In 2019 Dalanda Ouendeno was an immigrant from France, a star soccer player at the University of Miami, and had never so much as changed a tire in her life. Today, after a stint in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, she’s a pit crew member at the highest level of American stock car racing, shouldering tires and wielding an air wrench in a fire suit, and she’s the first foreign-born woman of color to do it.
And while she’s doing it, she’s inspiring other young Black girls to see themselves in motorsports, too.
Just a few years ago, Ouendeno was a student at "The U" and defender for the soccer team, and she was at a critical crossroads right before graduation. The Paris, France, native had never even heard of NASCAR when the organization’s Drive for Diversity recruiters came to her college campus. They were there to host tryouts for drivers and pit crew, and Ouendeno figured it wouldn’t hurt to find out more.
“I could have gone back to Europe to play soccer, but I didn’t want to; I’d had enough,” Ouendeno told me on a video call, the medium for so many meetings in the last two years.
Launched in 2016, the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Development Program is a training program for underrepresented and female pit crew members. NASCAR says the program focuses on “instilling the fundamentals, discipline, and confidence required to be a top athlete on a NASCAR pit crew. The program includes weekly hands-on, over-the-wall position training and coaching for tire changers, tire carriers...as well as weight training, agility and footwork programs.”
It turned out her soccer expertise made her a more natural candidate for this job than she could’ve ever imagined. During the initial tryouts, Ouendeno showed the recruiting team her fancy footwork along with speed and athletic ability, making a strong impression on the recruiters. Phil Horton, the director of athletic performance for Rev Racing and pit crew coach for the Drive for Diversity Crew Member Development Program, took note of Ouendeno’s strength. At the same time, the opportunity made a powerful impression on Ouendeno.
“That same night, I watched tons of videos on YouTube and did a lot of research,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is something I’d love to do.’”
She found herself fielding an invitation to Charlotte, North Carolina, for a combine (a term NASCAR uses for tryouts) and impressed the coaches with her athletic ability, focus, and tenacity. After continuing to improve her time and show her agility at the combine, Ouendeno earned a spot on the team and relocated to North Carolina for the six-month training program.
“She’s an athlete, a true athlete. To reach the level that she did, a Division I soccer player at the University of Miami, that helped her a lot,” Coach Horton told the Miami Hurricanes online news site. “She may not have known what she was doing when she got there, but she knew how to carry herself. She knew how to position herself to learn and she absorbed things like a sponge.”
Even so, the move was a big deal for her; she didn't know anyone there and her family was on the other side of the pond. While she was 21 at the time, she was still a fledgling bird leaving the nest. At least, she was to her parents, who Ouendeno said still worry about her (as parents do).
“People back home just don’t really understand what I’m doing,” she said. “My mom and dad worry about whether it’s safe, but they support me. They ask me, ‘Isn’t it dangerous? Are you being careful and everything?’”
Ouendeno has been a lifelong athlete, spending several years as a member of Paris Saint-Germain’s youth team from 2009 to 2015 (which you may know as the same organization superstar Lionel Messi plays for now) before she was recruited to play in college. She joined the University of West Virginia’s team first and then transferred to the University of Miami to play. When NASCAR showed up at the athletic center for tryouts, Ouendeno had no idea that changing tires was going to play a big part in her life.
“The coaches told me later, ‘We saw you and noticed you have the shoulders to carry tires,’” Ouendeno said with a grin. “I did have to adjust my upper body, though, going from soccer to pit crew.”
While you might not think of a pit crew member as an athlete, there is no question they have to be in shape to move as fast as they do. Fractions of seconds matter in the pit, and each member must know their job with precision. Coaches from NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity team knew what they were doing when they decided to start hitting college campuses to seek out athletic college students looking for a new challenge.
During her training, Ouendeno got to know two other women who had already started blazing the path for her: Brehanna Daniels, the first Black woman in a NASCAR Cup Series pit crew, and Breanna O’Leary, another graduate of the Drive for Diversity program and part of the first female duo in a pit crew with Daniels. These two women helped Ouendano with tips and support. However, none of them were prepared for what was about to happen at the beginning of 2020. The world shut down at the advent of the pandemic, which means the first race where Ouendeno was scheduled to debut over the wall didn’t happen. Her new test would be patience until the races came back around.
“I think the most important thing for me during that time was to stay in shape, to keep working out and being as safe as possible,” Ouendeno told MiamiHurricanes.com. “The toughest thing was being away from my family. Being away from my family and [being] without the NASCAR races… that had kind of given purpose to the weeks and the months I’d been practicing. When it stopped I was like, ‘What am I doing with my day now?’ I tried to fill my days with workouts, but I had to stay mentally strong. I was calling my family every day. I wanted to make sure they were alright and they wanted to make sure I was alright, too. They were super nervous for me, being in a foreign country with a pandemic.”
Two years later, Ouendeno is still in Charlotte and she’s excited about what is come both for her and for NASCAR. She is working part-time in the Cup Series for MBM Motorsports and full-time for Xfinity SS Green Light Racing and the Arca team for Venturini Racing. And she’s learning more about what it means to be a Black woman in a sport that is working to improve diversity. She also has a unique perspective coming from France, where NASCAR is decidedly not a thing.
“NASCAR is kind of complicated,” she acknowledged. “There is a stereotype of NASCAR being about rednecks, and they are working to fix that. It’s hard for me to understand, but I learn every day. I think they’re doing an incredible job.”
Now, little girls from all backgrounds will be inspired by Ouendeno and her colleagues from the program.
“I’ve had feedback that I was inspiring,” Ouendeno said humbly. “It wasn’t a goal of mine when I started, but representation matters. When you see another Black woman doing something, you think, ‘Oh, I could do that,’ and it inspires you. It’s incredible.”
Jusan Hamilton, the race director and director of racing operations and event management at NASCAR says this program opens the door to people who might not have had any exposure to motorsports. NASCAR management is focused on building a bigger audience, and this fits into the strategy.
“In the past, the avenues into the sport just weren’t there in terms of diversity,” Hamilton said. “It was more about who you knew. If you didn’t have a connection, it was hard to get in, especially on the pit crew side.”
Once they’re in, Hamilton said, Drive for Diversity graduates find out more about career opportunities in NASCAR and it builds the pipeline for promoting from within the organization.
“As a company, it’s very important if you’re going to grow toward the future that you have a lot of different backgrounds and perspectives to reach more people,” Hamilton told me. “They can offer different opinions so we can reach the masses and not be limited in that sense. It’s about giving access to people who want it; those who have an interest should have an equal avenue.”
For now, Ouendeno is excited to be over the wall, putting her athletic skills to work.
"Being in NASCAR thanks to the diversity program changed my life a lot," she said emphatically. "I've definitely grown as a woman, and now I get to travel a lot in the U.S. On top of that, it allows me to perform in front of a huge crowd of people, and I like having some pressure. It’s exciting to know that you can make a big impact."
Pay attention at the next NASCAR race and watch the carefully choreographed pit crew moving around the cars at warp speed. People like Ouendeno play a crucial role in the sport, and her success will inspire other Black women and girls to give it a try themselves.
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