This offering is about Hailie Deegan, an 18-year-old California driver who recently joined the Driver Developmental Program at Ford Performance Motorsports. Before Deegan, though, some perspective about women in stock car racing might be interesting:
Sara Christian was 30 when she started 14th and finished 13th in NASCARâs inaugural Strictly Stock race on a half-mile dirt track in Charlotte, North Carolina, in June 1949. She didnât attract much attention, perhaps because apparent winner Glenn Dunaway was disqualified for flunking postrace tech, giving the victory to Jim Roper.
Three weeks later, south of Daytona Beach on a 4.150-mile highway-beach course, 35-year-old Ethel Mobley and 32-year-old Louise Smith joined Christian on the grid for NASCARâs second Strictly Stock race. None fared particularly well: Mobley was 11th, Christian 18th and Smith 20th. The only thing even remotely noteworthy that day was thatâwell, that nothing was even remotely noteworthy. The women showed up and raced just like everyone else. Hardly anyone thought much of it.
In the ensuing 70 years, 13 other women have started what is now considered a Cup Series race. Six of them raced only once and five others raced fewer than five times. Among themâ in a combined 269 startsâthere has been one pole, no victories, one top-five finish, 14 top-10 finishes and no top-10 points seasons. Media and PR darling Danica Patrick won the pole (wink, wink) for the 2013 Daytona 500 and Christian was fifth at a half-mile dirt track near Pittsburgh in the fall of 1949. Current fans certainly recall Patrickâs seven mediocre-at-best seasons of 2012-2018, but only a handful probably remember Janet Guthrieâs 33 starts between 1976 and 1980.
You may have come a long way, baby … but not necessarily in stock car racing.
NASCAR has never publicly coveted a talented and marketable female driver just as it has never publicly coveted a successful and marketable black driver. Deep in their hearts and in the boardrooms? Yes, certainly. Publicly for all the world to see? Certainly not. But if Patrick had ever developed into a respectable Cup Series racer, she would have been NASCARâs long-sought âItâ girl. (Similarly, if Bubba Wallace ever fulfills his potential and becomes a top-10 runner, he will have answered plenty of silent prayers in Daytona Beach and Charlotte.)
And now we have Deegan, who is already good with the media, seemingly grounded and a clearly talented teen with one of those damnable âunlimited futuresâ so common to young racers. And for Godâs sake, please donât call her racingâs ânext Danica.â We should all hope for more.
Her NASCAR resume is short, but impressive: five poles, three victories, 13 top-fives and 23 top-10s in 28 K&N Pro West Series races with owner Bill McAnally. She was the 2018 West Series Rookie of the Year and finished fifth and third in points her two full seasons. She also had four top-10 finishes in just six ARCA starts last year for owner Billy Venturini. All of that was in Toyotas, her brand of choice until Ford came a-calling in the fall.
On Dec. 17, Ford Performance officially welcomed her at its Ford Performance Technical Center in Concord, North Carolina. Mark Rushbrook, the companyâs global director of Ford Performance Motorsports, confirmed that Deegan will run the full 20-race ARCA Menards Series next year with DGR-Crosley Racing, plus selected IMSA races with Multimatic Motorsports. The first IMSA event will be in a Mustang GT4 with co-driver Chase Briscoe in next monthâs Michelin Pilot Challenge at Daytona International Speedway. Even though Rushbrook hopes for more IMSA races during the early months of 2020, the ARCA Menards Series with its pathway to NASCAR remains the primary focus.
But thereâs no mistaking that Ford will use its abundant resources to move her up the ladder. âItâs important for us to feed the pipeline with drivers ultimately to get to Cup,â Rushbrook said. âThe great thing has been since the very first conversation we want to see Hailie succeed and take the steps when the timing is right. Iâve got a lot of confidence that that will go through in these coming years, all the way to the Cup level. There are no strong dates as to how much time at each level. We want to make sure and Hailie wants to make sure, and her team wants to make sure she progresses to those levels when sheâs ready to ensure success at each step.â
Deegan seems wise beyond her 18 years. She knows, for example, that reputations can be stubborn and fame can be fleeting. She attracted some attention when she won her first K&N Pro West race in 2018 by aggressively leading only the last lap at Meridian, Idaho. Her career has already drawn public comment from past NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick, among many to embrace the âone level at a timeâ strategy.
âThe thing I like about Hailie is she loves to race,â Harvick, a fellow Californian, told NASCAR.com earlier this year at Phoenix. âSheâs very good at talking about racing and very energetic in doing things off the track. But the thing I like most about Hailie is that her dad, Brian (a championship-level, Ford-loyal off-road racer), has been there and done that. Right nowâand this is my opinion Iâve voiced to both of themâis, âWhatâs the hurry?â
âThe biggest difference Hailie has is that right now sheâs going to have more stock car experience when she gets to the top level. I used to tell Danica (one of his former drivers), âYouâll never catch up to the experience I have. Itâs impossible. The only way you catch up is if I quit, and Iâm going to have 25 years on you no matter what you do.â
âHaving that experience when you get to the next levels and being even on that experience level with the people youâre competing against needs to be as even as possible. Itâs like holding your kid back in school. A lot of parents do that in sports. They hold them back as long as they can and take a seventh- or eighth-grade year, then wait another year to put them in high school so that they can be bigger, stronger, faster and have an advantage. The advantage is that it doesnât matter when you get here. Youâre going to be a star, and youâll be a bigger star if you can compete.â
Even as Ford introduced Deegan in Concord, her 2020 schedule remained somewhat fluid. Other than the Rolex 24 weekend in Daytona Beach, no other IMSA dates are confirmed. The ARCA schedule is firm, and it will take Deegan to 10 venues that also host at least one major NASCAR series. So far, thereâs been no talk of the Gander Outdoor Truck Series, the Xfinity Series or, probably best of all, the Cup Series. In fact, she may not do more than the occasional K&N event. Sheâs determined not to advance anywhere until she feels comfortable.
âI think thatâs really important because at the end of the day, as a driver you pretty much have one reputation chance,â she said. (Right now, hers is pretty good.) âWhen you blow it âwhen you donât do goodâthat kind of sits with you. Itâs hard to get rid of that. Itâs important for me and the people supporting me and coming along this journey that we want to have success where we go. When we move up to the next level, we want to make sure we do it at the right time, when Iâm ready for it and theyâre ready to take the step.
âI think weâre taking the right route and process. If we can stick to what weâre doing, stick to the game plan, it should be good.â