A new hope: Hailie Deegan’s success could transform NASCAR
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — An effervescent 18-year-old, who channels the sport’s pioneers in spirit and aggression, moves closer to leading a NASCAR movement.
But Hailie Deegan does not take this journey alone. With family close by and female competitors watching, Deegan’s rise through stock-car racing could open more driving opportunities for women. As long as she continues to succeed.
Deegan’s achievements are not measured against foes but history. She was the first woman to win an ARCA West race in 2018. Her runner-up finish in last weekend’s ARCA event at Daytona International Speedway tied Shawna Robinson and Erin Evernham for the best result by a woman in that series.
Such marks are just the beginning, her father, former motocross superstar Brian Deegan, says.
“She’s going to be a pioneer to break down all these barriers that haven’t been done yet,” he told NBC Sports after celebrating his daughter’s Daytona performance.
“I’m excited that no girl has won yet because there is a chance to set records. That’s what our house has been about, setting records and creating new opportunities and just breaking down those barriers. I think she’s got a cool road ahead of her.”
Deegan’s Daytona performance came 10 years after Danica Patrick’s heralded stock-car debut at the same track. Patrick’s arrival raised hopes that more women could follow her to NASCAR, but those aspirations vanished as funding faded and results waned for many. Eventually, those obstacles sidelined Patrick. Deegan, who moved from Toyota’s development program to Ford’s program in the offseason, is poised to shake up the sport.
Others can’t wait, including Jennifer Jo Cobb, who has competed in the Truck series since 2010 minus the resources Deegan has.
“What I do hope is for her success,” Cobb told NBC Sports, “because what I’ve always wanted to see happen is for a woman to have the money so that we could prove that with the right resources it can be done.”
When Patrick made her stock-car debut in the Daytona ARCA race a decade ago, she was one of a series-record six women in the 43-car field. That Daytona Speedweeks also saw a female in the Truck race (Cobb) and two women in the Xfinity race, including Patrick. A few months later, Patrick was one of four women to compete in the Indianapolis 500.
“I thought it was super exciting,” Kenzie Hemric told NBC Sports of so many women racing in top levels in 2010, a year before she made her ARCA debut. “I thought, ‘Gosh, all these women are getting these chances and it’s going to be so good for me.’
“I thought I would be right there with them in a couple of years.”
Although Patrick had won an IndyCar race, led the Indianapolis 500 and appeared in multiple Super Bowl commercials, her move to stock car racing helped attract more attention.
“The way I liken Danica in NASCAR at the time is if we had a female quarterback playing for one of the major NFL teams,” said Norma Jones, who wrote a dissertation in 2016 on Patrick in NASCAR for her doctorate in philosophy at Kent State University.
Jones said among Patrick’s biggest impacts was showing that a woman could reach the heights of auto racing.
“If you can’t imagine something to happen or if you can’t place that there,” Jones said, “then it’s an impossibility for you.”
Kenzie Hemric, whose last name was Ruston before she married NASCAR driver Daniel Hemric, also was a pioneer. She was the first female driver selected to the NASCAR Next program, which highlighted rising young talent. Kenzie Hemric was selected in 2013 and ’14. Among the drivers also chosen then were Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Preece and Cole Custer.
Hemric competed in K&N Pro Series East from 2013-15. Her first series race came a few weeks after Patrick won the 2013 Daytona 500 pole. That would be among the highlights for Patrick, who never finished better than 24th in the points before completing her NASCAR career with the 2018 Daytona 500.
Patrick, who did not have any stock-car experience before 2010, was a victim of unrealistic expectations that had a far-reaching effect, Hemric said.
“I think fans, sponsors and everybody expected more results out of her that weren’t necessarily achievable,” she said, “and I think just falling short on those unrealistic expectations made it really hard for other women and sponsors to help other women at that time.”
Lack of sponsorship left Hemric without a ride in the ARCA East Series after 2015. She ran Super Late Model races in 2016 but never made it back to NASCAR as a driver.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
McKenna Haase scans the living room in the Indianapolis home she rents and sees a sprint car seat, midget car seat, asphalt car seat, her racing helmet and seat belts.
Haase, who turns 23 Thursday and again will race sprint cars this season, became a race fan after a chance meeting with Kasey Kahne at a Nashville, Tennessee mall when she was in the third grade. Her passion for racing grew and she later convinced her parents to let her compete.
She became the first female to win a sprint car race at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway, which hosted its first automobile race in 1901 and is home to the Knoxville Nationals. Her victory came in 2015, a day before she graduated from high school as class valedictorian. Haase has won at Knoxville four other times.
One of the points Jones discussed in her 229-page doctorate dissertation about Patrick in NASCAR was the role of women in a masculine sport. Jones wrote that “women sporting competitors talk about desiring to be perceived as just athletes, without the gender identification.”
So does that mean recognizing Haase as the first female to win at Knoxville merely reinforces gender divides instead of celebrating a significant accomplishment?
“The local people are probably sick and tired of hearing that phrase (track’s first female winner) over and over again, and even myself it’s like I want to just be known as a really good race car driver at this point,” Haase told NBC Sports.
