NASCAR driver Aric Almirola says he’s living the American dream.
His father’s side of the family left Cuba in 1966 to flee communism and seek freedom in America, and now he’s driving racing legend Richard Petty’s No. 43 car on weekends.
“It’s every kid’s dream,” Almirola said in Chattanooga last week. “It’s an honor and a privilege. Every time I strap into that race car I feel like I’m racing his legacy.”
Almirola was at the Food City in Hixson where he was making bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches for race fans and promoting the Food City 500 Sprint Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway in April.
Nelson Deaton, director of loyalty marketing for Food City parent K-VA-T, said the Abingdon, Va.-based grocer is a longtime sponsor of the race. Food City founder Jack Smith developed the relationship with the Bristol, Tennessee speedway more than 20 years ago, he said.
“It’s part of the marketing campaign we like to get out in the stores,” Deaton said about the company that bought Bi-Lo’s 29 Chattanooga area supermarkets about six months ago.
He wouldn’t say how much money Food City’s sponsorship is worth, but store officials know that a lot of its customers follow NASCAR.
“It’s a natural fit,” Deaton said.
Becky Cox, the speedway’s vice president of communications, said Food City is the second longest-running title sponsor of a race in NASCAR history.
She said the speedway expects to have its biggest year yet. In addition to racing, the site on September 10 will transform into a football stadium for the inaugural Battle at Bristol where the University of Tennessee and Virginia Tech are expected to vie before a sellout crowd of 155,000 spectators. That would be the largest crowd ever to see a college football game.
Also, Cox said the East Tennessee speedway is installing what it calls “Colossus,” a giant of a big screen suspended over the middle of the venue. Officials said it will be the largest outdoor center-hung, four-side screen in the world.
Almirola said he’s looking forward to racing mid-April at Bristol.
“It’s a unique track,” he said. “When you go to Bristol, you know you’re going to do battle. It’s one every driver wants to win.”
Almirola, who won the Fourth of July 2014 Sprint Cup race at Daytona International Speedway, said the Richard Petty Motorsports race team continues to improve. He noted he missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup last season by just 11 points.
“Things are on the up,” Almirola said, adding that it takes a lot of things coming together, including what key sponsor Smithfield Food brings to the team. “It takes a lot of money to be competitive in this sport.”
Almirola finished 15th at the NASCAR race in Atlanta, adding that “it was kind of crazy” when his car wrecked and caught fire during an overtime session.
“It’s never good to catch fire, but if you do catch fire, finish the race,” he said. “That’s what I made sure we did.”