NASCAR and Toyota Racing Are Breaking Barriers in Motorsports
How does NASCAR, one of the most popular sports in the world, secure its future in the ever-advancing world of motorsports? The easy answer is get youth involvement. Cue NASCAR Next, an industry-wide initiative designed to promote talented young drivers and help them find their way to a racing career.
Since its inception in 2011, the program has helped 51 young aspiring racers into the driver’s seat. Thirty-nine of those drivers took their skills to one of the three national series, and around 25 percent moved on from there to compete in the Cup Series. The participation among females has also increased. Toyota Racing has embraced Hailie Deegan, who is barely 17, as the youngest member of the current NASCAR Next class. She’s also the only woman competing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West (and East) 2018 season and is driving the no. 19 Toyota Racing Development (TRD) Camry for Bill McAnally Racing.
From Dirt to Asphalt
Deegan’s name should sound familiar because she grew up in a family that lives and breathes motorsports. Her career began with off-road racing at age eight, inspired by legendary athlete Brian Deegan, otherwise known as “Dad.” Hailie’s playground is 31 acres of carved out tracks and trails behind the family’s California home, where she and Brian often race each other in off-road trucks. "My whole family just wants to race," she said. "It’s all we talk about at the dinner table. We even take our vacations at the racetrack. It's our life."
Deegan also gets much of her practice by racing a Polaris on the property. “I never get bored of practicing,” she said. “I race it until it breaks, fix it and do it all over again.” Deegan is hands-on when it comes to fixing and improving her off-road rigs. When racing on pavement for NASCAR, she works with the Toyota crew by clearly explaining any issues with the car or stating which adjustments are needed.
It’s easy to put the petal to the metal and go fast, but technique is what will make or break an aspiring racer. The skills Deegan built while battling through dirt racing’s challenges act as an indestructible foundation, and she’s building on it quickly by taking what she learned off-road to the asphalt.
Racing may look like all fun and games to a spectator, but Hailie’s mom, Marissa, confirms that Deegan is a nonstop workaholic. “She does paperwork during flights to and from races,” Marissa, said. “She runs on 4 hours of sleep most nights and it doesn’t phase her.” Hailie chimed in, “When I’m not asleep, I’m racing. And when I’m not racing, I’m practicing or watching racing videos. I just love racing. It’s what I want to do, and if I have to make sacrifices to get there, it’s all worth it.”
Deegan worked hard to graduate from high school two years early so she could devote all her time to her racing career. Her graduation was held at the Sonoma Raceway, right before the Carneros 200 K&N Pro Series West qualifying rounds. That’s right. She changed from her graduation garb and jumped straight into her race suit to battle it out for her spot on the track. Fun fact: Due to the availability (or lack thereof) of women’s size race wear, all of her race suits need to be customized for optimum safety and comfort.
Racing at Sonoma
Aside from the glimmer of excitement in her eyes, Deegan was calm and collected before hitting the track for qualifying, even despite her dad being over 2,000 miles away to race in Missouri on the same weekend. “I’m not nervous,” she said without hesitation. “I’m just bringing the skills I already have from off-road racing to the pavement, and then building myself up from there.” Her experience with racing trucks in desert-like heat through thick, billowing dust clouds also conditioned her for the intense heat that radiates from asphalt.
Hailie won multiple championships during her time off-road, but asphalt brings new challenges. The biggest change is making small gains with every lap, which, being only inches away from the stock cars in front, behind or beside her, requires precise calculations and fluid movements. This is a skill that she’s fine-tuning. Only once did Deegan veer off into the dirt after taking a turn too fast, but she made a smooth and immediate recovery as if it was a natural reflex. “Once I hit the dirt, I felt right at home,” she beamed.
After qualifying third, Deegan was glowing. She immediately connected with her anxious, and then overjoyed, dad via FaceTime. The feeling of pride for his daughter was transmitted all the way to the Sonoma Raceway. “It went great, the car is amazing and everything felt good,” she exclaimed to Brian. By the end of the race, she held her place in the top 10.
Deegan wants to show that she has the talent, passion and drive to be among the best, and that includes competing for a championship. "I’m going to give it 110 percent until I'm able to run up front. I will not stop improving my skills until I'm able to run up front."
She certainly has the qualities necessary to be the next face for women in NASCAR, and her personality traits will work in her favor as she pursues championship titles. She has a disposition that shines through any camera lens and she adores her fans. She’s calm and collected, articulate and as smart as a whip, and has the grit needed to compete with the pros. "When I'm on the track, I'm a whole different person," she said. If we had to describe a track-bound Hailie in one word, it word be “fierce.”
“I’ve never looked at myself as being ‘just’ a female driver. I’m a driver that happens to be a female,” she said. “Fans see me as just another racer until I get out of the car.”
Despite the NASCAR Cup Series running for almost 70 years, a woman has never won a championship. Only one woman, Shawna Robinson, won three races between 1988-89, and only four women, including Robinson, Danica Patrick, Tammy Jo Kirk and Mara Reyes, have won pole positions. Deegan is striving to change that: “There’s never been a girl in NASCAR history to win a championship, and I want to be the first.”