“Now, are there other first female records that I’d like to break? Absolutely, because there is something to be said about going someplace that nobody has ever gone.”
She acknowledges that “it’s not like we need special treatment or anything like that, but we are at a disadvantage, so to be able to overcome something like that to accomplish something is special.”
Haase says there are numerous challenges competing in a male-dominated sport.
“It starts out fine until the next thing you know you get up into those higher levels and there’s that strength difference, there’s that bravery difference and there’s like a passion difference and a priority difference in what (female drivers) want to do with their lives,” she said. “Another challenge, I guess, would just be obviously the men in general. Now you’re looking around and there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of men at the track and one female.”
While she admits the obstacles can make the sport “very frustrating at times,” she said she races because “I was designed to be where I am for a reason.”
Those reasons include youth racers. She started the Compass Racing Development program in 2015 to give kids a chance to race an outlaw karts. She’s had about 10 children compete in that program, including four girls. Haase also will launch Youth Racers of America Inc. and plans to host a national motorsports camp in Indianapolis in December for 300-500 youth racers.
The idea for Youth Racers of America stemmed from a paper she wrote at Drake University on the economics of motorsports.
“I basically did a study on where I think our sport is missing and what our greatest value proposition is,” she said. “All my research tied back to youth motorsports and the lack of support in that area and support for the future of the sport.”
“IT’S FUN TO DO THE IMPOSSIBLE”
The poster came from T.J. Maxx and hangs in Jennifer Jo Cobb’s office in a race shop that barely holds five trucks and various parts and pieces.
A black high heel shoe is on the white poster. Above it reads: “The question isn’t who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me.”
On the opposite wall in Cobb’s office is a smaller framed poster with words over a giant lipstick kiss imprint that states: “Life is tough and so are you.”
“These are my sources of inspiration,” Cobb said. “I need to be reminded.”
Racing has not been easy for the 46-year-old Cobb, who has made 190 Truck starts and 31 Xfinity starts. Only Patrick (252 starts) has been in more national series NASCAR races than Cobb, whose team is beginning its 10th season.
She has done it with minimal resources. Even a week before Truck teams were to arrive in Daytona, Cobb needed to find wheels for her race truck, a driver’s uniform and possibly a hauler to transport her vehicle and equipment to Daytona because her team’s hauler was not operational.
Cobb is undeterred by such difficulties. She just thinks back to how her father, Joe, whom she calls her hero, raced.
“He had less money than anybody else he raced against,” she said. “Driving into the racetrack, just my mom, my dad and me at like 10 years old ... and this moment is as clear as day for me, there was one tire on dad’s open trailer tire rack.
“I’m looking around and my mom’s commenting, ‘Look at all the tires these guys are bringing’ for local dirt racing. I said, ‘Yeah dad, why do we have only one tire?’ My dad’s response was ‘Because that’s the spare for the trailer, and if we break down we have to have that.’ ”
Cobb recalls that her father won that night.
“He taught me, not even realizing it, some really huge life lessons, that created my character, which is never give up,” Cobb said. “I say all the time I probably don’t belong here. I know I don’t. This is a sport for people with a lot of money.”
Even with the financial hardships and one top-10 finish in her Truck career, if a younger female sought Cobb’s advice on racing, she would not dissuade that person.
“Look at all the things that people have said were impossible,” Cobb said. “My favorite is it’s fun to do the impossible. How many times was Walt Disney told that his little mouse dream was ridiculous. If you ask me, it’s nobody’s business to discourage you.”
At a time when many teens attempt to navigate life’s complexities, Hailie Deegan experiences often take place in public.
She makes those challenges seem easy, often smiling, laughing and full of energy. Deegan is not afraid to share amusing experiences on social media including the time last year she put the wrong fuel in the van she drove and faced a repair bill in the thousands of dollars.
But it’s not always so much fun having everything you do watched.
“Trust me, it’s a lot of pressure,” Deegan told NBC Sports. “It’s a lot that comes with racing, Being a girl in racing does bring attention. … At the end of the day it has its pros and cons. When you’re doing good, it gets you noticed. When you’re doing bad, it tears you down. That’s how racing is.
“Racing is kind of like the craziest roller coaster you’ll be on, emotionally. It takes a toll on you because you’re going to have lot more bad races than good races.”
Deegan’s victories have been memorable for more than the historic value. She made contact with the leader on the last lap in all three ARCA West races she’s won. Twice Deegan took the win from a teammate, including at Colorado National Speedway last June. Deegan, echoing a sentiment from generations of drivers, said after that win: “If you take a swing at me, I’m going to take a swing at you back.”
Deegan acknowledged after her runner-up finish at Daytona last week “that one thing I regret from the past two seasons was making more enemies than I should have. Carrying more grudges than I should have. That is something this season, especially coming to the ARCA Series and a lot of news drivers, I want to stay away from that and have people on my side.”
Especially young girls.
“That is always cool having little girls come up to me and say they want to be a race car driver one day,” Deegan said. “That motivates me more because you know what you are doing is right and all the work you are putting in is worth something.”