some read the emails as spam. Others simply flat out didn’t understand the business. They scanned over the word sponsor and understood it as more of a philanthropic invitation than a plea for ad support, which covers most racing bills—not least the driver’s salary. Occasionally, Levin would vent his frustrations to Gentile friends in Corporate America. “Well,” they’d say, “what do you expect? Jews are cheap.”
When NASCAR caught wind of Levin’s effort, it encouraged him to reframe his spiel as a business proposal and freighted him with all manner of stats on the sport’s overall demand (L.A., New York and Chicago are the hungriest markets), fan demographics (38 percent female, 23 percent multicultural) and brand loyalty (no fan base clings to sponsors tighter). Carefully, Levin ladled those details into his next batch of queries until they read more like a venture capital opportunity. He drafted them on law firm letterhead and sent them off via express mail. And while the responses that have trickled in so far haven’t had any checks attached, there has at least been more of a willingness to engage.
El Al, Israel’s flag carrier, politely declined to underwrite Day’s travel from Israel in exchange for free exposure. Warren Buffet sent a handwritten rejection letter. However, Adam Sandler, whose “Hanukkah Song” is something of an inspiration to Levin, has not yet acknowledged him. Without angel investment, Levin has been forced to go it alone, dipping into his retirement plan—in increments of $30,000, lucre that could float Day most of the way through a season of Euro-style NASCAR racing—to keep his man on track. Squint a little and you might already notice a dividend.
At a glance, Day’s learning curve looks impossibly steep. There’s not only a yawning time difference to reckon with, but also vehicles that are heavier and more powerful than the ones he’s accustomed to steering overseas. And then oval track racing, the predominant form of racing in America, is an altogether different beast.
Still, things could’ve started out worse for Day. He could’ve launched his American stock car adventure deep in the minors, just as Denning, the bond trader, had years earlier. But Day’s laps in NASCAR’s Euro series qualified him to race in the Xfinity series, on road courses first. With Levin covering the cost of a rental through Long, his chosen talent scout, Day entered two of the three road course races on the Xfinity schedule: a mid-August date in Lexington, Ohio, and a late-August date in Elkhart Lake, Wis.
From the off, Day was at a deficit. His ride, a Challenger, seemed apt until you learn that Dodge is the least competitive manufacturer on the grid. Finding a team to service it on race day was a stickier problem. The super franchises underpinned by major manufacturers? They groom pit crew talent from within. Long? He hires them right out of private “crew schools” and hopes they show up. In Elkhart Lake, they didn’t.
This put Long in the awkward position of having to ask his rivals on the grid for roadside assistance. Credit where due: They helped, but rightfully only after they finished servicing their own cars. This meant that Day, despite the good time he was making through Elkhart Lake’s many kinks, couldn’t pit with the leaders and lost positions in chunks.
That he was even able to finish 30th, 10 spots above where he began (dead last), isn’t simply incredible. It proves that his maiden, waterlogged start in Ohio, where he finished 13th (after qualifying 22nd) was no fluke. “I’d never been to Mid-Ohio,” says Day, who familiarized himself with the course through—how else?—intensive gaming. “The only thing I can do is training in a simulator. Getting that result in Xfinity, which is a really big championship and pretty tough, it’s something that I could’ve only dreamed of.”
The sight of Day’s Charger snaking through that circuit, with the Israeli and American flags painted on its hood, stirred souls in both countries. Howard Forman, a Jewish NASCAR fan from Teaneck, N.J., followed Day’s every turn on TV along with his young son. For the last two years they’ve sojourned to Pocono for live NASCAR races. “In the past, when the conversation would shift to the question of whether there are any Jewish NASCAR drivers, I always had to respond, No,” Forman wrote in an editorial for Jewish Link, a Jersey community newspaper. “When my son and I return to Pocono Raceway next summer, there will hopefully be an Israeli NASCAR racer for whom we can cheer.”
Encouragingly, Day’s fruitful road course circumnavigations certified him for oval racing, albeit on tracks not to exceed one mile at first. To make the numbers work, Levin bumped Day down a level, to trucks, but slotted him with a team that had more to offer in the way of equipment and manpower—Contreras Motorsports. That these shop owners could call themselves pioneers was definitely a selling point, too.
Carlos Contreras might be NASCAR’s most inconspicuous pioneer—ironic, considering all the 46-year-old has done for this sport’s diversity movement. A third-generation racer, he blazed a trail into American stock car racing at the turn of the century from Mexico, following victorious runs in just about every form of racing his homeland could offer—stock cars included.
The thought of his first NASCAR start—in a truck owned by his older brother, Enrique, on a two-mile oval in Fontana, Calif.—still freaks him out. “In Mexico, we used to race [stock cars] with 400 horsepower. But here in the States, they have 800 horsepower, two-mile tracks, banked turns, 200 mph top speed,” Carlos says. “I was so, so scared. I told my brother, ‘You need to find another driver.’ ”
Once Contreras conquered his nerves, there was still a language barrier to climb. Something as simple as filing a McDonald’s order was a nightmare, similar to how a class presentation would turn if you suddenly realized you were naked. When trackside media would seek Contreras out at his transporter for an interview, he would hide out in the tractor. The southeastern dialects he encountered living in Charlotte hit his ears like so much Chinese.
