Alon Day sitting next to his car during qualifying for the NASCAR Xfinity Series’ 4th Annual Mid-Ohio Challenge in Lexington on Aug. 12, 2016. Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images

NASCAR’s first Israeli driver is an unlikely success story


Israeli race car driver Alon Day’s rise to the highest ranks of NASCAR has been an unexpected one for a variety of reasons.

Here’s one of them: The 25-year-old has done the bulk of his training on computer-screen simulators. That’s because Israel didn’t have a motor sport race track until this year.

On Sunday, he will become the first Israeli to compete in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series — the sport’s highest league of competition — when he races the No. 23 car for the BK Racing team at the Sonoma Raceway in Southern California.

And here’s another anomaly: While NASCAR has made efforts to diversify its pool of athletes, the sport’s fans and drivers remain mostly white and Christian — at times to a controversial extent.

Day, by contrast, wears his Israeli and Jewish identities proudly. His car for Sunday’s race will sport a few Israeli flag stickers, and he’ll also have Stars of David on the left arm of his racing suit and on his belt. He has previously driven a car featuring an Anti-Defamation League sticker (even if the ADL was not an official sponsor of the vehicle).

It’s pretty remarkable, given that it is unknown if a Jewish driver has ever made it to the top tier of the racing circuit.

Day, speaking to JTA from a taxi following his flight to California on Thursday, is well aware of the unlikeliness of his story — one that involves Israeli go-karts, plenty of computer games and a Florida attorney eager to get a Jewish driver into the NASCAR mainstream.

“I’m going to make history for myself and for my country, Israel,” the Tel Aviv resident said.

Day grew up in Ashdod, where he learned about NASCAR from playing video games such as Grand Prix Legends. Motor sports have never been popular in Israel, in part because an old British Mandate law (dating to the days when the British ruled Palestine) that banned any cars that could be used for more than commuting was only recently scrapped.

In his early teens, Day became champion of the country’s only semi-professional motor sport league: go-karting. His father, realizing his son’s potential, sent him to compete in Europe. He began racing in Formula Three and was on a trajectory toward Formula One, among the top racing leagues in the world.

But a couple of years ago, Day decided to switch gears (pun intended). He shifted from driving the Formula One open cockpit style of car to stock cars, the ordinary cars that have been modified to be raced in NASCAR.

It was mostly a business decision — the world of motor racing is driven by sponsorships. Since Israel’s business ties with the U.S. are much stronger than those with Europe, Day recognized he had a greater likelihood of being sponsored to drive for NASCAR.

“It’s definitely much easier for me to get sponsorship here in the states than in Europe,” he said.

Based on his strong start in Europe and the U.S.  — he raced a full season in a sub-league of the Indy 500, the U.S. version of Formula One — Day was selected early last year to be a part of the 2016-17 NASCAR Next program, which highlights young, up-and-coming racers.

That happened to be right around the time that Phil Robertson, the controversial member of the “Duck Dynasty” clan, delivered an eyebrow-raising speech before a NASCAR race in Forth 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.”

Robertson’s pre-race prayer didn’t sit well with David Levin, a Jewish lawyer from Florida and longtime NASCAR fan. Levin had just waded into the world of NASCAR sponsoring, and the reality star’s rhetoric gave him extra motivation to do something he had long wished for: He would find and help promote a Jewish driver into NASCAR’s top circuit.

Day called it perfect timing.

“It’s just kind of karma,” he said.

Since then, Levin has raised significant sums of money to support Day — he’s even enlisted a former NFL player as a backer. Drivers need sponsors to cover the costs of fuel, a pit crew and its tools, as well as salaries for the driver and his or her manager. In return, sponsors get stickers of their brand logo on their drivers’ car. Over the course of a full season, one sticker can cost over $1 million.

“I don’t really know how he does it, he makes magic,” Day said. “And somehow I’m driving in the car.”

Depending on the results of the Sonoma race — and if Levin can continue to work his “magic” — Day said his goal is to race in the next Cup Series race at Watkins Glen in western New York in August.

Meanwhile, Day is gaining recognition in Israel, where he was named Athlete of the Year in 2016 by the Sports and Culture Ministry. He points to the newly opened race track in Arad and an article about him in Yediot Acharanot, one of Israel’s biggest newspapers, as signs that motor sports are on the rise in the Jewish state.

Day himself is contributing to car racing’s increased visibility in Israel. Alongside his fledgling celebrity, he opened a racing “gym” in Tel Aviv with an old go-karting buddy. The gym houses several driving simulators, which are basically higher-tech versions of arcade games. The building has turned into an all-ages school where Day teaches pupils about racing, as well as about difficult situations a driver encounters on normal roads.

When he’s not abroad racing, Day typically spends three to four hours a day practicing on the race track simulations.

“I’m 25 now, but I still use simulators like I’m 10 years old,” he said with a laugh.

Day says he celebrates Jewish holidays, recites the Kiddush blessing over the wine on Friday nights and is proud to talk about his service in the Israeli army. Although he is an anomaly in the white Christian world of NASCAR, he points out that many stock car racing fans — some of whom are evangelical Christians — are big supporters of Israel, which has helped make him feel comfortable in the United States.

