From driving go-karts as a child to making history in US motor racing, Toni Breidinger has become the first Arab-American female to participate in Nascar stock car racing.
California-native Breidinger, 21, made her debut in the 2021 stock car competition ARCA Menards Series and the Nascar Camping World Truck Series, which began at Daytona International Speedway in Florida on Saturday.
But she had already made her mark on the sport as the most successful female in United States Auto Club history with 19 wins under her belt.
"Daytona has always been on my bucket list to race at," she told CNN before her debut. "Every driver's dream is to race there one day, it's such a historic track. It's a step in the right direction to hopefully race in the Daytona 500 one day."
Lebanese roots, motorsport heart
Breidinger's mother was born in Beirut, and she has close family in Lebanon. She credits her mechanical engineer motorsports-enthusiast father with igniting her passion for racing, along with her twin sister Annie, who also races.
"When I was 9, my dad took my sister and I to a go-kart track at Sonoma Raceway just for fun," she told Arab American News. "He never thought anything would come of it. I did it a few times and I loved it."
Citing Danica Patrick, the highest-finishing woman in national Nascar history, as an inspiration, Breidinger told Paper Magazine: "Danica has really paved the way for other female racers. But I also want to make my own name for myself, and I don't necessarily want to be in someone else's shadow or compared to someone. I want to be the next Toni Breidinger.
"Probably the biggest struggle would be getting people's respect, and not necessarily just because I'm a girl, but just because anyone has to prove themselves so they race you more clean and hard," she said. "I race with mostly boys; I'm usually the only female in the race. As soon as the helmet comes on everyone is just a driver. Gender is irrelevant at that point."
"I'm honoured and excited to be the first, but I don't want to be the last," Breidinger told CNN. "I hope I can pave the way for future female Arab drivers as well."
More women in the white male-dominated sport
This is not the first time issues of diversity and inclusion have made headlines in the sport. In June 2020, the Confederate flag was banned from Nascar events. The flag is associated with the American South, and is more commonly associated with deeply-rooted racism and slavery. The decision was made following calls by Bubba Wallace, the only full-time African-American driver in the Nascar Cup Series.
"The presence of the Confederate flag at Nascar events runs contrary to our commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for all fans, our competitors and our industry," Nascar said after banning the flags.
The first black driver to win a Nascar race was Wendell Scott on December 1, 1963. But an error in the scoring put second-place white driver Buck Baker as the winner. Scott was later declared the winner, but never received his trophy in his lifetime. More recently, Darrell Wallace Jr and Bubba Wallace have emerged as two of the most successful African-American drivers.
Nascar history is also being made by another three women, Brehanna Daniels and Breanna O'Leary, who are both black, and Dalanda Ouendeno, who was born in France. The three women are graduates of the Nascar Drive for Diversity programme, an initiative aimed at creating diverse and inclusive pit crew teams.
Daniels, 27, became the first black woman to be a Nascar tyre changer, while O'Leary, 27, joined Daniels as the first female pit crew members in the Daytona 500 in 2018. French-born Ouendeno was the first foreign-born graduate of the programme to be in the pit for the Daytona 500.
In Breidinger's race on Saturday, February 13, she survived a multi-car accident on lap 29, and climbed into the top 20, finally finishing in the 18th spot.