NASCAR driver Daniel Suarez talks about how he grew up with animals and how his family continues to rescue animals in Mexico. BY STEPHANIE BUNAO

If you take a pass through the assortment of stuff Daniel Suárez has put on Instagram over the past year and a half, you’ll see he hits a lot of the familiar beats for a NASCAR Cup Series driver.

There are shots of his race cars, shots of his for-fun cars, travel photos, workout videos, posts to fulfill sponsor obligations, and plenty of pics with his significant other — in his case Julia Piquet, his girlfriend of more than three years, with whom he lives in Charlotte.

The thing that sets him apart?

Suárez, 29, who is the only full-time Mexican driver in NASCAR’s top series, is also the only one who routinely adds photos and videos of a very adorable, very tiny long-haired chihuahua named Emma.

“She’s very prominent on his social media,” Piquet says. “Every time we travel, we travel with her. And I have another couple of cool pictures of him just, for example, walking to the team plane that takes him to the races, with Emma in the carrier and he does not care what people say.

“You know, ‘Oh, you’re a guy holding a small dog,’” she says, in a mocking tone. “He does not care at all. He’s just so proud of her. He’s like, ‘Yeah, she’s Mexican. She’s my Emma.’”

Actually, it’s not really his dog. Or, well, it is and it isn’t. We’ll get to that explanation in a minute.

Before we do that, though, we need to explain a few other things:

1) How Suárez comes from a family that has a track record for going to extraordinary lengths to give stray animals better lives. 2) How Suárez this month made a grand gesture that will only add to the family legacy. And 3) How — although he has a long way to go to catch up to his dad’s collection of animals — Suárez suddenly now has twice as many under his roof as he did when the year started.

COMPASSION RUNS IN THE FAMILY

Like many boys who have gone on to become NASCAR drivers as men, Suárez was surrounded by cars from an early age, in his particular case because his father worked as a mechanic and a restorer of cars in their hometown of Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico.

But he was also surrounded by dogs.

“My father, since I can remember, he’s been a very, very animal person,” says Suárez (who famously learned to speak English in his 20s, as he was making the transition to NASCAR, by watching American television and movies). “He loved to pick up dogs in the street,” he says of his father.

A family photo of a young Daniel Suárez with his father, Alejandro Suárez. COURTESY OF DANIEL SUÁREZ

“I remember like it was yesterday many times in Monterrey, Mexico, that he was seeing a dog that was either injured or having a hard time on the street, he was picking up the dog and in the same second, he was going direct to a vet to try to make it survive or to make it better,” Suárez says. “Sometimes the dogs didn’t make it because they were too bad after an accident, or sometimes they did make it.”

By and large, Alejandro Suárez would work to find each animal a new home with the help of family members and friends. Daniel says his father continued to do this despite the fact that he didn’t have a lot of money. Suárez has a vivid memory, for example, from when he was around age 12, of his father not having enough to cover a vet bill and going to his own father, to whom he successfully pleaded a case for the money to help an injured dog.

And in addition to the various dogs that cycled through their home over the years, the family permanently kept a few — including a couple of collies and a Labrador named Guero, who Daniel rescued himself and had with him for more than 10 years.

Things haven’t changed much with Alejandro.

Today, at the restoration shop the father and son own together in Monterrey, Daniel says you’ll find “probably 10 dogs, and every single one of them is a rescue from the street.” It’s become like a sanctuary, and something of a magnet; he says other dogs will periodically show up and make themselves at home simply based on seeing the dogs on the property being treated well and taken care of.

(Stray dogs are indeed everywhere in Mexico, in case you didn’t know. According to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography, 70% of the country’s estimated 18 million dogs live on the street.)

That desire to rescue stray dogs has rubbed off on the youngest of his two sisters.

Karen Suárez, 18, basically does what her dad used to do, although the Internet — and better connections as a result of being the sister of a national celebrity — have enabled her to partner with various organizations in Mexico to help find them new homes.

But it took Daniel a while to get in on the act himself.

OBSESSED WITH 4 POUNDS OF FUR

Daniel Suárez did rescue a cat when he was a young man, maybe seven years ago. He says the animal wasn’t doing so great when he found it in a box on the street, but that he was able to nurse it back to health.

When his travel schedule got busier as he moved up the racing ranks, though, he had to find it a new home.

After that, he didn’t live with another pet until he moved in with Julia Piquet, his girlfriend, and her little dog Emma.

That’s right — technically, Emma is her dog. Piquet bought Emma as a newborn puppy from a chihuahua breeder in 2014, when she was living in Miami and working on one of her graduate degrees at the University of Miami. The idea was to get a small dog, she says, so “I could take her to classes and I could travel and take her with me and so it would be just easier overall,” and she wound up with just about the smallest.

Emma, full-grown, weighs a few feathers under 4 pounds.

And it’s clear Suárez has a thing for this tiny dog. In fact, when you suggest to Piquet that he might be a little obsessed, she is quick to agree.

She mentions how much joy Emma seems to bring to him, specifically pointing to an interview he did while clutching the pup in his arms under an umbrella during a downpour at the Coke Zero Sugar 400 in July 2019 at Daytona International Speedway in Florida.

“Emma’s drenched,” Piquet recalls, “and the interview is hilarious because the interviewer’s like, ‘So tell me more about your dog.’ And he says, ‘Well, she’s Mexican…’ Then Daniel in the end says, ‘OK, she’s had enough with this interview. She just wants to go.’ And everyone just cracks up. It’s just so funny.”

