28 Jul Aric Almirola embraces Cuban heritage, family ties on trip to island
Aric Almirola reached back to find his family history, only to be overwhelmed by the sensory overload. The wheelman’s rush of driving a 1956 Ford Fairlane. The adrenaline rush of a shot of Cuban coffee. The emotional rush of embracing and kissing relatives he never met.
Almirola was born March 14, 1984, at Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach and raised in Tampa. But as the son of an immigrant family, he still had Cuban blood in his veins.
The island of mystery and his family’s personal pain called him home recently, for a journey back in time. Cuba is very much that way, feeling the deep-freeze of technology since Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959 and the subsequent embargo by the United States.
Politics has been the great divide between here and there, despite the miniscule 90-mile separation between Key West and Cuba. An easing of travel restrictions under the Obama administration allowed Almirola to join the exodus of those returning to Cuba, not only for the vintage snapshots, mojitos, and arroz con pollo, but to find answers to the disconnect with their past.
“This was my chance to go see where my family came from and to meet members of my family that I never met before,” said Almirola, a NASCAR Cup veteran. “To know there are a bunch of Almirolas down there who have the same blood that I have, it was really moving for me to go down there and meet them, and hug them and have that experience.”
NASCAR Productions chronicled Almirola’s journey in a short film titled “Beyond the Wheel: El Corredor (The Runner)” that airs Wednesday at 6 p.m. during NASCAR Race Hub on FS1.
Almirola took a direct flight from Charlotte to Havana after the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup race at Watkins Glen on Aug. 6. The project involved a collaborative effort with NASCAR Productions, but the most difficult piece in logistics and negotiations involved a sweet little old lady:
Almirola’s grandmother, whom he fondly calls abuela.
Eneida Almirola came to the United States as an exile from Cuba with her husband, Ralph Almirola Sr., in 1966. They had the clothes they wore and a handful of other items. It wasn’t about the material goods, anyway; it was about freedom. They arrived with their two children, Almirola’s father, Ralph Jr., who was 4 years old, and his uncle, Roberto, who was just 2.
In the decades that followed, abuela pushed back on any interest Aric had in going back. The pain still cut deep, and the separation from family – some with ideological political difference – was a common theme of the inner-conflict with many Cuban-American families.
But abuela thawed politically and emotionally, giving Aric the opportunity. He would seize on the moment, and return with beautiful memories after a three-day trip.
“The thing that was very apparent is Cubans, all Cubans, are incredible improvisers because they have to be,” he said.
Watch the video at this link: http://www.orlandosentinel.com/sports/93989437-132.html
That’s why he got to drive a car made in 1956. Cubans have jerry-rigged vintage cars since the revolution to keep them running. If that ride isn’t available, you’ll see them on bicycles, walking or maybe on a horse and buggy if you go to the countryside.
“They wake up every day and deal with getting through that day,” Almirola said. “There’s kind of a beauty in that. As Americans we worry about our Wi-Fi not working. We worry about a lot of things that we have no control over. Cubans because of their situation and because they are essentially suppressed, their only real objective is to worry about that day.”
The most memorable moment was when dozens of Amirolas cobbled together their rationed resources and gathered for a family feast. They shared stories – Aric in his broken Spanish – about their lives.
Aric was once an aspiring race car driver who dropped out of the University of Central Florida, eating hot dogs and cheese sandwiches to save money.
His hunger was focused on racing. Now a driver for Richard Petty Motorsports, Almirola is bonded by the iconic name and number (43) in NASCAR history and its rich traditions.
NASCAR is highly-invested in its Drive for Diversity to engage minorities in the sport. Aric Almirola is living proof, even though he had to go to Cuba to connect the dots of his history and heritage, and honor the family ties that his abuela left behind.