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Rising NASCAR star Hailie Deegan: ‘I put my helmet on the same way everyone else does’

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At 17, Hailie Deegan is far from a conventional teenager.

At an age where many of her peers are learning to drive or getting a driver’s license for the first time, Deegan not only has been driving race cars and off-road vehicles for nearly a decade. She also has become one of the rising young female stars in NASCAR racing:

  • In late September, she became the first woman to win a NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race (Meridian Speedway in Meridian, Idaho).
  • In so doing, she became only the second female race winner in NASCAR history, joining Shawna Robinson, who won three races in 1988 and ’89 in the now-defunct NASCAR Dash Series.
  • Deegan wrapped up the season by winning K&N Pro Series West rookie of the year, finishing fifth in the final standings.
  • Early last month, the Temecula, California, native was named to Forbes’ “Women In Sports to Watch in 2019.”

And now Deegan has her sights set on not only winning more races in 2019 but also to capture the K&N West championship. If she does, she’ll add another page to her NASCAR history book, becoming the first female champion in any NASCAR series.

“I’m not done, I still have so much more to accomplish,” Deegan told NBC Sports. “It’s like there’s a ladder, and this is the first step up the ladder.

“You don’t feel accomplished when you get that first step on the ladder. You feel accomplished when you’re on top of the ladder. I want to be on top, and I’m going to do everything in my ability to get there.”

A straight-A, home-schooled student who graduated high school at 16, Deegan begins her second full season in the K&N Series on Sunday at New Smyrna Speedway (to air on NBCSN on Feb. 13 at 6 pm ET), just a few miles from where she hopes to race one day: Daytona International Speedway.

Deegan drives for one of the most successful K&N teams, Bill McAnally Racing, with primary sponsorship from NAPA Auto Parts and Toyota.

“I don’t want to be cocky, but I want to win a championship and feel that with my team, I have the ability,” Deegan said.

When she and her team arrived last September to race at Meridian Speedway — a quarter-mile paved oval — she already had compiled two runner-up results and seven other top-10 finishes in her first 11 starts (she finished the K&N West season with 12 top 10s in 14 starts).

But she was hungry for that elusive first win.

“We just really had to find what worked for me, what crew guys worked well with me, and who didn’t,” Deegan said. “I think we figured that out halfway through the season, and from that point, we were running in the top three or top five almost every single race.”

Deegan and her team felt so confident about the Idaho race that they broke into song and dance beforehand to the driver’s favorite song, Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady”, to get pumped up.

It’s a habit she picked up from her motorcycle and off-road racer father Brian Deegan, who also listens to music to motivate himself before his own races. One of Hailie’s crew members brought a portable speaker to continue playing the song as the team paraded and pushed her car onto the starting grid.

Deegan started fourth and stayed in the top five the entire race. On the final lap, she applied a textbook bump and run to then-teammate Cole Rouse two turns from the finish line. She sailed past to capture the checkered flag and put her name in NASCAR’s history books.

The winning maneuver was not happenstance.

“We went into that race with aggressive intentions,” Brian Deegan said. “We knew it was a short track, flat, so we went to the go-kart track and practiced bump and runs. We must have practiced 1,000 of them.

“It’s a fair race move. You just have to perfect it so you don’t knock a guy out. We went into that race and planned to do that move. When it came down to the last lap, I was like, ‘Hailie, you know what to do. We can make friends later.’”

While Rouse was initially upset at being knocked out of the way, he soon cheered for such a big achievement.

Derek Kraus, one of Deegan’s fellow teammates at Bill McAnally Racing, is also 17 and entering his third year in K&N competition with BMR. He’s watched her develop.

“She shows a lot on the racetrack,” Kraus said. “She adapted to it really well and really fast, too. It takes other drivers a little longer than what it took her to get used to K&N cars. It’s way different from what people expect. It’s a heavier stock car. You definitely have to know what you’re doing. She’s worked her tail off to get where she is.”

Kraus, of Stratford, Wisconsin, admires Deegan not just for her ability on the track but also her demeanor off it.

“She always seems to be in a happy mood and is uplifting,” Kraus said. “She’s never down, no matter how bad the night is or what happens on the racetrack. I think I’ve only seen her mad just once, and that’s pretty good for a whole season. She’s a good teammate to have around because she’s always happy and laughing.”

Kraus noted that it doesn’t make a difference that Deegan is female. Once she straps into her car, she’s a racer first and foremost.

“Her being a girl or being my age, once you put that helmet on, everyone’s the same, everyone’s equal,” Kraus said. “No matter if you’re driving against a 15-year-old or a 40-year-old, you’ll never know the difference once you get that helmet on.”

Deegan got the racing bug from her father, one of the most successful freestyle motocross riders in the United States and the most decorated rider in X Games history.

“My dad has pretty much taught me, he’s built this thing with me, he trains with me, practices with me, goes to the gym with me, we battle each other at the go-kart track,” Deegan said. “We’re so competitive with each other, and I feel like we both make each other better because we’re so hard on each other, just trying to be the best we can.”

