As Hailie Deegan looked out across another Nascar starting grid, there was not much she had not seen before despite her tender years.
As usual, she was the only female in the race. As usual, her proud father, motocross great Brian Deegan, was watching. He was about to witness his daughter’s big break.
It was September 2018 and Deegan’s debut season in stock car racing – though she had been building up to this for years. She had recently made the switch from off road, where she had progressed through the classes after starting to compete aged eight. She had made her mark along the way – the first female to win a race, the first to win a championship.
Now the American was making the step up to a Nascar Touring Series, which sits four tiers below the sport’s premier level. She was still only 17.
Deegan’s season already had several highlights, including two second-place finishes, but what lay ahead was her biggest achievement to date. It all came down to the final lap.
Under the floodlights at Meridian Speedway in Idaho, Deegan was again in second. Lying in bed the night before, she had asked herself what she would do in this very scenario. And she had the answer.
Putting alliances to one side, she nudged the car in front – her team-mate – with a bump-and-run manoeuvre she had practised for hours and moved into the lead two turns from the finish. All that was left was to cross the line on the short track. Mission accomplished.
Deegan had become the first female to win a Nascar-sanctioned race in almost 30 years – and only the second in history, following Shawna Robinson, whose third and final victory came in 1989. Nascar had a new young star.
“It was a hard process for me. It was a lot of work, a lot of time dedicated to it,” Deegan recalls. “People would doubt you at first. They don’t want to take a chance on you.
“For some reason, guy to guy, they have this instant respect and being a girl you have to earn that. But it’s hard for people to give you a chance until you prove to them that you’re worthy.”
An aggressive driving style founded in off-road. A determination to race that led to her graduating from high school two years early. A racing family, supportive and competitive in equal measure. They all factored in that pivotal win.
In one sense the odds have fallen in Deegan’s favour. In another they are stacked against her.
Deegan grew up in Temecula, California. Her introduction to racing came as her dad – the most decorated freestyle motocross rider in X Games history – was making the transition to off-road competition. It was at one of his races that she saw others her age completing in events for children and, after “begging” her parents, she received an off-road kart for her eighth birthday.
Soon afterwards, Deegan began competing in the Lucas Oil Off Road Pro series’ youth events. She was the only girl and became a three-time champion. The first female to win a title.
“I fell in love with it, I started racing and started winning and, next thing you know, I started becoming the person to beat,” she says. “I just started taking it a lot more seriously.”
By the time Deegan was 15, she was ready for a new challenge. Her mother saw an advert online for Nascar’s Drive for Diversity driver development program. There was an error with her application but it ended up going through and she secured a place.
“Who knows if I would even be involved in the Nascar world if it wasn’t for that?” she says. “I didn’t really know what I was going to do when I was 15, or where I was heading.”
Deegan found stock car racing very different to off road but she adapted quickly. She was both the youngest and only female member of the 2017-18 Nascar Next class – an initiative designed to identify emerging racing talent.
On 29 September 2018 came that crucial first race win. Deegan followed up with two further victories and an overall third-place finish in 2019, a year she was named onForbes’ Women In Sports To Watch list.
Sponsors and the wider driving world were taking notice. Deegan’s star was rising, just as another was beginning to fade.
Danica Patrick, the most accomplished female driver in Nascar history, retired from racing in 2018.
Patrick was the first woman to start in pole position at Nascar’s most prestigious event, the Daytona 500. She was the world’s fourth highest-earning sportswoman in 2016. But she never won a race at Nascar’s highest level. Still no woman has.
Hundreds of female drivers have competed in Nascar since the series began. Sara Christian raced in its first event, in 1949 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
But at elite level there have been just 16 and Janet Guthrie’s sixth place at Bristol in 1977 was for 37 years the best finish by a woman, until Patrick equalled it in 2014.
Patrick did not make her stock car debut until the relatively late age of 27, in 2010. She had previously raced in IndyCar, where she had enjoyed various successes, including becoming the first woman to win a race in 2008.
Her route into Nascar was very different to Deegan’s, but the two are often likened to each other. Deegan feels this is unhelpful.