It was a difficult period. But bigotry, Contreras cautions, never contributed to it. “I never had a bad comment, a bad word. I never had no racist guys,” he says. Over time, his vocabulary improved. His confidence, too. From there, many meaningful relationships flowered—none bigger than the one he shares with Richard Petty, a former boss and mentor.
Altogether, the bonds have tied Contreras to the sport for over 15 years. In 2003, when Contreras’s financial support ran dry, he helped hatch a plan—along with his brother and Mike Vazquez, another pioneering team owner that the junior Contreras calls his “guardian angel”—to bring American-style stock car racing to Mexico—where NASCAR, Contreras says, “was like a ghost.” Eight years later, NASCAR Mexico was born. That they can claim a major export—Daniel Suarez, the aforementioned Gibbs pilot—and after just three years in operation, is a major point of pride.
Not content to stop there, Contreras teamed up with his brother this year for a new venture—Contreras Motorsports, an occasional truck series competitor for now. Badly, they want to be the kind of shop that eases young drivers into stardom. On that bucolic, late-September afternoon, though, they found out that Day doesn’t really need much easing.
After everyone at the New Hampshire track had said their amens, Day slithered into his Contreras truck and set off on his first oval laps. His overall approach wasn’t as aggressive as it had been on the Xfinity road courses. Still, there was an unmistakable sense of urgency. “He’s mad because he wants to be quicker,” says Contreras, “like he is in Europe. He’s a hungry driver, and I love that.
“When you see a young driver and ask him how’s the truck, and he’s like Ehh, it’s ok, I’m happy. Honestly? I don’t like that. But Alon? He was, I wanna be quicker! I wanna be quicker! And I love that. Because this kind of guy, for sure, he will be a great, great NASCAR champion in the future.”
Certainly, that first truck start had a momentous feel. Among those vying for position alongside Alon were Jennifer Jo Cobb, Akinori Ogata of Japan and Rico Abreu. No, Day didn’t get within shouting distance of the leaders, but he did bring his Contreras machine home in 24th—three places higher than where it started.
For an oval neophyte it was an impressive run—and yet, somehow, not even the biggest takeaway from the weekend for Contreras. That came well before the green flag flew, in the drivers' meeting. When Contreras walked in, with Day at his side, the first person to greet him was NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton. “Welcome,” he said to them. Contreras will never forget it.
“You know how important that was for me and Alon?” he asks. “Maybe for Alon, he doesn’t notice yet. He doesn’t know how important is Mike Helton. But he comes to us and says, Welcome? I told Alon, ‘You know what, Bro? This is awesome!' ”
NASCAR’s doors have remained open to Day. The plan is for him to run two more truck dates this year, on mile-and-half ovals at Texas (on Nov. 4) and Miami-Homestead (on Nov. 18). A solid finish in those races would qualify him to run a full NASCAR slate in 2017, ideally in Xfinity. That’s if the usual economics stop intervening.
Despite Levin’s best attempts to raise funds around Day, little money has come in other than his own. The “little stickers” that have appeared on Day’s car—bearing logos from the Jewish Federation, Israeli Football League and the Anti-Defamation League—have been freebies (although the ADL has expressed some interest in contributing more seriously in 2017). At last check, the GoFundMe page Levin put together for Day had just $172 into its $75,000 goal. Contreras, whose own cash flow has been slowed by a feeble peso, has already sold Day’s Texas ride off to another driver.
Now the only goal is to keep the saddle for Homestead-Miami, where the 2016 NASCAR season rolls to a stop. Miami is also home to a large Jewish community—a fact not lost on Levin, who is already well past his breaking point. Getting Day onto that stage would be so much more than a personal victory. It would strike a might blow for diversity in NASCAR, be something to really savor.
That Day can barely speak to half the battles would only make the triumph sweeter. “I think the most good thing about having me in NASCAR is I actually don’t really know the whole culture,” he says. “Everybody keeps telling me NASCAR is a very specific culture and people and everything, but I’m like a baby in NASCAR, like blank paper. As the time goes and I have more races under my belt with NASCAR, I just fall in love more and more.
“I think also it’s a good thing because I always talk about myself as a guy who came from Israel, a completely different place. I came from the desert, from a country that you always hear about on CNN and war and everything. But I always make fun about it. I’ve always said about myself that I put a bit more spicy sauce on the meal.”
Yes, Day’s time in NASCAR has been brief. But it can hardly be written off as a failure. He already has resonated so much faster, so much more deeply than anyone could have imagined. As for what is ahead, he’ll accept his fate—however it breaks. Some might say it’s never been more in doubt. Some might say, as ever, it’s all in His hands.