Brehanna Daniels goes over the wall and into NASCAR history books

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Brehanna Daniels could sense people staring at her as she walked through Dover International Speedway's pit area carrying her equipment bag. She had trained for this moment for nine months, and now it was time to make history.

The Virginia native would make history as the first African-American woman to pit a vehicle in a national NASCAR series race. Earlier this year in ARCA, she became the first African-American female to go over the wall in a national racing series.

Daniels spent Friday evening changing tires for driver Cody Ware in NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series race. On Saturday afternoon, she had the same duties for Mike Harmon in the Xfinity Series event. Ware finished 18th and Harmon 25th.

"I got even more stares than I did at my ARCA races," Daniels said in reflecting on her two days at Dover. "I was like, wow, people really aren't used to seeing a woman of my color in the sport! The stares came from fans and crew members. I saw people breaking their necks to turn around and look at me after I passed by. I got even more stares when I actually had on my firesuit.

"I had to glue up [put lug nuts on] my tires before the Xfinity race. People were sitting there looking at me. I looked up at this lady who was watching me, and she gave me a thumbs-up."

Daniels said the reaction from fans during prerace ceremonies, and the fact that some fans wanted to have their picture taken with her, made her feel "like I was a star."

A former student-athlete at Norfolk State University in Virginia, Daniels entered the NASCAR Rev Racing Drive for Diversity Pit Crew program last year. She trained for several months at Rev Racing in Concord, North Carolina, and then at Xcalibur Pit School in Mooresville, North Carolina, before making her debut in an April 8 ARCA race at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville in Tennessee. On that night, she discovered the sport's unpredictability when she learned upon her arrival at the short track that her team didn't have anyone in the role of tire carrier.

"As soon as I found out I didn't have a tire carrier, I thought of everything I had been taught about every situation like this," said Daniels, the rear tire changer that night for Dale Shearer, who finished 30th.

When the car screeched to a halt for its stop, Daniels had the 75-pound right rear tire in her left arm and her impact wrench in her right. She set down the tire, removed the one on the car, set it aside, and then installed the new one, lifting it into place by rolling it onto her thighs and lifting the tire into place.

"It's easier that way. It doesn't put any strain on your body," said Daniels, who utilized a maneuver used in the 1980s by ARCA champion Bill Venturini's all-female crew.

Slightly more than a month later at Toledo Speedway in Ohio, Daniels and her roommate, Breanna O'Leary, were the tire changers for ARCA driver Thad Moffitt, grandson of seven-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty. Daniels described that May 21 event, in which the 16-year-old Moffitt finished 23rd, as "girl power."

"This was my first time changing the front tires in a race," Daniels said. "The heat on the tire caught me off guard a little bit. I practice front and rear, so being versatile paid off."

When the June 2-4 Dover weekend arrived, Daniels knew she had a job changing tires on Harmon's Xfinity car, but decided to go to the track a day early to see if she could find work on a truck team. Her initial objective Friday was to introduce herself to Harmon. The result was that he hired her to change tires for Ware, who drove one of Harmon's trucks.

The 23-year-old Daniels said "everything is a learning experience." She might consider a crucial error in the Xfinity race a learning experience. NASCAR called a foul on Daniels for being over the wall too soon.

"I jumped as soon as [the car] got to the line, [but] they said I should have waited until more of the car was over the line," Daniels said. "It threw me off, but it didn't affect me. I just waited it out a little longer and jumped at a better time [on the next stop]."

On another stop, the jack handle loosened and the jack dropped Harmon's car just as Daniels' tire carrier, Madison Ferguson, was putting on the wheel. Immediately, Daniels checked the location of Ferguson's hand to make sure it had not been crushed.

With four races -- two ARCA, Camping World Trucks and Xfinty -- now on Daniels' résumé, she said she feels "more confident."

"I even got me a new impact wrench," she said. "You're only as good as your tool that you're using."

Deb Williams is a North Carolina-based writer and former editor. She has covered auto racing for United Press International, USA Today and The Charlotte Observer. She has more than 30 years of experience covering motorsports and was the 1990 and 1996 NMPA Writer of the Year.