Column By: JODIE VALADE / NASCAR – CHARLOTTE, NC – To be honest, Brian Deegan didn’t see that championship fire in his daughter, Hailie, when she first began racing.
With his eldest son, Haiden, sure. He’s only 12 years old, but has always had the kind of daring and reckless personality that already has earned him the nickname “Danger Boy Deegan” on the motocross circuit. Even youngest son, Hudson, who races trucks and motocross at age 8 showed that classic Deegan fearlessness early.
But Hailie — smart, laid-back, happy-go-lucky Hailie — began racing go-karts at age 8 just to keep her occupied while Brian Deegan competed as a motocross and X Games motorcycle star and on the trucks circuit. It was just fun. Nothing more.
“My daughter was real calm. Real mellow personality. Everything was just easy and perfect, you know?” Brian Deegan said from his home in Temecula, California. “I didn’t think she would be like someone that would go out and just be super aggressive on the race track.”
But something changed when Hailie Deegan began competing. That Deegan boldness and brashness, the same air that led to her father’s successful career — and multiple serious injuries after gutsy maneuvers — suddenly emerged.
“When I’m on the track, I’m a whole different person,” Hailie Deegan said.
Deegan is 16 now, the only woman competing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West this season, earned the highest praise from Kevin Harvick a couple months ago and was named this week to the NASCAR Next Class of 2018, her second appearance on the list of nine drivers tabbed as emerging stars in the sport.
Other drivers selected to the class include: Anthony Alfredo, Riley Herbst, Derek Kraus, Chase Purdy, Will Rodgers, Zane Smith, Tanner Thorson and Ryan Vargas. Deegan, Herbst, Purdy and Smith all are second-time honorees.
Alumni of the program, now in its eighth year, include Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and William Byron.
After just a year and a half of racing stock cars, this is the year Deegan hopes she can make real headway in the sport. She is graduating from high school next week — two years early — so she can devote all her time to her racing career. Bill McAnally, whose team she drives for in the K&N Pro Series, has called her “fierce” and “fearless.”
And last month, after racing against her in a K&N Pro Series West event at Bakersfield, California, Harvick plucked Deegan from the field as the one who “has a lot of potential.” Deegan finished three spots behind Harvick in that Kern County Raceway Park race — seventh to his fourth — and has finished in the top eight in all three K&N West races she’s entered this season.
“It just so happened that in the race he got behind me and that’s just kind of the thing I needed for people to notice that I can drive, that it’s not just an off-track thing, or ‘Oh, it’s another girl that they’re bringing for publicity’,” Deegan said. “That I can drive. And that people need to see that.”
Said Brian Deegan: “I think it’s cool. Kevin Harvick’s one of the gnarliest dudes in stock car racing, hands down.”
Hailie Deegan has success, already, as the 2016 Modified Kart champion in the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series. She has the pedigree, growing up in a family that lives and breathes racing.
“My whole family just wants to race,” Deegan said. “What we talk about at the dinner table is racing. We don’t talk about other things than racing. It’s just our life. It’s what we do. Our fun is going to the race track.”
And, her father has learned, she has the fierceness needed to compete for every spot on the track and for championships.
“Some of the other girls have felt like they’ve had to be really tough to be in a guy’s sport,” Brian Deegan said. “I think Hailie just is tough. She doesn’t have to portray it. You’ll see that in her driving. She doesn’t get pushed around, she fights back on the track. I think she doesn’t have to act that act in her personality.”
That laid-back personality that Brian Deegan initially thought might be a hindrance might prove to be one of Hailie’s greatest assets.
“Look at the champions. Look at Jimmie Johnson. He’s pretty calm, collected, smart,” Deegan said. “Look at Kyle Larson, the new fast kid. He’s pretty calm. If you met him, you wouldn’t think this guy’s the gnarliest car racer on the planet. I think she’s got what it takes to be a champion in stock car racing. I think she’s got that personality to be calm, smart. She doesn’t get phased by pressure.
“By no means am I claiming she’s going to be the next champion anytime quick. It’s going to be a lot of work, but I do believe she can do it. I’ve seen her do it, already. I wouldn’t say it if I hadn’t already seen it.”
Hailie Deegan is just eager to continue proving that she’s not a novelty on the track. She wants to show that she has talent, passion and drive to be among the best — and, yes, that she has that fire to compete for a championship.
“I’m not here to run mid-pack,” she said. “I don’t want to do it if I’m running mid-pack. I want to give it 110 percent until I’m able to run up front. I will not stop working until I’m able to run up front.”