During NASCAR race weekends, shows cars are common sites at gas stations, home improvement stores and fast-food restaurants. The displays provide fans opportunities to take close looks at the machines wheeled by their favorite drivers.
In some cases, they serve as inspiration.
For Vicente Salas, a 21-year-old from Temecula, California, a chance encounter with a show car at his local Home Depot as a child helped set him on his path in motorsports.
“Racing has absolutely always been my dream,” Salas said. “Really the day it came to me and I figured that out was we went to Home Depot. My dad would always take me with him to run his errands. Tony Stewart’s No. 20 Home Depot car was sitting outside. We asked the guy if I could sit in it, and he was like, ‘You know, we normally don’t do this, but sure, go ahead.’
“The moment I got to sit down in that car and the wheel was put on, I just knew that this is what I wanted to do.”
Salas was just 3 when he sat in that car, but the moment became a core memory and created the foundation for what has quickly become a budding career.
Motorsports is not something that has always been a part of Salas’ family heritage, which has roots in Mexico and Latin America. Salas is the third generation of family to be born in the United States after they immigrated to the country and settled in Southern California.
“My mom’s side is from Europe, but it’s my dad’s side that is from Mexico and Latin America,” Salas explained. “I’m the third full generation to be here in the U.S. They actually had a big ranch down in León, Mexico, and basically it got taken from them during the drug wars down there. It forced them to move up here. They made a life up here, and now we’ve all settled here.”
Salas is the first member of his family to race stock cars, but he’s not the first to be part of the motorsports community. His father Don spent a little more than a decade as a motorsports photographer and even did a bit of motocross racing. Both helped fuel his son’s passion for the sport.
Salas spent almost a decade of his childhood trying to convince his family to take his motorsports obsession seriously.
“It was kind of one of those things where some kids are like, ‘I want to be a football player or I want to be an astronaut,’” Salas said. “I think that’s kind of what they thought of me and how I wanted to drive. From the age of 3 or 4 all the way until I was 14 or 15, I would ask them constantly, ‘Can I go race? Can I get a go-kart? Can I get a bando? Can I get a Legend car?’
“I was just trying to find things to do that I could drive.”
When Salas was around 11, his father began taking him to local karting tracks in California, which helped scratch the racing itch. Eventually even that wasn’t enough, and Salas began begging his parents to let him race in a professional event.
As luck would have it, Salas’ best friend in high school ended up being the one to make the connection that would change the rest of his life.
“[He] met an incredible go-kart team,” Salas said. ‘He was like, ‘I’m going to go drive these go-karts at Auto Club Speedway.’ I was like whoa, that sounds really, really cool. So one day I went out there, and I got to test a shifter kart, and from there on it was kind of on.
“My parents, once they saw me on the race track on more of a competitive platform, they were like, ‘OK, now we understand. He really wants to do this.’”
Salas was 15 when he started racing shifter karts, much older than most start-up racers in the modern era. By his third season racing karts, he was competing nationally. His family quickly realized he needed to make the jump from karts to full-sized stock cars.
At nearly the same time, Salas began making inroads on the digital level by attempting to qualify for the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series. During the COVID-19 lockdown of 2020, Salas worked toward earning a spot in the series in 2021.
“That’s when I raced for Elliott Sadler. He helped me a ton,” Salas said about the 2020 iRacing season. “He was an awesome mentor. That was such a good time of learning.”
Salas successfully qualified for the eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing Series in 2021 and stunned his competitors early in the year by leading every lap and winning at Richmond Raceway as a rookie.
That win, Salas said, put him on the map as an iRacer and helped him secure opportunities to test and later race a Pro Late Model with the CARS Tour in 2022.
“That win at Richmond in 2021 I think is what really helped open the doors for the late model opportunities I had later that year and to race the next year,” Salas said. “My first race was pretty much from a shifter kart to a Pro Late Model with the CARS Tour in 2022.”
Salas, driving for noted team owner Donnie Wilson, made his Pro Late Model debut at Hickory Motor Speedway on March 26, 2022 with the CARS Tour. He qualified third and finished fourth that day in a field that included the two drivers that battled for the ARCA Menards Series East championship this year, William Sawalich and Luke Fenhaus.
In fact, Sawalich and Fenhaus were two of the three drivers who beat Salas that day. The other was Caden Kvapil, son of 2003 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Travis Kvapil.
After getting his first taste of racing a stock car, Salas knew he wanted more. This season he was able to secure enough funding to race a Late Model Stock Car regularly for team owner Justin Carroll at Hickory Motor Speedway, where he earned his first victory with a daring, last-lap pass on March 25.
He also continued to compete in the eNASCAR series for Williams eSports.
“That victory meant a lot, because it was another one of those solidifying moments for not just me and the people around us, but especially for my family,” Salas said. “This is all that I’ve wanted to do. We worked very, very hard to make the Late Model opportunity happen and get me out here. It wasn’t just me by any means.
“That [win] honestly was just a dream come true.”
Salas’ goal is to race in the NASCAR Cup Series, and he’s already in the process of planning for what he is hoping will be a busy 2024 season.
While he isn’t yet sure what his schedule will look like, Salas is hopeful he’ll not only be able to take the next step in his racing career, but also continue to set an example for others.
“I’ve had a lot of kids come up to me and ask me how does this happen or how to do this,” Salas said. “It was cool to show them absolutely anything is possible regardless of who you are or where you come from or what your background is.
“If you work hard, you’re dedicated and you know what you want, you can make it happen.”