Hailie Deegan was puzzled. She had come to stock-car racing from the rough-and-tumble world of off-road racing, where she considered herself to be just one of the guys. Off-road racers slammed into one another and knocked each other over, then left the track and laughed about it.
She found stock-car competitors, also mostly men, to be different. She would drive in a straight line down the middle of the track and be put into the wall for no apparent reason, and no one hung around after the race to laugh about it. Or even discuss it.
“I was trying to control it, but I just went from being swung at, to swinging,” Deegan said. “That’s what stock-car racing is. You hit someone, or you get hit. That’s something I had to learn. It’s a key factor in why I’m so aggressive. I don’t want to have to hit you. But if you’re going to hit me, I’m going to hit you.”
Deegan, who turned 18 in July, is the highest-profile woman driving in NASCAR since Danica Patrick. A regular in the K&N Pro Series, which is essentially the rookie league of stock-car racing, Deegan has won three of her 35 races. She also has driven in four races in the ARCA Menards Series, one step up, with two top-10 finishes.
But while her marketing potential to NASCAR is obvious, and her family’s business is racing — her father, Brian, is a professional freestyle motocross rider whose career has included forays into car and truck racing — Deegan and her parents are content to go slow with her career. For now.
“I think our biggest fear is watching what’s happened to many other drivers who have moved too quick,” said Brian Deegan, an X Games gold medalist. “There’s a lot of circumstances that go into that. Some drivers have only so much money, and they have to get there and take a chance. Some sponsors are only going to go so long. Some sponsors are like, ‘We want you to go to the big show, because that’s where the value is going to be.’
“With Hailie, being a female racer and having the skills to win, we’re hoping that people can run with us at a pace where we’re saying, ‘O.K., let’s hold her down and let her learn as much as she can, because there’s one shot at it when you get there,’” Brian Deegan added.
Hailie Deegan, who was home-schooled and received her high school diploma during driver introductions before a 2018 race, is already a celebrity. She has cultivated an active following on social media, and now has 468,000 followers on Instagram, the most of any NASCAR driver, and more than 64,000 on Twitter.
But she and her family know a high profile means little without results, and so, wary of moving too fast, they have kept a tight safety net around her. Deegan is always accompanied to races by a relative, most often by Brian but sometimes by her mother, Marissa, or Marissa’s father.
“We don’t want to see some teenage boy come in and throw her life out because, you know, they’re 17 years old,” Marissa Deegan said. “She’s worked so hard to get to this point. We want to see her make it to that level.”
Deegan says she knows she has plenty of fans who want to see her succeed, but she also knows she has detractors. Each of her K&N victories has come as a result of her nudging aside a competitor on the last lap of the race, so she has been criticized as not “racing clean.”
“You’re never going to make everyone happy,” she said. “There’s always going to be someone who says something about you on Twitter. You just focus on all the people who do support you. With negative people, it’s not me who has the problem. It’s them.”
Besides, she said, she has had enough to worry about on the racetrack. Deegan started from the pole position in her first K&N Pro Series East race of the season, at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida, but finished 16th. She had only one top-10 finish in her first six starts.
After she pushed aside her teammate Derek Kraus in the last lap to win a K&N Pro Series West race June 8 in Dacono, Colo., Deegan started her next race from the pole but finished eighth. She was 12th among 20 cars in a July 26 race at Iowa Speedway, and acknowledged she still has miles to go.
“I feel like I’ve been racing for so long,” Deegan said. “I’ve been racing for almost 10 years now, that’s more than half my life. I’m so used to being in this racing world. This is what I want to do. I don’t like doing anything else.”
It was not as if the Deegans did not know what to expect when Hailie moved into stock cars. Brian Deegan toyed with joining his motocross rival Travis Pastrana in stock-car racing a decade ago but decided against it. Still, for years, NASCAR drivers often stopped by the Deegan home to ride motorcycles when the Cup series made its annual West Coast swings.
The family said NASCAR and sponsors, even though they stand to benefit from Hailie’s presence and her pedigree, had been supportive about the family’s decision to have her take her time to learn the craft.
Deegan and her parents are happy she is in a stock car. They say stock-car racing, with roll cages inside cars, is generally safer than motorcycle racing or the off-road racing competitions she used to enter. But Hailie Deegan has acquired a certain fearlessness that should help her as she moves toward the big time.
“She’s never, ever been hurt racing cars,” Marissa Deegan said, knocking on a wooden table during an interview.
“I’ve been in a lot of fires,” Hailie said.
“That’s the only time you made me nervous — and I actually was scared,” Marissa said.
Hailie laughed when she talked about the time the engine in her truck caught fire on the last lap of off-road race. Victory was out of reach, but second place was not. So, she said, “I kept going.”
“I got to the finish line in flames,” she added. “It’s a cool picture.”