Driven by Passion, NASCAR Racer Presents Another Face of Pakistan
By Sameer Assanie
On a bright, cloudless fall morning at the Kansas Motor Speedway, Nur Ali buttoned up, ready to make his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut. Tall and gaunt, with his medium length black hair covered by his white racing helmet, Ali climbed into the No. 41 Chevy for Rick Ware Racing, starting in row 21. As the green flag waved, Ali zoomed forward — and made racing history.
No Asian-American had driven in 63 years of NASCAR until that moment on Oct. 20, 2012.
Ali, 40, is the only Pakistani-born professional racecare driver in the United States. Over the past 17 years, he has raced in more than a dozen states, competed in at least eight different racing series, driven four styles of racecares and won four championships.
Born in Karachi and raised in Germany, Ali developed an early love for racing — something his father Barkat Ali couldn’t help noticing.
“When we were living in Germany, he was always watching Formula One,” said Barkat Ali, a 64-year-old convenience store owner in Euless. “He used to watch very curiously. He always used to try to get the model F1 cars and play with them. That’s where he got the hype, the touch.”
Nur Ali’s desire to race followed him across the Atlantic when his family moved to a Dallas suburb in 1983. Barkat initially did not think professional racecar driving would be an ideal career for Nur, but agreed to let him pursue his passion after he finished college.
In May 1998, the family traveled to American University for Nur’s commencement. After receiving a diploma in political science with his full name, Nur Barkat Ali, printed on it, Nur ran to his father and hugged him.
“Here’s your honorary degree,” Nur said to Barkat. “It has your name on it. You put it on the wall. Now, let’s go racing.”
And that’s what he did.
Nur spent $5,000 to put himself through the Skip Barber racing school in Georgia. After racing in Florida and Georgia with limited success, he wanted to race closer to Dallas. So he joined Texas Legends Racing, a NASCAR-style competition, and the Star Mazda Series, an F1-style competition, taking place in neighboring states.
Eventually he formed his own racing team, Ali Motorsports, that included his college roommate-turned-mechanic Jim Meyers. With financial and moral support from his father, Ali bought two cars, spending more than $50,000.
Ali and Meyers showed up at the races in a burgundy minivan that belonged to Meyers’ mother, towing an uncovered trailer with Ali’s racecar in the back.
“Me and my buddy Jim, we were winging it on our own,” Ali said. “We had no clue what the hell we were doing. We had no budget. We were the most underfunded racing team. I’m over here, this Pakistani kid, among white people, not knowing what I was doing, scratching my head. We had passion but not the business sense.”
Realizing he needed sponsors, Ali used his father’s contacts to land a one-year sponsorship with Budweiser in 2000. It lasted 13 years.
Ali won his first two championships in the Star Mazda Series in 2001 and 2002, establishing himself as the face of Pakistani motorsports.
“A lot of people have a preconceived notion of what people from Pakistan and that part of the world are like and Nur shattered that,” said Craig Bailey, head of public relations for Ali Motorsports. “He could reach a demographic that NASCAR or any other racing couldn’t penetrate.”
Omar Mohammed, president of Texas Pakistani Students Association, agrees with Bailey. ” ‘Pakistani’ and ‘athlete’ are two words that people not from the (Indian) subcontinent hardly hear together in the same breath,” he said. “However, by daring to follow his passion Ali isn’t just fulfilling his own dream, he’s also working to show that there is much more to Pakistan.”
Ali’s connection with Pakistan deepened in 2004, when Team Pakistan of the A1 Grand Prix, the World Cup of motorsports, asked Ali to be its driver. He would now be the official face of Pakistani motorsports.
“That was too good to be true,” his father said. “We never dreamed that.”
The Ali family — Barkat, his wife Farida, Nur and his brother Amar — traveled to Lahore, where Nur Ali was unveiled as Pakistan’s driver in front of thousands of guests at the historic Lahore Fort. Then Pakistani President Pervez Musharaf attended and called Ali “the pioneer of motor racing in Pakistan.”
“It was one of the highlights of my life,” Ali said. “I went from a no-namer from Euless, Texas, to a household name in Pakistan overnight.”
Until the end of the 2006 season, Ali traveled the world, racing in 12 countries on five continents. When his tenure with Team Pakistan ended, he turned his sights on the grandest domestic circuit: NASCAR.
For six years, Ali worked his way up the circuit—from the NASCAR Jr. series to the Nationwide Series, the second highest level of stock car racing in the country. He made history on Oct. 20, 2012 at the Kansas Lottery 300.
“I wasn’t thinking about it until after the race,” Ali said. “I was so focused on the race, I didn’t realize that we were making history.”
Ali began in the 41st position. With the race approaching the hour mark, he had moved up to 28th on lap 68, his best position of the day. Moments later, the caution flag went up.
Ali didn’t make it to the checkered flag. He was involved in a single-car crash on lap 68, and finished 33rd.
Ali was scheduled to start the following race at Texas Motor Speedway but was not cleared to do so. NASCAR wanted Ali to gain more experience on shorter tracks before letting him race again.
“I had my ups and downs but I did not consider that as the last race for me,” Ali said. “I didn’t give up on my passion even though it was a step backwards. I just persevered.”
Ali went back to racing at the local level, competing in and winning the Lone Star Legends series in 2014. Next, he plans to compete in the Red Bull Global Rally Cross series, where he will race on asphalt and dirt, drive and jump his car, things he has never done before.
“It’s not going to be easy, but nothing is easy in life,” Ali said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge, but I know I can overcome the challenge… It’s the ones that bounce back from adversity the strongest that make it.”