'The Bullet' conquers the speedway: Alhambra teen races for spot on NASCAR team

Like many young boys, Jairo Avila loved cars and racing. As a child, Avila sat in front of the television in his Alhambra home, watching NASCAR drivers race at high speeds. Even at five, Avila knew he wanted to conquer the speedways.

Now Avila, 18, is sitting behind the wheel. The San Gabriel High School graduate competed in October for a spot on the Rev Racing team, participating in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Combine held at Langley Speedway in Hampton, Va. Qualifiers will be notified in early 2014, and meanwhile the teen is gearing up for his next race on Jan. 11 in Las Vegas.

Avila (no. 56) races in a go-kart.

Alhambra Source sat down with Avila to talk about his love for auto racing, his plans for the future, and growing up in Alhambra.How did you go from watching NASCAR on television to racing on the track?

I watched a lot of NASCAR growing up, and my parents saw that and saw potential in me. I started riding go-karts with my dad, and my mom would come out to support me. We started with go-karts and moved up.

No one else in my family races, so I’m the odd one. But my dad has always been a marathon runner, so I think that’s where I got my interest in sports.

What do you like most about racing?

Once you get in the car, everything around you just becomes quiet and you focus on doing what you’re doing. It’s just you going about 150 mph on the track. It’s a good feeling. But it’s not easy. It takes a lot of preparation, talent, and motivation.

I also like that it’s a team sport. If the driver is not communicating with his team, the team can’t help the driver. Both sides have to come together in order for it to work.

Jairo Avila is known as "The Bullet."

You were born and raised in Alhambra. Did growing up in Alhambra have any influence on your love for NASCAR?

The city didn’t have any influence on me racing; it was just a personal interest. But I like it here. There’s always something to do. I like to go to Main Street or Valley Boulevard and try out different types of food.

What has been your biggest obstacle in the sport?

Money. It’s not a cheap sport. My parents, who immigrated to Alhambra from Colombia, have struggled a lot. Racing is not really a sport for the lower to middle class, and it’s definitely not a popular sport within the Hispanic community. But we’re trying to achieve the American Dream of doing what I love to do.

Injuries have also been an obstacle. I got in an accident three years ago and broke my leg. I had eight screws and 16 stitches and couldn’t walk for almost a year. I came back the next season and had a concussion, so I was out for that season as well. I had nightmares for a while after the accidents, but I came back this year and won a championship. I’m definitely glad I came back.Why did you get involved with NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity?

Drive for Diversity tries to bring different ethnicities into the sport: African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, even drivers from other countries. Girls can also apply. I thought it’d be a good opportunity for me.

They basically try to help you head start your career. There are some former participants that are now professional drivers. One of them is Kyle Larson, who is Japanese American. He did this program and is now up on the NASCAR ranks. Another one is Darrell Wallace Jr., he’s African American and from California.

You were one of 28 young drivers who competed for a spot on the Rev Racing team in October. What was it like racing in the Drive for Diversity Combine?

It was pretty cool. I met a lot of drivers from all over the country: California, Florida, Indiana, even Mexico. It was a tough competition, but I did pretty well. I also won the Legends Pro championship this year in my class, so everything is looking good for me. We’ll see about next year.

What are your plans for 2014 and the future?

The ultimate goal is to get into NASCAR. I plan to have my own foundation dedicated to helping kids with disabilities and plan to eventually go back to school for mechanical engineering. I want to keep competing, learning, working hard, and doing what needs to be done to make my way there.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview has been edited and condensed.

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