NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Fla. – Fifteen years ago, NASCAR launched its Drive for Diversity combine program with the purpose of changing the faces of the American sport dominated by men. At 14 years old, Isabella Robusto is one of the youngest up-and-coming female drivers in NASCAR.
"I kind of have a target on my back because most guys out there don't want to be beat by me, so they try extra hard to get by me," the South Carolina native said.
Robusto is among this year's participants of the NASCAR'S Drive for Diversity program.
Jusan Hamilton, director of racing operations for NASCAR, said the organization wants the sport to be open to everyone, but there are barriers to entry when not everyone has the same opportunities.
What an awesome experience and great first day @ Daytona International Speedway for media & fitness evaluations. Tomorrow we’re on track. Can’t wait!! So thankful for this opportunity! Thank you @Max_Siegel @RevRacin @NASCARDiversity @HondaGenerators #NASCARD4D https://t.co/d09k8BN68b— Isabella Robusto (@IsabellaRobusto) October 23, 2019
"There's many different drivers of all different backgrounds racing across the country at different levels; not all of them have the same avenues to reach the top levels of the sports, so this program provides them a ladder system," Hamilton said.
It's also hard for girls and minorities to see racing as a career when they don't see people who look like them behind the wheel.
"It's diversifying the whole sport -- the driver development program -- obviously, drivers are the most visible part of our sport, so this is obviously at the pinnacle of that program, and bringing drivers in is very important to bring in new fans in as well," Hamilton said.
For Robusto, who's been in the driver's seat more than half of her life, being a girl in this sport hasn't made her feel any different when it's time to start her engine.
"Once I'm onto the track and I have my helmet on and we're in the cars, I just feel the same, like we're all just out there to win, that's our goal," Robusto said.
It's a sentiment the 14-year-old shares with fellow driver Brooke Storer, 21, of Land O' Lakes.
"I'm just another driver out on the racetrack and ready to win each and every week. So, we pretty much just work hard and never use the female side, even though it does (provide me a) good opportunity with the diversity program and stuff, but I look at myself as just as another driver," Storer said.
Every year, drivers from all around the world apply for the program. Ten finalists are handpicked by NASCAR to compete for spots to drive with the Rev Racing team and in different NASCAR competitions. This year, three girls, three African-American boys and four Hispanic boys from ages 14 to 22 were chosen.
"It feels great, you know to represent my town of South Florida and all my family, you know, my dad's originally from Cuba," Nicholás Sánchez, of Homestead, said. "I think it's very important to diversify the NASCAR field. It'll bring so many more sponsors and potential fans."
After Danica Patrick retired in 2018, no other female driver has entered the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competition -- the highest level of professional competition these young women hope to drive at one day.
“Every other race car driver’s dream is to go to the Cup series and just go through the ladder system, such as late models, K&N, ARCA, trucks, Xfinity and on to the Cup series,” Storer said.