For the first time in eight years, NASCAR fan favorite Danica Patrick was missing from February’s Daytona 500. Despite Patrick’s retirement from the sport just last year, an influx of young women are already jockeying to fill the void left by the racing trailblazer.
Hailie Deegan is one of the most formidable frontrunners. The 17-year-old spent more time at the Daytona 500 media day than any other driver as she took on the role of guest host for NASCAR.com. Deegan had a busy day, interviewing one Cup Series star after another, but she is determined that this will be the last year she is a spectator at the season-opening Daytona 500.
In 2020, Deegan aims to be driving in the entry-level ARCA Series. If all goes according to Deegan’s plan, this will be just the start to a lengthy racing career that leads her to the premier Cup Series.
“At the end of the day, there’s a reason why there hasn’t been a girl or woman winning in NASCAR’s highest level. There’s a lot of room for improvement. For sure, I want to be the first to do it and hopefully more girls will end up winning. But I want to be the first,” Deegan said.
Deegan will face some steep competition in order to be the first. Despite estimates from the National Safety Council that say 40,100 people were killed in auto accidents in 2017 on civilian roads, more and more young women are ready to take hits and give them back when on the racetrack. Among others vying for the coveted title, Natalie Decker is working hard to make a name for herself.
With a slight headstart, 21-year-old Decker was able to make her Truck Series debut at Daytona, joining just two other women in the field, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Angela Ruch. Decker spent the last two years in ARCA, earning nine top-10 finishes in 20 starts last season. This year, Decker could be in as many as five series and will learn in late March whether she has nabbed one of 18 spots in the W Series, an all-female series set to launch in Europe.
Deegan isn’t quite as interested in playing only with women, but would rather show the seasoned men what she’s worth. Last September, Deegan became the first female driver to win a K&N race and earned Rookie of the Year honors.
“Just being a girl, you have to see yourself as one of the guys, you have to treat yourself the same, you have to act the same…Let’s be real here: There are a lot of older men who race and they don’t want to see a 17-year-old girl who wears all pink and totally loves butterflies and unicorns,” said Deegan.
While Deegan may not identify with stereotypically feminine things, like the 38% of women who use hair extensions as part of their beauty routine, Patrick was able to achieve international fame with her brand and business despite never winning a title on the track.
Thanks to the doors Patrick opened, the new women in racing want those top titles. It doesn’t matter whether they are racing on short tracks, speedways, or super speedways that range from 0.5 to 2.5 miles long, they are more than ready to throw some elbows with the guys.