“I think they like seeing someone without that Southern accent, does not have the American flag [on a car] … does not believes in Jesus,” he said. “I’ve gotten tons of media because I’m different.”

ADL slams Democrats invoking Holocaust analogies


The Anti-Defamation League decried three recent reported Nazi analogies used in political debate, all by Democrats.

“Earlier today, South Carolina State Democratic Chairman Dick Harpootlian reportedly evoked Eva Braun when discussing Gov. Nikki Haley's press briefing from a basement studio at the NASCAR Hall of Fame,” the ADL said in a statement Wednesday.

The NASCAR Hall of Fame is in Charlotte, N.C., where the Democrats are having their party convention. The Republican Party has set up an opposition publicity operation in the Hall of Fame. 

Harpootlian reportedly said, “She was down in the bunker a la Eva Braun.”

“This analogy to Eva Braun only serves to trivialize the Holocaust and is deeply offensive to Jews and other survivors, as well as those Americans who fought valiantly against the Nazis in World War II,” the ADL said in its statement.

The ADL noted that this week, the chairman of California Democrats compared Republicans to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, and a top Kansas Democrat reportedly did so as well.

“Politicians and their supporters and surrogates should stop invoking Hitler and trivializing the memory of the six million and millions of others who perished in the Holocaust,” the ADL said.

The ADL in the past also has singled out Republicans for using Holocaust and Nazi analogies. Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) repeatedly has likened Democrats to Goebbels, inviting ADL outrage on at least three occasions.

Israel flying high with NASCAR


There is not a long and storied history of Jews in motorsports. The cast of characters is limited and filled mostly with names like Jody and Tomas Scheckter, François Cevert and Peter Revson, all of which likely means little to the average American, and less to the average American Jew. Even Kenny “The King of Speed” Bernstein, a Motorsports Hall-of-Famer, isn’t well known outside racing circles. Perhaps the most iconic Jewish racer was Paul Newman, a man far better known for his acting and activism. And if you narrow the story’s scope to Israel, it becomes so short it could be a haiku: Chanoch Nissany /did not race in the Grand Prix /how good could he be?

So it might have come as some surprise if you happened to catch the trials for this year’s Daytona 500 and caught an odd sight on the track. There, among the cars emblazoned with the logos of corporations like Target, Burger King, GEICO, FedEx and Miller, was the No. 49 car, a bald eagle on its hood, clutching the flags of Israel and America in its talons, with the words “United We Stand” above its grille.

If your first instinct is to suspect that this development is AIPAC’s latest foray into public relations, or that a pro-Israel billionaire like Sheldon Adelson decided to drop a couple million on a car to bring his message to the masses, you’d be wrong. In fact, the No. 49 car was conceived in a partnership between Robinson-Blakeney Racing and America Israel Racing, and their background might surprise you.

Speaking on the phone from North Carolina, America Israel Racing (AIR) co-founder Rich Shirey wasn’t hesitant to say that there’s “not one Jewish person on our team.” Shirey was raised Baptist in a home where, he says, they were always taught to stand behind Israel. Shirey, who has no background in racing, says the idea for America-Israel Racing came out of a desire “to show the world, and Israel, that a majority of Americans do support Israel.”

After being inspired to do something in support of Israel, Shirey got in touch with his friend, AIR co-founder Mark MacCaull, a former NASCAR engineer, to try and make his idea a reality. In Shirey’s mind, there was no better way to raise awareness about Israel than through NASCAR racing, the sport he loves. “Fortunately enough, Jay Robinson of Robinson-Blakeney Racing was coming up out of the Nationwide Series,” NASCAR’s second division, “to the Cup Series, and we went and met with him and it just was a perfect fit,” Shirey said.

“Everybody we have on our team, from the air team to the driver, to the crew chief, to the team that actually owns the racing team … everybody is 100 percent on board with this,” Shirey said. Even driver J.J. Yeley, when told what would be on the hood of his car, was hugely supportive. “When J.J. found out what we were trying to do … he was ecstatic.”

With Robinson-Blakeney and Yeley on their team, Shirey and MacCaull knew there were still many hurdles ahead. “Everything we do, NASCAR has to approve of,” said Shirey. And while the sport’s governing body has been very supportive, there’s still the matter of funding a race car, which is no small feat.

“We’re not rock stars or movie stars or anything like that, we’re just ordinary people,” said Shirey. “We have enough money to run Daytona, and Phoenix, and there’s a good possibility we’ll be in Las Vegas, but we definitely need to get funding.”

While AIR has been collecting donations on its Web site, americaisraelracing.com, the real struggle is “to try and get some corporate sponsors on the car.” But despite having yet to find a big-name sponsor, Shirey remains hopeful. “In America right now, things are tight for everybody.”

More than anything, Shirey wants to get the message out that America and Israel need each other and that, at least in the world of NASCAR, Israel is a true friend to America. “We’re two countries that are a lot alike in everything we do. They’re our closest ally in an area of the world that’s not real friendly to the West. And we need Israel as much as Israel needs us.”