Two massive artillery blasts and a thunderous flyby from two U.S. military jets kicked off the ceremony June 25 at Sonoma Raceway, where Alon Day made history as the first Israeli driver to compete in this high-level NASCAR race.
He competed in the Toyota SaveMart 350, which is a race in the NASCAR Cup Series, the sport’s top level, and even though he finished 32nd out of 38 drivers, it nonetheless marked a momentous occasion for man and country. “I’m going to make history for myself and for my country, Israel,” Day said in advance of the race.
On the big day, about 100,000 people descended on Sonoma Raceway, strains of country music playing over the loudspeakers, the smell of burning high-octane fuel and melting rubber wafting in the air. In short: attending a race is like experiencing a small piece of the South.
Then came the noise. Imagine an angry mechanical hornet blasted through a Marshall amplifier stack. That’s just one car. Thirty-eight roaring engines is enough to produce a sound so loud that it’s literally not safe for human ears.
To say that Day’s success is unlikely is an understatement — just go to jewswholikenascar.com. The page is all-white, and in large letters says “Sorry, no results.” (Despite the fact that NASCAR has not had a Jewish driver, and few Jewish fans, there are plenty of Jews in the press corps that cover it.)
It’s especially improbable when considering Israeli laws about auto imports. As Day puts it, “Racing was basically illegal” when he was growing up, a holdover of an old British policy banning car imports for anything other than commuting. It wasn’t changed until a special committee completed a seven-year effort to overturn that law in 2005.
“A few days ago, the first track opened in Israel,” Day said. “See, we are like small babies in terms of motorsports. It will take a long time before Israel is big.”
Day, 25, grew up in Ashdod, where he learned about NASCAR from playing video games such as Grand Prix Legends. In his teens, he became a champion of the country’s only semi-professional motorsports league: go-karting. His father, realizing his son’s potential, sent him to compete in Europe, where he began racing in Formula Three and was on a trajectory toward Formula One, among the top racing leagues in the world.
A couple of years ago, Day shifted from driving the F1 open cockpit style of car to stock cars, ordinary cars modified for NASCAR. Based on his strong start in Europe and the United States — he raced a full season in an IndyCar series — Day was selected last year to be a part of the 2016-17 NASCAR Next program, which highlights up-and-coming racers.
He also received recognition in Israel for his achievements. Last year he was named Athlete of the Year by the Sports and Culture Ministry.
When he’s not at the track, or in a simulator, where he spends three or four hours a day training, Day likes to relax on the beach. “I grew up one minute from the beach, and I spend most of my time hanging out on the beach. This is my way of relaxing,” he said. “I grew up drinking salty water.”
But the story behind Day’s ascension to NASCAR’s highest level is far from a strange twist of fate. It’s very much the work of David Levin, a 64-year-old Florida attorney, and a NASCAR-loving Jew. What pushed Levin to seek out and manage a Jewish driver was a speech delivered by Phil Robertson, the controversial member of the “Duck Dynasty” clan, before a NASCAR race last spring in Fort Worth, Texas.
“All right. Texas. We got here via Bibles and guns. I’m fixin’ to pray to the one who made that possible,” Robertson said. “I pray Father that we put a Jesus-man in the White House.”
Hearing that drove Levin to want to sponsor a Jewish NASCAR driver. There were a few candidates, but Day’s successes in European NASCAR pushed his name to the top of the list.
Day said he has not run into anti-Israel sentiment while racing in the United States. He speculates that it might be because of his past military service in the Israel Defense Forces, or their views on Israel itself.
“They are really patriotic,” Day said of motorsports fans in a telephone interview prior to the race day. “I served in the IDF, and they are really pro-Israel and very supportive.” On Day’s uniform, he proudly displays an Israeli flag, and at one point his car featured an Anti-Defamation League sticker.
Yet, even though the idea of an Israeli NASCAR driver is novel, fundraising has been difficult, Levin said. At times he was forced to fund races personally, and it was only a last-minute deal with Texas-based EarthWater that allowed Day to compete in Sonoma, where a hilly, tight, 12-turn road course makes this NASCAR race different than almost all others.
Prior to the race, Day casually leaned on his Toyota Camry, signing autographs and posing for photos with fans, including some Israelis.
“The Jews have endured so much suffering over the years, when you think about it, we deserve at least third place,” said Dan Hod, an Israeli tech worker who flew in for the race with two friends. “We won’t compromise.”
Prior to Day’s rise to fame, neither Hod nor his friends were racing fans. Now they are big supporters. “It cost thousands of dollars, but of course we flew here,” said Roy Cohen. “We had to.”
As for the race itself, it was a something of a heartbreaker, and not the top-10 finish Day, a specialist in road courses, had hoped for. “Unfortunately we got hit on turn 11 and lost half of the car,” he said, referring to a car that hit him from behind after a third vehicle spun out of control. “I tried my best and I know that the speed was there, especially at the end of the race. I told my guys they did an amazing job and we hope to come back stronger.”
Despite the results, it still was a historic occasion — one of many during Day’s unlikely rise in the sport. Early on in his career, he had a choice between taking a fighter pilot course with the IDF and pursuing a career there, or continuing to race. He chose to race.
Said Day, “This is my dream.”