Confident Hailie Deegan making return to NASCAR Next program
A year ago, when Hailie Deegan found herself a NASCAR Next rookie, she handled the media with ease, but as a 15-year-old on the threshold of a stock car racing career, the off-road "Dirt Princess" was admittedly shy.
Today, the shyness is extinct, and at 16, Deegan ventures into her second year in the NASCAR Next class with confidence and with NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick as her mentor.
"I felt like when I first got into the NASCAR Next program, I was really nervous, kinda stood off to the side," Deegan said. "I just listened. I didn't really put myself out there a ton. I feel like this year I'm able to put myself out there, take advantage of the opportunities and not be so nervous and hesitant."
Members of the 2018 NASCAR Next class were announced Tuesday in Charlotte, North Carolina, and just like last year, Deegan was the only female in the nine-member group that NASCAR identifies as "emerging stars." Five drivers are new to NASCAR Next while four, including Deegan, are returning to the program. Since her initial selection last year, Deegan's life has become a whirlwind. She said she believes it has benefited her career.
"I think on the outside ... with just the media and getting noticed," said Deegan, who was nicknamed the "Dirt Princess" because of her accomplishments in off-road racing. "Honestly, just my confidence. I feel like now I'm able to talk to the interview people and not be nervous. One of our instructors is really good, just making you feel confident, know what you're talking about, have speaking points."
The NASCAR Next program also has provided Deegan with networking opportunities.
"It's given me the opportunity to meet people in the NASCAR industry," she said. "They give me a shoulder to go to when I need help, such as getting into a race or meeting a potential sponsor. It makes it easier to excel in the world."
This year, Deegan is competing full time in NASCAR's K&N Series in a Toyota fielded by Bill McAnally. The daughter of Brian Deegan -- the most decorated freestyle motocross rider in the competition's history with 13 X Games gold medals, a gold medal in RallyCross and Lucas Oil Off-Road Racing Series championships -- also has 20 late model/super late model events and four off-road races on her schedule. That's a total of 42 races this year.
Brian Deegan has said he doesn't want his daughter to advance through the various series too quickly. It's advice with which Hailie and Harvick agree. In fact, she said Harvick had told her that people would try to push her too quickly because of what they feel would be good for the sport and to not let that happen.
"I'm looking at what's the best for me; what's going to get me there as quickly as possible, but, also, to my best ability," Hailie Deegan said.
The energetic teenager earned the 2016 Modified Kart championship in the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series and was named the Lucas Oil Off Road Driver of the Year. Stock car racing, however, has presented her with a new challenge, and she said it comes down to one thing -- experience.
"I've only been doing this stock car stuff now for about a year and a half," she said. "All of these kids have been racing stock cars since they were 8. It's just hard coming in, trying to make that advancement and being expected to do just as good when I'm younger and have less experience. I feel like I'm in a crucial time where I don't want to rush things and I just need laps."
In three NASCAR K&N Pro Series West races, Deegan has produced three top-10 finishes; however, she has struggled in the K&N East Series. An electrical issue relegated her to a 29th-place finish at New Smyrna (Florida) Speedway and a faulty fuel pump foiled her run at Bristol, Tennessee, forcing her to settle for 22nd place.
It was the season-opening NASCAR K&N West race at Bakersfield, California, in March that Deegan caught Harvick's eye. Harvick finished fourth in the race, while Deegan was seventh.
"I feel comfortable asking him questions about racing," Deegan said. "He's not someone I have to worry about ruining a deal with. I can be honest with him. He knows from good and bad experiences what's right and what's wrong."
Deegan, who is home-schooled, has yet to formulate a college plan. Since she's completing high school this year, she figures she has two years to make a decision about furthering her academic education.
"I want to give my full effort to racing until I'm about 18 or 19," she said. "Say something doesn't work out, I want to be able to say I gave my all and there was nothing more to give."
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.