Back in Israel, he already has. Day estimated that he received a text message “probably every 30 seconds” from someone in Israel wishing him well on Sunday.
Steve O’Donnell, Nascar’s executive vice president for racing operations and chief racing development officer, considers Day’s debut significant because Nascar wants to diversify its competitors and expand its audience.
“We want to represent everybody,” O’Donnell said. “Alon carries in a whole new fan base.”
Two weeks ago, at a race in Long Pond, Pa., Darrell Wallace Jr., known as Bubba, became the first black driver since Bill Lester in 2006 to compete in a top-series Nascar race. Wallace drove last week at Brooklyn, Mich., but will not be at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday. Daniel Suarez, 25, a rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing, is the first driver from Mexico to compete full time in the top series.
Only one auto racer is enshrined in the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, in Commack, N.Y. — Jon Denning, of Springfield, N.J., who quit at 21 in 2008 to further his education.
“I am really proud and happy that he’s representing Israel,” Avi Day said, with Alon acting as an interpreter, “but even more than that, the Jewish community.”
Alon Day took a long, circuitous route to the big time. He started at 10, borrowing go-karts to race on a track in his hometown, Ashdod, a port city about 25 miles south of Tel Aviv. For his bar mitzvah, his parents bought him a deluxe go-kart. But Day could not move on to higher-caliber racing without leaving home.
At 14, he began competing in Europe, aiming to become a Formula One driver. He drove briefly in China, winning the Asian Formula Renault Challenge at 17, then did three years of mandatory service in the Israeli military.
Day drove in North America for the first time in 2015, competing in the first six races of the Indy Lights season, the feeder series for Indy cars. His best finish was a sixth place, and he then migrated back to Europe for endurance sports-car racing. But he lost his sponsor, which meant he would also lose his ride for 2015.
“I was thinking about taking a year off until I found a new sponsor,” Day said.
But another option soon appeared. Nascar had taken over a stock car racing series in Europe in 2012 and was looking for talented young drivers there. Someone from Nascar reached out to Day, who tested his first stock car at a track in Italy and found that it suited him.
“People in Europe don’t really know a lot about Nascar,” he said, adding with a laugh, “I just thought it was a bunch of people turning left.”
The Nascar Whelen Euro Series includes races at six road courses and at just one oval, a half-mile track, Raceway Venray in the Netherlands, so Day got limited experience on the top series’ most common configuration. But Day enjoyed the simpler challenge of driving a stock car. In a high-tech sports car, he said, “the steering wheel looks like a Nintendo game.”
In 2016, he was asked to drive in two oval races in the Xfinity Series, Nascar’s second tier, and in two races in its truck series. In his first Xfinity Series race, at Mid-Ohio Sports-Car Course, he started 22nd in a 40-car field and finished 13th. Any top-25 finish, he said, would have seemed like a moral victory.
Day was one of 11 drivers chosen last year for the Nascar Next program, which promotes the sport’s brightest young stars. He returned to race stock cars in Europe, and on June 11, he won the American SpeedFest at Brands Hatch Circuit in England.
He went home to Israel right after the victory and was there five hours before his phone rang. BK Racing was calling.
Day went to California, preparing to make history. O’Donnell made no effort to play down the significance of Sunday’s race. “This is one of those things,” he said, “where you could look back 10 years from now and it will be even bigger.”
BK Racing is in 36th place in the owners’ standings, with no victories in 15 races, but Day hopes to do well enough in Sonoma’s 110-lap, 350-mile race to secure a ride at the other top-series road-course race — in Watkins Glen, N.Y., in August.
Auto racing is legal in Israel now, with off-road rallies, but opportunities for Day to train remain limited. So when he is at home, he spends three to four hours a day practicing on a computer simulator or a video game. He still is at the stage of his career where any seat time is valuable.
His father said watching Alon’s races had always made him nervous, but he understood that the biggest challenge of Sonoma had already been met.
“It doesn’t matter what he does Sunday,” Avi Day said. “It’s a big success starting here at the Cup level.”