DARLINGTON, S.C. — Aric Almirola will make his 400th NASCAR Cup Series start Sunday night at Darlington Raceway, and this one will mean a lot more than most of them.
Almirola’s No. 10 Stewart Haas Racing will carry a throwback paint scheme that recognizes his grandfather, legendary Florida sprint car racer Sam Rodriguez.
Rodriquez was a three-time Tampa Bay Area Racing Ass’n sprint car champion and won 90 features in the state of Florida between 1984 and 1994.
Almirola fell in love with the sport watching his grandfather race and it was Rodriquez who purchased Almirola’s first go-kart when the future NASCAR winner was only eight years old.
“My grandfather was a highly successful local sprint car racer and champion. He’s also won a ton of sprint car races across the Southeast,” Almirola said. “The craziest thing is that he did that on the side. He ran a small business as his main priority. For me growing up, I went to the race track most weekends to watch him race from the time I was 1-years-old to the time I was 10, just being there and watching the success he had and seeing how good he was.
“Of course, he was my grandfather, but to watch him drive through the field and pull sliders on the guys in front of him and pass a guy on the outside and squeeze between the lapped car, and him shoot the gap three-wide, he was just awesome,” Almirola said. “He had the nickname of ‘Slammin Sammy’ Rodriguez because he was always on the gas. He was a gasser and he was just exciting to watch. He was a fan favorite all over the Southeast, specifically at East Bay Raceway, which was his home track. You know he was going to have a shot to win every Saturday night no matter where he started.”
Almirola plans to step away from full-time racing after this season and this will be the last time he participates in NASCAR’s Throwback Weekend.
“This is so cool to have the opportunity to do something like this. It’s special because, for most of my childhood, he was my hero and he still is,” Almirola continued. “When I was a kid, I thought he walked on water. He was the man. We would go to the races and I would sit in the grandstands and watch everyone cheer for him and watch him win and I would run down to the fence and wait to get my picture taken with him in victory lane.
“All the other kids were standing at the fence, too, but he was my grandfather. There would be a hundred kids waiting to get into victory lane, but I was the one who got to hold the checkered flag and stand next to him,” Almirola recalled. “I think as time has gone on and I have transitioned to becoming a race car driver, he knows how hard I’ve worked for it more than anyone else. To have this opportunity to honor what he’s meant to me and to run a car that is painted like the car that I grew up inspired by is just really humbling. It’s going to be a really emotional weekend because he’s proud. He’s proud to know that he had that much of an impact on me and where I’m at today and that he was a huge part of that.”
It’s a unique paint scheme that will be replicated on Almirola’s Mustang.
“My grandfather was very particular about his paint scheme. He loved red because red is fast. He was very particular about his race cars always looking immaculate,” Almirola said. “Every single weekend when they showed up to the track, they looked brand new. Everything was polished perfectly. Every dent and ding from rocks or racing would get touched up. He was just very particular. He would hire an artist to hand-paint the number on the car and the sponsor lettering so it would be perfect.
“It was all painted by hand. I remember, vividly, the car sitting on jack stands and the car coming over at 6 o’clock at night, after hours, and spending several hours laying out the design. It would take him a couple of nights to hand paint it all – on the engine cover and on the wing and tail tank. That attributed to a lot of the reasons he was so successful. It was because that attention to detail that got passed on to me, as well.”
Almirola credits Rodriguez for his work ethic.
“Not one moment, but the thousands of nights, not hundreds, that we spent at his body shop that we were working on go-karts or his sprint car or my race cars – working in the back of the shop with him. Other people would come. My dad would come and help a lot,” Almirola remembered. “We had volunteers come and help, but a large chunk of time was spent with me and him.
“I remember multiple times my mom getting mad because it was a school night and I was getting home at 11 at night and she would say, ‘Dad, he has to go to school tomorrow.’ He would say, ‘Yeah, but if we don’t get this done, we won’t be prepared this weekend.’ I remember so many of those nights that we just worked and worked. We would order pizza at late hours or warm something up in the microwave. That was the way we operated.
“If I wanted to race, I had to keep pace and keep up with his work ethic.”