It's full speed ahead for teen driver Hailie Deegan
It didn't take long for teenager Hailie Deegan to win over Bill McAnally.
As a result, the 16-year-old Deegan, the only female in the 2017 NASCAR Next Class, will transition into full-time NASCAR competition this year with Bill McAnally Racing, the defending K&N Pro Series West championship team.
A champion in the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series and the daughter of freestyle motocross superstar Brian Deegan, Hailie was one of a dozen drivers to audition for the BMR ride. The audition was her initial outing in a K&N car, and McAnally said the feedback she provided about the Toyota was "phenomenal."
"We took her to Irwindale [California], where we have a baseline setup and we're usually pretty good out of the box there," McAnally said. "She motioned me over to the car and said, 'If you'll free this car up, I can go faster.' "
Deegan did go faster, and that caught McAnally's attention.
"To have a young driver, at 16 years old, get in one of these cars for the first time and know what they need out of the car to go faster and then go faster is pretty impressive for me as a car owner," McAnally said. "Sometimes I will work with a driver for a full season before they realize what they're really needing out of a car."
The team tested Deegan several more times, and she continued to impress the veteran owner.
"Most girls you're pushing to get them to go run, but Hailie is one of those that we're actually pulling back to slow down and smooth it out," McAnally said. "She is not one bit scared of speed. She likes to be loose and on the ragged edge."
Deegan is scheduled to make her NASCAR K&N Pro Series debut Feb. 11 at New Smyrna, Florida, one of four K&N East division races in which she will compete. Her others are April 14 at Bristol, Tennessee, June 2 at Memphis and July 21 at Loudon, New Hampshire. Her full-time competition in the K&N West division is slated to begin March 15 in Bakersfield, California.
"The biggest thing we need to do now is get her out into racing experiences with other drivers around her, being on the outside, being on the inside," McAnally said. "She needs that practical racing experience."
McAnally has scheduled a Jan. 24 test for Deegan at Irwindale with spotter/coach Chris Monez, who has worked previously with the team. He also plans to bring another driver to the speedway to help acclimate her to having a car beside her, such as on restarts. She has two late model races on her schedule prior to her K&N debut.
Brian Deegan said he initially was concerned that his daughter, a high school junior who is home-schooled, was moving into the K&N Series too quickly. Those concerns were eliminated once the team's and sponsors' commitments were revealed.
"The good thing is she's raced on very small teams and big teams and with equipment that's not great to the best equipment," Brian said Monday. "I'm glad we did that. I'm glad she hasn't always been in the best stuff, so she knows the difference now. Experience is what's going to happen this year."
Gaining seat time isn't Hailie's sole goal. She wants to run up front consistently and become the first female to win a K&N race. That means developing a smooth driving technique that's foreign to her.
"I think the hardest thing about stock car racing is being super gentle when you're around people," she said. "You're not flying into the corners like off-road racing. It's really easy to spin out when you're around someone."
Hailie Deegan admitted the K&N opportunity came sooner than she expected, but she said she doesn't feel any added pressure because of the team's three straight K&N Pro Series West titles. Instead, the success gives her confidence.
"I don't have to worry about my cars. I know my cars are going to be the best cars on the track," she said. "It gives me more confidence that I'm going to do better ... that I have a better chance of being up front and winning some races."
Deegan's off-road experience has come with her family's team, and she believes that played a key role in her obtaining the BMR ride.
"I've had to learn a lot about my own car," said Deegan, who's in the gym every day and in some type of race car six days a week. "I'm the one calling the shots, not the crew, because I know what I need in my off-road car. That transfers over to the stock car."
Her father estimated Deegan would compete in 30 to 40 races this year. That's 18 K&N races, with the others in late model and off-road. She also will practice one to two days a week.
"We'll see how she does this year, and if she does good, then we'll see about going east next year or maybe another year here. I don't know," Brian Deegan said. "We don't have any expectations of winning right off the bat. It's going to be hard. There are going to be a lot of ups and downs, good days and bad days. It's all part of the game."
Deb Williams is a North Carolina-based writer and former editor. She has covered auto racing for United Press International, USA Today and The Charlotte Observer. She has more than 30 years of experience covering motorsports and was the 1990 and 1996 NMPA Writer of the Year.