ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There was a time when Topper Drawdy thought his stepson, Aric Almirola, could be here. Almirola played baseball growing up in Tampa, holding a dream common for young boys: One day stepping onto a mound and pitching at the game’s highest level, under its brightest lights.
Almirola played shortstop and pitched early in his introduction to baseball. But he also had another love: Racing. He began driving go-karts at age 8. Soon, local and state titles on the track followed.
Eventually, just before he attended Hillsborough High School, Almirola made a choice: Driving gave him an adrenaline rush to remember, a feeling he wanted to recreate time and time again.
That would be his lifestyle. RPMs over K’s.
“I lived baseball my whole life,” Drawdy said. “I thought that was the route he was going. Then all of the sudden, he gets pretty good at two different sports. … Right now, just seeing him where he’s at, it’s a good feeling.”
Almirola, driver of the No. 43 car who’s in 16th place in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup standings, threw out the first pitch Tuesday at Tropicana Field before a game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays. He was present to promote the Coke Zero 400, scheduled for July 6 at Daytona International Speedway. But the appearance also gave him a chance to relive his early baseball affection.
“When it was time to go to high school, I had to make a decision,” said Almirola, who has four top-10 finishes this season. “That’s really a crucial point in somebody’s career on whether you’re going to be serious about it or you’re going to do it as a hobby. I made a decision on going to race. I thought racing was my first love. … The really cool thing is I made it in racing. I’m one of 43 at the cup level. It’s a true testament to my family and all the people who have supported me along the way.”
Almirola, 29, had influential examples to help him make his choice. His maternal grandfather, Sam Rodriguez, was a former sprint car driver. His older stepbrother, Ben Drawdy, played for Hillsborough High from 1993 to 1997 and earned a baseball scholarship to South Florida, where Drawdy played primarily second base from 1998 to 2001. Drawdy also formed a close friendship with utility player and Tampa native Jason Romano, who appeared in parts of four seasons in the majors.
With those ties, Almirola understood the commitment needed to make baseball his main focus. His decision: He loved racing, a passion instilled by his grandfather, too much to trade driving for the diamond.
“I knew that was going to take a lot more commitment than I was willing to dedicate just because I loved racing so much,” Almirola said. “At that point, I knew I had to make a choice. … I knew I wasn’t going to play baseball unless I really dedicated my life to it. I wasn’t willing to do that. I enjoyed racing too much.”
Racing has led Almirola far. He attended the University of Central Florida briefly to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering before leaving to start his racing career. In 2003, he became an original member of the Joe Gibbs Racing/Reggie White Driver Diversity Program. Almirola, who’s of Cuban descent, started his NASCAR career in 2004, when he piloted late models in North Carolina.
From there, his career continued on a steady arc: His first Truck Series start was in 2005, his first Nationwide Series race in 2006, his first Cup Series race in 2007.
In 2011, he made a career-high 34 Nationwide Series starts and closed with 18 top-10 and seven top-5 finishes. Last year, he had four top-10 Sprint Cup Series results with one top-5 finish on his way to closing in 20th place.
“I’m proud of him,” Ben Drawdy said. “I can’t believe where he’s at. I tell him all the time that you’ve got to cheer each day and go 100 percent. Be at your best every day, because there are a lot of guys that want his position.”
When it came time for his moment Tuesday, Almirola stepped back on the mound in a blue No. 43 Rays jersey and threw to outfielder Matt Joyce. He dropped his right arm back and delivered the ball with comfort, the motion familiar.
Long ago, baseball was Almirola’s love. Racing, though, won his heart.