Natalie Decker taking next step as full-season ARCA driver in 2018
Natalie Decker was riding home with her dad from a business meeting one night when he suddenly pulled over.
"Hey, you want to watch some go-kart racing?" Chuck Decker asked the 7-year-old.
"Sure," she replied.
Natalie was about to be transformed by the action on that little dirt track about 90 minutes south of their Eagle River, Wisconsin, home. And Chuck had no idea what he was getting himself into.
"We pulled in there, and she stood there with her hands on that [chain-link] fence and would not leave," Chuck recalls with a laugh. "I had to drag her out of there. And literally, every day for the next two years, she asked for a go-kart to race."
Thirteen years and several racing vehicles later, Natalie, 20, is on the inside of the fence chasing her dream of racing in NASCAR.
She is one of three Decker women who have competed at the national level of stock car racing in recent years, along with cousins Claire, 22, and Paige, 24, who have made a combined six starts in NASCAR's Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series divisions. While Claire and Paige are focused on their careers and college at the moment, Natalie is set to become the fifth woman in modern times to run the full season in the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards next year.
It's cool stuff, and it's happening pretty much the way Natalie planned it even before Chuck and mom Amy bought her a go-kart on eBay for her ninth birthday.
"I felt like I had the passion for it before I even started racing," Natalie says. "Like, I would watch the NASCAR races with my dad and think, 'That's what I want to do.' I didn't really understand it until I started getting into it more and racing. But once I did, and once we started racing as a family, I kept loving it more and more."
Chuck recalls it this way. "She hadn't even raced a half-season and she said, 'Dad, I'm going to be a NASCAR driver. She was 9 years old."
The Deckers are a racing clan if there ever was one. Chuck, parents Dick and Aubrey, brothers Steve, Allen and Mike, and former sister-in-law Mary raced snowmobiles and will be inducted as "Team Decker" in the Snowmobile Hall of Fame in February. Chuck is a local institution, owning the World Championship Derby track in Eagle River.
So after Natalie started racing, Chuck talked Allen, father of Claire and Paige, into buying the girls go-karts so the family could go to events together. Natalie's brother Leif Offerdahl raced for a short time, too, but he quickly retreated to snowboarding and wakeboarding, and is now a professional model in California.
"Those were some of the best times for sure," Natalie says. "I didn't race against Claire and Paige too often because they're older than me, so they were always a class ahead of me. But probably for five years, we traveled around the country together in a motor home, all three of us racing together."
Practically anyone familiar with the Decker story knows that the brothers raced against Danica Patrick's parents in the 1970s, and Sue Decker, who was married to Mike Decker at the time, introduced T.J. and Bev Patrick to each other.
Not surprisingly, Natalie seeks to follow in the footsteps of Danica, who has raced in the NASCAR Cup Series the past several years, although her future in the sport after this season is uncertain.
"She has opened so many doors for women in the motorsports industry, and not just for drivers," Natalie says. "I hope one day I can be up there in being able to open up even more doors for more girls."
Natalie moved up the ranks almost faster than Chuck could keep up. At age 12, she was set to make her first start in a car at Golden Sands Speedway in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. But the Mod-4 cars had manual transmissions and she didn't know how to shift.
"So we tried to teach her the night before the race in a Jeep CJ-7 how to upshift, downshift, stop, take off," Chuck says.
With the basics learned, Natalie started the race and even ran mid-pack for a while. But that first car race was nearly her last, because it ended in a hard crash.
"That's when my wife was like, 'Maybe we shouldn't be doing this,' " Chuck recalls. "The car was literally destroyed. It took out the front, the back, and then the shocks blew right out through the back of the car."
But two years later, Natalie was driving a faster late model car, and two years after that, an even more advanced super late model.
Last year is when she took a three-race sponsorship package with N29 Capital Partners, LLC to Venturini Motorsports, a deeply rooted ARCA team that in recent years has helped develop such notable NASCAR drivers as Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Alex Bowman and Ryan Blaney. A three-race ARCA schedule quickly became four and then five and then seven and, recently, a full season for 2018.
"Originally, it was going to be three races, but literally the next day after we announced it on social media, everyone was so pumped about how much it blew up on my Facebook and Twitter and Instagram that we added Road America," Natalie says. "And then from there, it kept getting bigger and bigger."
Natalie did well enough on the track in her seven races -- the maximum allowable number to preserve her rookie status for 2018. She finished 11th in her debut at Toledo, Ohio, when she was still 19 years old, and got her first top-10 finish at high-speed Pocono Raceway. She scored a season-best seventh-place finish on the road course at Road America.
Billy Venturini, general manager of Venturini Motorsports, says he likes what he's seen thus far, pointing to Natalie's ability to improve over the course of a weekend, willingness to learn and penchant for keeping her car out of trouble. Natalie says she learned that latter quality out of necessity while driving super late models, when she had only one car for the season and would race on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
"She's always been good on equipment, because when we had our own equipment, we had to take care of it," Chuck says. "Don't get me wrong, she has destroyed some cars. But more often than not, she would bring the car home clean."
Having worked with many of the best young stock car drivers in the country over the past 10 years, Venturini is well qualified to say whether Natalie has the talent to make it to NASCAR's Cup Series. But he's quick to say that he can't.
"When you look at somebody at 18 or 20 years old, you can give them a grade or a number [rating], but the one thing that's always tricky is projecting where they're going to end up," he says. "I've worked with drivers at 17, 18, 19 and they're good, but they don't project as Sunday stars. Yet, they keep progressing to where, when they're 24 or 25, they're Cup-ready.
I race cars, so I know how fast things can happen. And I feel so much safer racing cars at 200 mph than I do driving on the street.Natalie Decker, spokesperson for People Against Distracted Driving
"And then I've worked with other drivers at 16 or 17, and they are lights-outs amazing, but they kind of flat-line. Natalie is at the crossroad where, if she continues to improve, she's got a shot to one day race on Saturdays and Sundays -- that being in the Cup, Xfinity and Truck levels. But if she flat-lines, then honestly, she will not be able to race at that level."
Natalie seems to get it. She is pursuing her racing dream from all angles. She knows sponsorship is the lifeblood of racing, so she's seeking additional backing for the 2018 season. She knows that marketing and self-promotion are important, so she has taken on the role of national spokesperson for People Against Distracted Driving, using her racing platform and celebrity to raise awareness and educate fans of all ages on the dangers of distracted driving.
It's a cause she's passionate about.
"I race cars, so I know how fast things can happen," she says. "And I feel so much safer racing cars at 200 mph than I do driving on the street."
The ARCA Racing Series isn't NASCAR, but it's the next-closest thing and the ideal training ground. The series uses heavy Cup-like cars and radial tires like NASCAR. The schedule features several NASCAR tracks, including Daytona International Speedway for the season opener.
"Ever since we made our announcement that we're going to run the full season next year, people have been asking me what my thoughts are about it," Natalie says. "And the first thing that always comes to mind is Daytona. I'm going to run Daytona! I can't wait."
It's a long way from the little dirt go-kart track in Wisconsin, on the outside of the fence looking in.