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Hispanic racer Sergio Peña hopes to be NASCAR's next big thing

By Larry Lazo, CNN
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Mon October 22, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sergio Peña, 19, graduated from NASCAR's diversity program
  • NASCAR has been criticized for lack of diversity
  • Peña's father spent more than $1 million funding his son's dream

(CNN) -- Nineteen-year-old Sergio Peña is living his dream.

"You know, to be a race car driver -- it almost doesn't seem real," he said. "It doesn't seem like a job at all. It's more like play to me."

Peña may say it feels like play, but his work ethic says otherwise.

"He is a very methodical, very calculated race car driver," said Kip Childress, director of NASCAR's K&N Pro Series East. "Sergio is a driver that uses a whole lot of thought behind the steering wheel."

Peña is from Virginia and is a first generation Colombian American. His love for racing started at age 4 when his father bought him a dirt bike.

Jai Peña saw early on that there was no turning back. "He loved it from day one," his father said.

Peña has been competing professionally since he was 13. Motocross, Go-Karts, Formula cars -- he was game for anything. But his love for all things speed didn't come without a price.

Sergio Peña has dreams to make it big in NASCAR.
Sergio Peña has dreams to make it big in NASCAR.

Jai Peña bankrolled his son's efforts for many years. He estimates he spent more than $1 million funding this son's dream of making it to the big time.

"I wouldn't change a thing," he said. "The economy is tough, but if I had to do it again, I think I would do it again."

The sport of NASCAR is one that calls for major financial backing from sponsors in order for racers to have a legitimate chance to compete at a high level.

NASCAR has at times been criticized for not doing enough to recruit minorities. The sport has made strides in recent years to remedy that problem, most notably through its "Drive for Diversity" program, which began in 2004.

The program looks for "marketable minority and female drivers with racing experience at the grassroots level," according to its website. More than 200 drivers apply to the program each year, and six to 10 are selected, the website says.

"The main goal of the 'Drive for Diversity' program is to get minorities a chance to enter their names into the sport," said Sergio Peña. "It gives them a chance to get their names out there and advance themselves into higher-up NASCAR series or bigger teams."

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Peña completed the program, and his success helped him land a big sponsor, Hattori Racing Enterprises.

With a major sponsor and team behind him, Peña's skills have become more refined. Last year was a breakout year of sorts for him. He finished the year tied for most wins in the K&N Pro Series East and came in fifth overall in points.

But having a great support system and the right opportunities will only get you so far. Success in NASCAR is measured in wins. Peña is fully aware of this and attacks the track every time he gets behind the wheel.

"Sergio has done quite a bit of work, as well, and he has to perform," Childress said. "Sergio has been able to get the job done on the race track."

"I'm just another kid trying to make it in racing, just following my dream," Peña said. "I'm very thankful for all the people who have helped me along the way throughout my career."

As for bringing more diversity to NASCAR?

"It's getting there, step by step," Peña said.

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