Decker women are out to make a name for themselves in racing
Their names are Paige, Claire and Natalie, but the broader racing public following the young Wisconsin women hasn't quite separated them yet.
"It's funny, because people group us together a lot," Paige said. "They just call us the Deckers, like we're all the same. We're totally different."
Sisters Paige Decker, 23, and Claire Decker, 21, have the spotlight this weekend. They'll attempt to make their NASCAR Xfinity Series debut in Sunday's American Ethanol E15 250 at Iowa Speedway. Cousin Natalie, 18 for a few more days, is preparing for an ARCA Midwest Tour race at Gateway Speedway near St. Louis on June 25.
The Iowa race is a big deal. Xfinity is NASCAR's No. 2 series, and while this weekend's field isn't as strong as when Xfinity and the Sprint Cup series run as companion events, the entry list includes 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, 2006 Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. and several up-and-comers. In other words, bring your A game.
"I don't think it's really hit me quite yet," Paige said. "But obviously, there are a lot of different emotions going on. I'm nervous and excited. I just really want to do all the right things, and the checklist is so long on the things I need to do."
The Decker women received national attention in April when all three attempted to qualify for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville, Virginia. Natalie didn't qualify, but Paige and Claire did and finished 25th and 27th, respectively.
It was only the second time sisters started the same NASCAR national series race. Twins Amber and Angela Cope, nieces of 1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope, raced in the truck series event at Martinsville in 2010.
"I'm nervous, excited, all of the above," Claire Decker said about this weekend. She and Paige will be among 42 drivers competing for 40 starting spots. "I was kind of like this for the truck race, too. I'm like, 'I don't want to screw up and I don't want to do that,' but when I get to track and I'm in a car, I really just calm down. Paige psyches herself out a little bit, but I'm calmer when I get into the race car."
All three of the Decker women have been part of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity, a scholarship program designed to advance minority and female drivers and crew members. Paige in 2013 became the first female winner of a TUNDRA (The Unified Northern Drivers Association) Super Late Model race, taking the event at Wisconsin's Golden Sands Speedway. Claire won the Dick Trickle Memorial 99 (+1) race at Marshfield (Wisconsin) Motor Speedway in 2014. Natalie has kept the busiest racing schedule of late and was set to drive a Super Late Model on Thursday night at State Park Speedway in Wausau, Wisconsin, where she had won two of the previous three races.
Paige and Claire are college students -- Paige an early childhood education major at Wisconsin-Stout with an interest in teaching and Claire a psychology major at Wisconsin-Oshkosh with an interest in becoming a criminal profiler.
They're ordinary college students getting ready for real life except for one major difference: Their prospective careers are Plan B.
Plan A is to make a living by driving race cars. "My mom has always been adamant about us going to college in case the racing doesn't happen," Claire said.
The Decker family's racing history is rooted in snowmobile racing, The women's fathers and two uncles all raced snowmobiles and, in fact, raced in the 1970s against the future parents of Danica Patrick. Danica's middle name is Sue, in honor of Sue Decker, who was married to Mike Decker at the time and introduced T.J. and Bev Patrick to each other.
Allen Decker, Paige and Claire's dad, was a factory rider for Bombardier and a teammate of Jacques Villeneuve, a three-time World Championship Snowmobile Derby winner and uncle of his namesake, the 1997 Formula One world champion. Chuck Decker, Natalie's dad, came to own the famed Eagle River, Wisconsin, track that hosts the world championship.
When Allen Decker stepped away from racing -- he has since built two limited-service hotels in Wisconsin -- he believed he was finished with the sport.
"When I had two girls, I just thought it was going to be more dance recitals and things like that," he said. "But both of my girls wanted to go racing, so it was quite a challenge to try to keep both girls in racing together."
Chuck Decker was the one who got all three Decker women started in racing as kids.
"I was kind of a little reluctant, but Chuck was the one who said, 'Hey Allen, we've got to take the girls go-kart racing. It will be fun to be with them on the weekends,'" Allen said. "So that was go-karts, and that was manageable. But that grew rather quickly into full-body stock cars and then Super Late Models. And here we are, set to make our first Xfinity start."
The competition between Paige and Claire can get intense, as it famously did in a Late Model race in 2013 at Marshfield Motor Speedway.
"We got into each other, and I ended up wrecking my car and my sister ended up being OK with her car," Paige recalls. "When we got into the pits to check everything over, I got out of my car to go after my sister. Everyone in the pits was watching, people were taking video, people were shooting off texts saying we got into a fistfight, so it got blown up a little bit."
"So she's trying to get into the net to get me in the car, and one of my crew guys stepped in between and was like, 'Paige, she's running the rest of the race, you can talk to her after the race,'" Claire said. "She was still trying to get in my car, so they were like, 'Claire, just go. Just go.'"
Allen sat the women down a few days later, reminded them they're family and told them to fix anything that was wrong. "Paige and I both bit our tongues and said we were sorry, and that was the end of that," Claire says.
So this weekend, the Decker sisters will compete against each other in their biggest race yet. They're driving for a team named Obaika Racing, owned by Nigerian entrepreneur Victor Obaika. It's a one-shot opportunity, seized in the hope it will lead to something more. Paige will drive the No. 97 and Claire the No. 77 Chevy at the seven-eighths mile track.
"I'm really excited," Allen said. "I can't think of a better way to spend Father's Day than with my girls at the track."
Nor can the Decker women. It's their biggest racing opportunity yet and maybe even a chance for each to make her own name.