Brian and Marissa Deegan have three children who all have become racers. Hailie is the oldest, while 12-year-old brother Haiden is a multiple champion in motocross, and 8-year-old brother Hudson is competing in both motocross and karts.

But it’s Hailie that has been the biggest chip off the old block racing-wise so far.

“I tried to teach her all my tricks and everything it takes to win and the ability to learn on her own,” Brian Deegan said. “My goal is one day (she) will surpass me.

“Hailie rode dirt bikes when she was little, which I thought was a good foundation for her to start on. But when it comes to girls in motorsports, in my opinion, the reality is there’s a lot more opportunities on four wheels than two.

“So (racing cars) is something we worked towards. It’s not by accident. Ever since she was 8 years old, she’s been racing with me. About 2009, we got her into racing trucks and go-karts, dirt, off-road karts. Each year, she got better. Then she started winning races and started winning championships, and it started snowballing from there.”

By the time she was 12 years old, Hailie told her parents she was ready to go all-in as a race car driver.

“That’s when I thought this is going to be her path,” Brian Deegan said. “It really wasn’t just our decision, it was something she wanted to do, and that’s kind of where it started.

“We’re excited to conquer this sport as a family and win the fans over. Hailie is what you see is what you get. She’s not putting on a front. She’s giggly, fun, no bad bones in her body. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her say a bad word. We’re very fortunate.”

Deegan is serious about everything she does racing-wise. That includes how she revels in beating her father in regular go-kart races they compete in against each other – with a lot of good-natured trash talking between them.

“We go and have the gnarliest battles out there; we’ve actually totaled a couple karts,” she said with a giggle.

Brian Deegan also laughs about some of the on-track battles he’s had with his daughter.

“Usually, that’s where you start blaming the cars or tires, the kind of standard excuse by racers,” Brian Deegan said. “You can always find an excuse. We definitely talk crap to each other and give each other a hard time on who’s faster. That’s friendly competition, it’s what keeps you pushing to be better.

“Every day, we talk about racing. Every day, we talk about strategy. Why (and) how we’re going to win, who we’re going to beat and how are we going to do it. That’s a daily deal that we’ve done.”

It’s not every day that a lower-rung NASCAR race can be life-changing, but it certainly was in Hailie Deegan’s case. Not only did her victory in Idaho affirm that she could win a race, the national attention she’s received since might be a lot for a 17-year-old — but not her.

“At the beginning of last year, I was just completely lost,” she said. “I didn’t really know what I’m doing. I’m still learning. I didn’t know where my place is in the stock car world. I was just lost. I didn’t know the terms about the car, didn’t know what to change, and then about halfway through the season, it just clicked, and everything just fell into place.

“Ever since then, we started running up front every single race. Coming into this year, I feel a lot more confident in myself. I know I have the abilities. I know my place. I know what to do now. I know what to work on, and I know my strengths and weaknesses.

“As soon as last season ended, I was ready for it to start back up again. I’d say, ‘How many more months to go?’ I’ve literally been counting the days. I hate the offseason.”

In just a few days, she’ll be back in the driver’s seat at New Smyrna.

Much like what her teammate Kraus said, Deegan’s competitiveness rises to the surface in races. But outside her race car, she has not let the success get to her.

“There’s nothing I hate more than an over-cocky person,” she said. “I have friends that’ll be all cocky and then go out and get their butt whooped. They’re the worst.

“I don’t try to call stuff before it happens, because in the end, it’s not always going to happen. I’d rather be humble and wait for myself to succeed and then take it all in from there.”

While Deegan wants to win a championship, she remains grounded. Her maturity, savviness and philosophy belie her youth.

“My dad has kept me real good at just focusing on racing,” she said. “In the end, success comes with results, and you’ll get everything with results, so let’s just make it easy and get right to the point and get those results.”

Deegan achieved all her goals last season. For 2019, she hopes to earn at least three more K&N West wins and one in the K&N East Series (in which she will run select races), along with the West championship.

Where would she go from there?

“The best is yet to come,” Brian Deegan said of his daughter. “We’re just starting. We’re just getting in it. She has a legitimate chance of being the first girl to win a NASCAR championship, and that could happen this year.”

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Friday 5: How soon until the next female driver arrives in Cup?

Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
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Danica Patrick’s departure after the Daytona 500 (provided she secures a ride for that race) will leave NASCAR without a female driver in its top series.

It could be years before the next female driver arrives in Cup.

Only two of the 114 drivers who attempted to qualify for an Xfinity race last year were female — Angela Ruch ran four races and Jennifer Jo Cob ran one. Cobb was the only female driver among 103 who attempted to qualify for a Camping World Truck Series race last season.

The last four NASCAR Next classes — which spotlights talented young competitors — featured four female drivers among the 44 racers selected. Those female drivers chosen: Kenzie Ruston (2014-15 class), Nicole Behar (2015-16), Julia Landauer (2016-17) and Hailie Deegan (2017-18).