Suárez also helped score Emma some additional fame last March, when — after he was disqualified for trying to wreck driver Ty Dillon during a virtual iRacing event — he took to social media and jokingly blamed her for jumping onto his lap and causing him to lose control.

“She did that a couple time that she would jump here on my lap when I was racing, but it wasn’t her fault, even though I blame (it) on her,” he says, chuckling.

You can hear it in his voice when he’s talking about her, or see it in his face when he’s playing fetch with her, or feel it when you look at the loving and playful ways in which he incorporates him into his posts, which almost certainly must be — as they are for most people — a reflection of what he interprets to be the best parts of his life.

All that said, make no mistake: Although Emma loves her some Suárez, “she is very, very attached to me,” Piquet says. “She freaks out when I’m not around.”

Eventually, they both say, they’d like to get another dog. Possibly a bigger one, like the Lab he used to love. But first.

CHUGGING COCA-COLAS FOR CHARITY

Daniel Suárez decided last year that it was finally time for him to go above and beyond to help animals in need, like his father and sister before him.

So he took advantage of a unique opportunity:

Suárez is a part of the Coca-Cola Racing Family of drivers, along with Joey Logano, Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman. Essentially, that means he has a sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola.

Daniel Suárez sporting the Coca-Cola name and colors at Charlotte Motor Speedway in an Observer file photo from May 2019. Jeff Siner TNS

As part of that deal, he’s able to participate in the Coca-Cola “Chug for Charity” program, in which those drivers are able to “compete” with each other at racetracks both in their cars and by being seen drinking Coca-Cola. Seasons are divided up into segments, and the driver with the most “Chug” points at the end of each segment earns money that will be used to make a donation in the driver’s name to the charity of his choosing. Donations are distributed at the end of the year.

In previous years, Suárez had directed the money to a different organization. But when Coca-Cola reached out during the first half of 2020 to Piquet — who handles certain aspects of Suárez’s racing business — and asked whether he was planning on supporting the same charity as usual, she says she brought up the idea of making a change.

“I spoke to Daniel about it and I said, ‘You know, you love animals so much what do you think if we donated this money to a shelter or something animal-related?’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea. Let’s look into it.’”

When they did, they found out about the Humane Society of Charlotte, and its plans to build a state-of-the-art Animal Resource Center, and the fact that its campaign was still shy of the $15 million needed to make the new facility a reality.

It seemed like the perfect way to honor his family’s legacy. And it led to an unexpected addition to their household.

THEIR NEW DARLING: NICKY

On Jan. 6, Suárez and Piquet walked into the Humane Society’s existing shelter near Tryon Street and Remount Road to meet with representatives from the nonprofit that received the $30,000 check from Coca-Cola on his behalf. When they walked out, they had a new cat.

“When we went to the shelter that day,” Piquet says, “we didn’t go with the intention of adopting. Both of us weren’t against it either, but it was just, ‘Let’s play it by ear and see what we see.’ Well, Nicky was all over Daniel when we went to the cat area and that’s it. We decided to adopt her.”

She was actually originally Charcoal, but they renamed her Nicky. (If you ask them to explain the choice, by the way, they’ll both snicker a little. That’s because it’s an inside joke, and you wouldn’t get it.)

Daniel Suárez and Julia Piquet with Nicky at the Humane Society earlier this month. COURTESY OF DANIEL SUÁREZ

And whereas Emma is partial to Piquet, Nicky definitely prefers Suárez.

“Don’t ask me why,” Piquet says, laughing. “I’m the one who feeds her. I scoop her poop. I don’t know what it is. But she is just so in love with Daniel.”

Nicky is a little larger and a little heavier than Emma, which makes them a bit of an odd couple; so far, though, they’re getting along great.

Emma has long traveled with Piquet and Suárez pretty much everywhere they go, and they’re cautiously optimistic that Nicky will be able to join them on the road and at the tracks in the future, too. In fact — as those who follow Suárez on Instagram may have noticed — they’re trying to teach her to walk on a leash, just to give them another option besides a carrier.

“That was Julia’s idea,” Suárez says. “I didn’t know that you can have cats on a leash until Julia put that idea on my head. But I think Nicky’s getting a little bit better at it. It’s not as easy as a dog, that’s for sure. But we’ll see. We’ll see how progress we can make. If Nicky can get better, probably we try. And if she can’t, well, probably she will have to stay home. But we will figure it out.”

Another thing he hopes to eventually figure out is how to accommodate another dog.

“I really hope that one day when I have a bigger piece of land,” he says, “I can have a lab because it reminds me a lot of my young days.”

He doesn’t think he’ll ever have 10 dogs roaming around his property, like his dad. But he does believe, certainly, that he’d like to continue to help as many animals as he can by doing well (and drinking Cokes) at the track.

“At the end of the day, if it wasn’t for racing, I wouldn’t be talking to you about animals right now,” Suárez says. “So we have to continue to do what we love to do — that is, race. Hopefully we can get some trophies this year and go out, have some fun.

“Because if I get some trophies,” he says, smiling, “those $30,000 I donate to the Humane Society could be more this year.”

COURTESY OF DANIEL SUÁREZ

Source: charlotteobserver

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