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Toni Breidinger talks making history as NASCAR's first Arab American female driver

Toni Breidinger, 21, recently made history by becoming the first female Arab American driver to compete in a NASCAR national series event. She spoke to Kathy Park for TODAY’s Women Are Essential series.
/ Source: TODAY

Toni Breidinger made history this year as the first Arab American female driver to take part in any NASCAR series, and following her premiere race at Daytona International Speedway in February, there’s no stopping her.

After all, at just 21 years old, she just achieved a major goal on the track, and she hopes to inspire other women to do the same.

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“I’ve been dreaming to race at Daytona ever since I was a kid,” Breidinger shared in an interview that aired on TODAY Monday. “I went to the race (last year), and I watched it and was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to race here next year. Like, I’m going to do it.'”

She remained true to her word, which likely came as no surprise to her parents, both of whom serve as her motivation on the track.

“My mom, she had a little bit of a rough childhood growing up, being born in Lebanon and being a war refugee,” Breidinger told NBC's Kathy Park. “She really chased her dreams, came to America and made her own path, which was really inspiring to me. And same with my dad.”

As for her father, he inadvertently fueled her need for speed at a very young age.

“When I was 9, my dad just took me to the go-kart track for fun at Sonoma Raceway, and I just fell in love with it,” she recalled.

That was all it took to launch an unstoppable ambition. Since then, she hasn’t let anything hold her back — least of all being a woman in a male-dominated sport.

“As soon as the helmet comes on, I’m a driver, just like everybody else,” she insisted. “Gender doesn’t matter.”

She stressed a similar message when she spoke to Ellen DeGeneres shortly after her big race at the iconic speedway.

“Honestly, it’s something that I never think about,” she said of the distinction of being a woman on the track. “There’s never been a point in time where I’m just standing there like, ‘Wow, I’m the only girl here.’ The car doesn’t know gender. The track doesn’t know gender. Gender is so irrelevant.”

During her appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” Breidinger, who’d already made the record books for being a 19-time United States Auto Club (USAC) race champion, opened up about her experience at Daytona.

“My biggest goal for the race was to finish the race,” she said of the competition that saw her reach her highest speeds ever, topping out between 180 and 185 miles per hour. “Daytona is notorious for wrecks, so I just wanted to get the race finished. I wanted to get it under my belt, just to get that big-track experience. So I was happy that I finished.”

She’d hoped to finish among the top 20 drivers, so her 18th place spot ticked that box, too.

Toni Breidinger smiles as she talks with her crew before the start of the practice session for the ARCA Racing Series PapaNicholas Coffee 150 on June 22, 2018, at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois.Michael Allio / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It proved to be another “first” for her personally and for any Arab American woman in NASCAR.

“It’s really cool to be the first,” Breidinger said of her accomplishments so far. “Everybody loves to be the first. But I also don’t want to be the last. I really want to pave the way for others. I’ve received so much amazing support and so many messages. I was really surprised by a lot of people just saying that I inspire them, which is really amazing."

And she explained that it all comes full circle for her “because it inspires me to read those messages.”

With all that inspiration propelling her, she’ll keep striving and driving for excellence. Unless she’s not on the track at all.

“The only thing I’m not good at is directions,” Breidinger told DeGeneres of her off-course drive time. “Everybody always makes fun of me. Nobody ever lets me drive. Whenever we’re going places, I’m not allowed to drive, because I always get lost.”