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08/13 2018

HAILIE DEEGAN IS MEETING LOFTY EXPECTATIONS WITH NASCAR NEXT LABEL

 

17-year-old driver in contention for NASCAR K&N Pro Series West championship

BY: By Matt Weaver

Hailie Deegan has only been driving stock cars for 18 months, but she is already carrying the lofty expectations of an entire industry.

Sure, race series are always looking for interesting prospective drivers to hype. But the 17-year-old from California, who received her high school diploma prior to her June 23 start at Sonoma Raceway, is no ordinary prospect climbing the NASCAR ladder in the K&N Pro Series West division. For one, Deegan has the uncanny combination of natural talent, marketability and promise that goes well beyond the low-hanging fruit of promotion largely based on her gender.

And, by the way, her dad is X Games legend Brian Deegan, a successful motocross racer and off-road competitor.

So, the younger Deegan was born into the spotlight and, perhaps more important, seems made for it. She knows how the game is played and genuinely has a passion for motorsports. This is what she has wanted to do for as long as she can remember. She began racing off-road vehicles with her dad as an adolescent, occasionally dabbling in karts and transitioning to full-size stock cars in 2017.

 

Hailie Deegan gets ready for action at a recent K&N Series race in Iowa.PHOTO BY ANDRAYA STENDER

After taking her lumps and struggling mightily in Super Late Models, Deegan was surprisingly named to the 2017-18 NASCAR Next class of must-follow prospects. She is the only woman in that class. She eventually entered into the K&N West division with support from Toyota Racing Development and Bill McAnally Racing.

It was a big jump for someone with such limited experience in Late Models. But whatever doubt surrounded her before the season began has been shattered by weekly performances that have the industry wondering when, and not if, she will be ready for prime time. Deegan also seems poised to possibly answer the longstanding question of when a woman will finally win at the highest levels of NASCAR.

“Obviously, people think about Danica (Patrick) and what she was able to accomplish,” Deegan said. “She made it to the top and broke down barriers, but I think that was just the start. There is a lot more we can do. I think there are more barriers to be broken.”

Those barriers might be toppled as early as this coming fall. Deegan has already matched the highest finish by a woman in K&N history with a second-place finish in June at Douglas County Speedway in Roseburg, Oregon. And she opened the campaign by drawing a hard-to-earn compliment from a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion.

Deegan has earned the praises of many veteran drivers, including former NASCAR Cup champion Kevin Harvick.

Through the first seven races of the K&N season, Deegan was fifth in the series standings with three top-five finishes and four top-10 finishes in all those starts.

Kevin Harvick made headlines by entering the K&N season opener at California’s Kern County Raceway in March and left most impressed by Deegan following a late-race battle between the two.

“If I had to pick one person to say, ‘All right, that’s the person KHI (Harvick’s sports- and celebrity-marketing agency) would want to represent and has the most potential,’ it would probably be Hailie Deegan,” Harvick said. “She did really, really well.

“Obviously, they have what I would call a unique racing heritage within their family with Brian. … I think as far as potential and reach and racing knowledge and getting in the car as young as she is, that would be the one I would pluck out of the series and say that’s the one we want to be a part of. Because she has a lot of potential and already has some racing experience in multiple vehicles.”

Deegan is the only woman in this year’s NASCAR Next class.PHOTO BY ANDRAYA STENDER

Deegan said Harvick has done more than just pile on the compliments, too.

“Kevin Harvick has helped me so much,” Deegan said. “He’s worked with my dad to set up the right calls and get us in the door with some people. He’s definitely on my side. He wants to be involved as we move up. It’s really cool that he’s looking out for my interests.”

Toyota Racing Development president David Wilson, who has the influence to push her up the ladder, offered some restraint, but also admits Deegan is a prospect worth paying attention to.

“In order to take the next step, you have to win,” Wilson said. “Provided you have the equipment, our expectation is that you have to do well.

“But we need to temper our enthusiasm. It’s OK to have expectations, but this is a critical year in her development, and you have to go into every season knowing that not every kid is going to make it.”

While the bar’s already set high for the next wave of Cup stars, Deegan is living up to the expectations. So far, so good.