By Team Ford Performance Correspondent
The man primarily responsible for Aric Almirola’s start and rise in auto racing remains hard at work today, only a few feet from the ground that spawned Almirola’s career.
At 68 years old, Sam Rodriguez, Almirola’s grandfather (pictured with a young Aric above), continues his life-long love of automobiles and the care and maintenance of them. He still reports for work in his body shop in Tampa, Fla., years after ending a career racing sprint cars.
Rodriguez introduced Aric to auto racing. The grandson watched as the grandfather raced sprint cars across Florida, into the rest of the Southeast and in big events across the country. Almirola’s journey to a top Sprint Cup ride — a Ford Fusion at Richard Petty Motorsports — began at his grandfather’s knee.
“I loved it as a kid, was absolutely eaten up with it,” Almirola said of racing. “Because my grandfather was so successful, that made it more fun. There’s nothing cooler than a 4-year-old kid getting his picture made with his grandfather in victory lane.
“I would go and stand up in the driver’s seat of his sprint car and steer the car back to the tech area with my dad on a four-wheeler behind us pushing. My grandfather would sit on the bar and help me steer it and push the brake pedal because I couldn’t reach it. It all made me love being at the race track and love being a part of it.”
Almirola said Rodriguez won local track championships and Southeastern titles.
“He was an exceptional driver behind the wheel, but he ran good because he also had really good equipment, and that was because of how hard he worked at it,” Almirola said. “He had good connections within the sprint-car community, and he was a great innovator. He was constantly looking for ways to make everything better on his race car.
“What he lacked in money he made up for in effort and hours in the shop. Everything had to be perfect all the time. He was really good at doing machine work. The parts and pieces he didn’t have and couldn’t afford to buy he could make most of the time. It was neat to watch how innovative he was.”
Almirola said the last two stalls in his grandfather’s Tampa body shop were devoted to the race cars.
“The fact that I was being exposed to racing was a big part of me wanting to get involved,” he said. “I don’t think I ever would have been involved if I hadn’t been exposed in that way. I probably would have played baseball. Lord only knows where I would have made it there.
“But my grandfather was successful, and he involved me — both my dad and grandfather. They took me to races and sneaked me into the pit area. I can’t ever remember not going to the races.”
Although Almirola was around his grandfather’s sprint cars for years, he never drove them.
“He thought that if I raced sprint cars that I would learn bad habits,” Almirola said. “You have to drive a sprint car so much different than an asphalt stock car. He thought that if I was going to make a career out of it that I needed to go stock car racing on asphalt.
“It worked out, but, looking back, I think he was wrong. Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, Kyle Larson — all grew up doing all sorts of dirt racing, and they succeeded.”
The path Almirola took also worked, though.