JTA Israeli race car driver Alon Day’s rise to the highest ranks of NASCAR has been an unexpected one for a variety of reasons.
Here’s one of them: The 25-year-old has done the bulk of his training on computer-screen simulators. That’s because Israel didn’t have a motor sport race track until this year.
On Sunday, he became the first Israeli to compete in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series — the sport’s highest league of competition — when he raced the No. 23 car for the BK Racing team at the Sonoma Raceway in Southern California. Day came in 32nd place out of 38 drivers after being involved in a collision, but his participation in the race was still significant.
While NASCAR has made efforts to diversify its pool of athletes, the sport’s fans and drivers remain mostly white and Christian — at times to a controversial extent.
Day, by contrast, wears his Israeli and Jewish identities proudly. His car for Sunday’s race sported a few Israeli flag stickers, and he also had Stars of David on the left arm of his racing suit and on his belt. He has previously driven a car featuring an Anti-Defamation League sticker (even if the ADL was not an official sponsor of the vehicle).
It’s pretty remarkable, given that it is unknown if a Jewish driver has ever made it to the top tier of NASCAR.
Day, speaking to JTA from a taxi following his flight to California on Thursday, is well aware of the unlikeliness of his story — one that involves Israeli go-karts, plenty of computer games and a Florida attorney eager to get a Jewish driver into the NASCAR mainstream.
“I’m going to make history for myself and for my country, Israel,” the Tel Aviv resident said.
Day grew up in Ashdod, where he learned about NASCAR from playing video games such as Grand Prix Legends. In his early teens, Day became champion of the country’s only semi-professional motor sport league: go-karting. His father, realizing his son’s potential, sent him to compete in Europe. He began racing in Formula Three and was on a trajectory toward Formula One, among the top racing leagues in the world.
But a couple of years ago, Day decided to (ahem) switch gears. He shifted from driving the Formula One open cockpit style of car to stock cars, the ordinary cars that have been modified to be raced in NASCAR.
It was mostly a business decision, because the world of motor racing is driven by sponsorships. “It’s definitely much easier for me to get sponsorship here in the States than in Europe,” he said.
Based on his strong start in Europe and the U.S. — he raced a full season in a sub-league of the Indy 500, the U.S. version of Formula One — Day was selected last year to be a part of the NASCAR Next program, which highlights up-and-coming racers.
That happened to be right around the time that Phil Robertson, the controversial member of the “Duck Dynasty” clan, delivered an eyebrow-raising speech before a NASCAR race in Forth Worth, Texas.
“All right Texas, we got here via Bibles and guns, I’m fixin’ to pray to the one who made that possible,” Robertson said. “I pray Father that we put a Jesus-man in the White House.”
Robertson’s pre-race prayer didn’t sit well with David Levin, a Jewish lawyer from Florida and longtime NASCAR fan. Levin had just waded into the world of NASCAR sponsoring, and the reality star’s rhetoric gave him extra motivation to do something he had long wished for: He would find and help promote a Jewish driver into NASCAR’s top circuit.
Day called it perfect timing. “It’s just kind of karma,” he said of Levin’s considerable financial support. Day said his goal is to race in the next Cup Series race at Watkins Glen in western New York in August.
Meanwhile, Day is gaining recognition in Israel, where he was named Athlete of the Year in 2016 by the Sports and Culture Ministry. And he is contributing to car racing’s increased visibility in Israel (a track opened this year in Arad). Alongside his fledgling celebrity, he opened a racing “gym” in Tel Aviv with an old go-karting buddy. The gym houses several driving simulators, which are basically higher-tech versions of arcade games.
Day says he celebrates Jewish holidays, recites the Kiddush blessing over the wine on Friday nights and is proud to talk about his service in the Israeli army. Although he is an anomaly in the white Christian world of NASCAR, he points out that many stock car racing fans — some of whom are evangelical Christians — are big supporters of Israel, which has helped make him feel comfortable in the United States.
“I think they like seeing someone without that Southern accent, does not have the American flag [on a car] … does not believes in Jesus,” he said. “I’ve gotten tons of media because I’m different.”