She loves country music, country fried chicken, and her hero: her mama.

By Rebecca Angel Baer
May 10, 2019
Johnathan Huff

On the morning of any given race day, pit road will be a buzz with excited fans snapping photos of their favorite drivers, frantic reporters hunting for that week's big story, and hustling crew members running back and forth, making last minute preparations ahead of the green flag. Large men will haul gas cans in a swift manner, lug nuts will fly from the guns of tire changers, and crew chiefs will climb to their perch atop pit boxes to crunch the numbers one more time.

For a very long time, the over the wall crew for NASCAR teams all looked fairly similar. Big, burly, men have traditionally held these jobs. Races are fast, dangerous, and pit work is grueling. It has long been a man's world. But things are changing.

Now, one of the faces you'll see as you walk down the grid is that of Breanna O'Leary. Just over five feet tall, hair in two long braids that fall down her shoulders, and there may even be a flash of bright, neon yellow nail polish. But don't let her size or gender fool you. O'Leary has always been an elite athlete, and this is her latest athletic adventure.

"I got into NASCAR through the NASCAR drive for diversity initiative. The idea is to recruit former college athletes and train them into pit crew members," O'Leary told Southern Living at a recent race at Talladega Speedway. When NASCAR came to her school, Alcorn State University, the Amarillo, Texas native was a strength and conditioning graduate assistant working on her master's degree and had already concluded a successful collegiate softball career. She was looking for her next challenge.

"At that point I was like, what is next in my life? I was finishing up my degree, so it was kind of time for the next step. So, it just kind of came at the right time and it was another opportunity to be competitive in something else and learn something new," O'Leary said of NASCAR's visit to her school. With encouragement from her softball coach, she participated in their physical trials and was one of 20 people chosen to head to Charlotte. And upon her arrival and another competition, she was one of ten chosen by NASCAR to train and become pit crew members for all three of the most competitive national levels of stock car racing. O'Leary admitted that at the time, she'd never watched a race. She knew nothing of the sport, but she was jumping in—all in.

That was three years ago and not only has she become a fan of racing; she's thriving in the industry. Now serving on pit crews in both the Xfinity Series and the top tier, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, where she pits for the No. 52 car of Rick Ware Racing. But pursuing a career in racing is not an easy road. O'Leary currently has a full-time day job that she must balance with rigorous workouts, pit training, and of course, weekends on the road for roughly 36 weeks a year. That doesn't leave much time for her to return to her beloved hometown of Amarillo, but she makes the long drive as often as she can. "I love Amarillo. It's home and it will always be home."

O'Leary is a true daughter of Texas. She loves country music and while she is a professional athlete now, rest assured she makes some exceptions in her diet for her favorite Southern dishes.

"I love country fried chicken with white gravy on top and then I dip it in mashed potatoes." She also plans her drives back to Texas around a very important pit stop. "There's one gas station between Tyler Texas and Dallas—best BBQ ever. I don't even know what it's called but I stop there every time on my way home," she said with a grin and admitted she just knows it by sight.

WATCH: Mama's Fried Chicken

Although she does miss home and her family, she has found her place among the traveling circus that is NASCAR. O'Leary has a whole new path and career in a place she would have least expected it, and that's exactly what she thinks is so great about the program that got her here.

"I think just the drive for diversity initiative is creating opportunities for people who would have maybe never imagined, would have never seen their face in NASCAR."

She recognizes that this changing face of the people in the sport also fosters new faces watching the sport—including her own family.

"We didn't ever watch NASCAR. Now I have everybody watching NASCAR. My friends, my parents, my aunts, my uncles, like everybody is cheering me on. So, we get to kind of share this sport and learn this sport together."

The Drive for Diversity program is changing things and with that, comes responsibility. O'Leary recognizes that as one of the first women to serve on an over the wall pit crew means that young girls and boys are watching what she's doing.

"When I got into this, I would have never imagined of that. I wasn't thinking of that… {it was} just something for me to go do. But now that I see that impact, I think that's definitely the most rewarding part of everything. I have dads coming and telling me they show their little girls this stuff and they say ‘wow girls can do that too? I wanna do that.' So, it makes me wanna work harder and be a positive role model."

She has taken on that role well, but who does she look up to? Who is O'Leary's hero?

Breanna O'Leary

"My mom. I know that's cliché as well, but I've seen her give up so much. She kind of raised me and brother and sister on her own for a while. So, I've seen her just give up so much so that we could get what we needed to get where we wanted to go. She's just been so selfless my whole entire life and I literally would not be here without that support from her."