The 16-year-old Deegan will run the K&N West Pro Series schedule for Bill MacAnally Racing, which has won the past three K&N West titles.

Landauer finished seventh in the points last year in the K&N West Series (after placing fourth in 2016) and Behar was eighth in her second full-time season in that series.

In ARCA, Natalie Decker will run the full season with Venturini Motorsports. She stands to become the fifth female in modern-day ARCA history to compete for a driver’s title, joining Shawna Robinson (2000), Christi Passmore (2003-04), Milka Duno (2013) and Sarah Cornett-Ching (2015).

Former champion crew chief Ray Evernham understands the challenges female drivers face. His wife, Erin, competed in 10 Xfinity races from 2005-06 and 29 Camping World Truck races between 2005-08.

“I think that we’ve got to keep providing opportunities for girls to get that experience,’’ said Evernham, who will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Jan. 19.

“Now with the technology of the cars, the way they’re doing the setups, things like that, it will make it a little bit easier for newer people to come in. But we’ve just got to continue to provide an opportunity or a path for ladies to get experience.

Just as important will be how well they’ll handle the scrutiny.

“I know it stinks that so many people are so critical of lady drivers, much more critical than they are of a male driver of the same performance,’’ Evernham said. “Each time one of those girls weathers that storm, gets a little bit further down the road, gets some credibility, it gets a lady closer to Victory Lane in NASCAR.’’

NASCAR lists 16 women who have competed in at least one Cup race from Louise Smith, Sara Christian and Ethel Mobley in 1949 to Patrick. Patrick’s 190 career Cup starts are more than the other 15 women combined. Janet Guthrie was next with 33 starts between 1976-80 and followed by Smith with 11 starts from 1949-52 and Robinson, who had eight starts from 2001-02.

Patrick and Robinson are the only females to run a Cup race since 1990.

NASCAR lists 22 females having competed in the Xfinity Series. Patty Moise started 133 races, more than any other driver.  Patrick and Robinson are next with 61 starts each, followed by Johanna Long (42 starts) and Jennifer Jo Cobb (29 starts).

2. “The Great American Race”

The phrase has long been used as the nickname for the Daytona 500, but where did it originate?

Australia.

True story.

Let Ken Squier, who will be among the five men inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Jan. 19, explain how he came up with the phrase for the race.

“Well, (Bill) France Sr. had me (in Daytona) from the ’60s.  Daytona always stood out separately, individually, for one thing, the time of year, because most race tracks in America were closed. 

“It was the gathering of the tribes in Daytona Beach, which went all the way back to the turn of the century, when Henry Ford, the Chevrolet brothers, all of that tribe went down there.  They raced down that hard‑packed beach. That never stopped.  One way or another, they continued to go down there in the month of February and toast a few of their friends from the past and turn some wheels.

“That spirit of Daytona is more prevalent than any other when you talk about tracks and parts of the country. In my mind, it needed something that set it aside. Indianapolis was always the greatest spectacle in sports. Indeed, it was.

“But what was Daytona? Well, it was All‑American stock cars in those days, and pretty much the neighbors sounded like your neighbors, particularly if you came from a small town. What would come to mind? I fooled around with that for a long time.

“I was in Australia doing a show. They had a great race over there. It was a long one, it was a dinger, and it was a national holiday. On the way home, I thought, God, that’s what Daytona is. It’s ‘The Great American Race.’

“I got chewed up pretty good about that. Hadn’t I ever heard of Indy? I sure as the dickens had. This was coming from a different place. Sure enough in 1959, when those three cars came across wheel‑to‑wheel at the end of 500 miles, that was The Great American Race.’’

3. Revamped pit stops

Martin Truex Jr. was asked this week about his thoughts on the changes to pit road with five people going over the wall to service the car instead of six this season.

Truex had an interesting take on what pit crew position might grow in importance with the change.

“I think there’s a lot of question marks from all teams, and I know there’s a lot of talk throughout teams and in the industry of how much different it is,’’ he said during a break in the Goodyear tire test at Texas Motor Speedway. “Everybody is going to think they have a handle on it and then somebody is going to do it different on pit road and whip everybody’s butt in Daytona, so then you’re going to have to re-learn everything and try and figure it out.

“From what I understand, it’s been really difficult. A lot of the weight falls on the jackman as far as making the stops go fast and when all that pressure gets put on one position it makes that one position really important and really different than it’s been in the past.’’

4. Las Vegas test

NASCAR has an organizational test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. That means that one team per organization is permitted at the test.

Among those scheduled to test are William Byron (Hendrick Motorsports), Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing), Brad Keselowski (Team Penske), Kurt Busch (Stewart-Haas Racing) and Erik Jones (Joe Gibbs Racing).

5. January racing

While the return of NASCAR can’t come soon enough for many, did you know the last time the Cup Series raced in January was 1981? Bobby Allison won at Riverside, California. That was the season-opening race and the Daytona 500 followed. Riverside opened the Cup season from 1970-81.

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