“People just compare us because we’re girls,” she says.
“That’s the hard thing. You don’t see guys being compared with other guys, you base people on your roots in racing. You would think I’d get more compared with people who do dirt racing.
“OK, we’re both girls, but at the end of the day it’s about where you came from and what your background is.”
Nonetheless, Patrick has often spoken about challenges she faced in the sport; challenges a man with her talent would not have had to overcome. And so has Deegan.
Speaking on her podcast,Pretty Intense,in February 2020, Patrick said relationships with her all-male team had not been as good as they should have been, and that she never felt truly supported during her Nascar career.
“I just think it was an issue that I was a girl, that I wasn’t able to develop the relationships, the camaraderie and the team aspect of it in a deeper way,” she said.
“The biggest issue that I think held me back overall in my career was just ones [team personnel] that didn’t believe I was really capable of doing it, because then it meant that they didn’t put the work in that it took to build a really, really fast car. Because the details mattered.
“You know, what’s your incentive if you just don’t think I can do it anyway? Why are you going to stay late and why are you going to come in on days off when you just don’t think it matters anyway?”
Deegan has also encountered problems on her team. Speaking on The Dale Jr. Download podcast in July 2019, she spoke about having issues with crew chiefs who were “set in their ways” when she first moved to stock car racing.
“The hardest thing for me was just getting crew chiefs and people to believe in me,” she said.
“First of all, they see you as a little girl and they’re like and: ‘Oh, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.’ And so it took the longest time for me to earn the respect of these guys that have been there forever.
“I’d say I lost about half my season just messing with my crew chief and I’m on, like, my fourth crew chief now. I’m finally realising what I need from a crew chief and crew chiefs are realising what they need out of me.
“I can name almost every girl in stock car racing on one hand. There’s a lot of room for improvement there.”
Nascar has made changes to increase inclusivity. TheConfederate flag has been banned,it has embraced the Black Lives Matter movement and despite scepticism down the years, it has looked to develop female talent in the sport.
Natalie Decker was a Drive for Diversity participant, like Deegan. The 23-year-old competes part-time in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, a level above Deegan’s. She finished fifth in February 2020 – the highest place achieved by a female driver in the series’ history.
Deegan is hopeful the younger generation of which she is a part can help bring about a “culture movement in the sport”.
“I feel like I may have had to prove myself a little bit more often, because [some people] just weren’t prepared to accept a new reality,” she adds.
“I just had to get past that point of proving myself, showing that I want to be here, that I want to be successful and won’t stop until I am.
“It took a little while to get that process. But that’s the thing – you almost have to get there on your own and then everyone sort of just joins your side. Everyone wants to be on a winning person’s team at the end of the day.
“One thing I’ve noticed in off-road racing is that growing up I was one of the first girls to do it. And now, occasionally I’ll go back and I see a lot more girls there.
“I’ll even have dads come up to me and say: ‘I got my daughter into racing because of you.’ So those things are really cool to see and I love that.”
Deegan’s father, Brian, believes technical skill is what counts most of all – and suggests his daughter has an advantage in that regard.
“I’ve thought about this a lot. Why haven’t many female drivers made it into Nascar?” he said in 2019, speaking to Fox News.
“Danica [Patrick] came from IndyCar, a different path. I feel that one thing she lacked in the tool box was dirt experience, being able to drive a car sideways loose comfortably. That’s just my opinion.
“I feel like Hailie has that in her toolbox. She comes from a dirt background and I think that’s what it’s going to take for a female to come to Nascar and be competitive.”
Whatever success Deegan does achieve will be enjoyed on her terms, with plenty of energy and personality.
In 2020, she now competes full-time in the ARCA Menards Series, three levels below the top Nascar Cup Series. Her focus is on winning at every level and ultimately reaching the pinnacle of the sport. A tough ask for any driver.
“I’m just trying to be one of those people to beat,” she says.
“I really don’t know what else I would do without racing in my life. It’s always been my goal from day one to race for a living.
“Now that we’re here, I have a set plan of where I want to be and in how many years. Now it’s the little steps.”
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