Given NASCAR’s recent celebration of its 2016 NASCAR Diversity Awards, this week’s NASCAR Behind the Scenes highlights the dynamic and diverse pit crew duo from @, Mike Russell and Rafael Diaz.
These two members of the 2105 NASCAR XFINITY Series championship team with driver @ were recognized for inspiring awareness of the sport through their competitive performance and outreach activities.
Mike Russell served as the jack man for Buescher’s team. And while winning the championship was exciting for him, the pit crew diversity award was a capstone for all of his hard work and effort.
“This award means a lot to me,” Russell said. “It shows I’m being recognized, you know. People are looking and seeing what I’ve done.
“It was a great moment in my career and knowing that all the hard work and effort paid off is a great thing.”
Russell did not start off wanting to be a jack man for one of the powerhouse NASCAR teams. In fact, before getting involved with NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, Russell actually knew very little about the sport of stock car racing.
“I’m from a little town called Tillery, North Carolina,” Russell said. “I got out of work one day and I was watching TV. I saw a show called ‘Changing Lanes’ and I saw the pit crew part of it.”
“That sparked me to want to get into racing. I did my research and then went to the NASCAR Technical Institute,” Russell continued. “Within that, they had a three-week pit crew program.”
“As soon as they taught me the simple mechanics of a jack man, I knew from that day I wanted to do this.”
“All the teachers were coming up to me saying I was pretty good and saying I should make it a career,” Russell said. “So, with their input and me feeling good about it, I looked more into it and that’s when I got in touch with the Drive for Diversity program.”
“I started off doing ARCA races and that led into XFINITY races and after two years of being in the D4D program, I got hired on at Kyle Busch Motorsports on the 18 Truck. So, I did that for a full year and after that year was up, I got hired on at Roush Fenway as a jack man.”
“And that’s where I’ve found a home.”
Russell’s teammate Rafael Diaz also found a home at Roush Fenway Racing and was equally as thrilled to receive the pit crew diversity recognition.
“It was really exciting and I didn’t expect the award,” Diaz said. “I just hope I can keep doing great things in this career.”
Diaz took a slightly different path than his teammate when it came to pursuing his racing career. In fact, he had a whole other career in mind after his family moved from Mexico to Chicago.
“Since I was little, I always played soccer,” Diaz said. “My goal was to become a professional soccer player.”
“But around 15 years old, I injured my knee,” Diaz continued. “Race cars were my ‘Plan B.’ Knowing I couldn’t play soccer, my next plan was to get into racing. That’s why I moved to Charlotte.”
“I met people in the Drive for Diversity program and I got in and started practicing,” Diaz said. “I became good at it and ended up at Roush Fenway. They gave me a great opportunity to prove myself.”
Diaz has indeed proven himself as a rear tire changer for not only Chris Buescher’s championship team last year but also previously with Carl Edwards’ team.
“I pitted Carl’s car and won a Sprint Cup race with him, as well as an All-Star Pit Crew competition with him,” Diaz said. “My son was actually born on the same day that we won with Carl Edwards in Sonoma, California.”
“I was a little bit late for him but it was worth it.”
Both drivers acknowledged that not only did they enjoy competing on the track, but they also highly valued working together as part of a team.
“I do like the team camaraderie the best,” Russell said. “You want to do all you can for the next guy beside you and your teammates. We count on each other to get the job done.”
“I do my 100 percent and he will give his all for me and we all come together and make a good thing happen.”
For this dynamic duo, however, the most important part of receiving their diversity award was to be able to pave the way for other pit crew members from other backgrounds and ethnicities to follow in their footsteps.
“I do feel like I am an inspiration,” Russell said. “There are a lot of new guys coming up through the Drive for Diversity program that I talk to all the time.”
“That motivates them to stay at it, working hard and keeping at it. They see that I came from the program and I’m doing good, so they can do the same.”
“You have to be committed, love what you do and do it to the best of your ability,” Russell said. “That’s what I think has led to our success.”