Hailie Dee­gan be­gins march to big leagues

Antelope Valley Press - - SPORTS - By JENNA FRYER

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — There was noth­ing spe­cial about Hailie Dee­gan’s sports car de­but as she raced around the road course last month at Daytona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way in a feeder series. She was just an 18-year-old Ford fac­tory driver try­ing to get seat time.

That she’s a woman was also not of any par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est; the big league Rolex 24 at Daytona the very next day in­cluded a lineup of only fe­male driv­ers and sports car rac­ing for years has had women com­pet­ing in its events.

What was com­pelling is that Ford has bet heav­ily enough on Dee­gan to let her give sports cars a try. She was teamed at Daytona with Chase Briscoe, who has his own strong Ford back­ing, and the ex­pe­ri­ence was a chance for Dee­gan to show how quickly she can get up to speed.

“I just feel like I know a lot more about rac­ing than I did be­fore and that’s why I’m here and sup­posed to be do­ing,” Dee­gan said.

Now she is back at the speed­way with a new team, new man­u­fac­turer sup­port and a full-time ride in the ARCA Series. Her stock car de­but at Daytona comes Satur­day in ARCA’s sea­son-open­ing race, the kick­off event of Speed­weeks.

Dee­gan un­til De­cem­ber had been part of a crowded de­vel­op­ment pro­gram with Toy­ota, but she made the switch to Ford and with it comes im­me­di­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties. She got a full-time ARCA ride with DGR-Crosley, could race in NASCAR’s Truck Series be­fore the end of the year and Ford of­fered her seat time in sports cars.

She won three K&N Series races over the last two sea­sons and now her pro­gres­sion to the big leagues is of­fi­cially un­der­way.

“This is the year that’s very im­por­tant and cru­cial to my ca­reer be­cause it de­cides con­tracts for years out with spon­sors get­ting be­hind you for the higher lev­els,” said Dee­gan. “If we can do good this year, I feel I can get more peo­ple be­hind me so we can go in the top three level series (of NASCAR), and have

spon­sors that want to stay with me full time while I’m there.

“My goal is to win a few races in the ARCA Series, which is go­ing to be hard. There are a lot of good guys, good cars this year.”

Un­like her stint in sports cars, Dee­gan’s gen­der will be widely dis­cussed when she is run­ning stock cars. In fact, it is the rea­son many peo­ple fol­low her ca­reer.

Dee­gan is pretty and pop­u­lar and has a strong so­cial me­dia pres­ence where she por­trays her­self as a hard-work­ing, thrill-seek­ing, up-and-com­ing racer. All of this could make her the next big fe­male driver since Dan­ica Pa­trick, who re­tired in 2018.

That spe­cific com­par­i­son is a dif­fi­cult and po­ten­tially awk­ward one for Dee­gan — or any­one else.

Pa­trick ab­so­lutely in­spired a gen­er­a­tion of girls and al­though she won just one race be­tween IndyCar and NASCAR, she set records as the high­est-fin­ish­ing fe­male driver in the Daytona 500 and the In­di­anapo­lis 500, the only woman to lead laps in both, and the only fe­male pole-win­ner at Daytona.

Pa­trick was also adept at mar­ket­ing her brand and had long­time spon­sors that length­ened her ca­reer. She had sup­port­ers who ad­mired her business acu­men and de­ter­mi­na­tion, and crit­ics who felt Pa­trick didn’t de­serve the ac­co­lades, at­ten­tion or fund­ing to be in a com­pet­i­tive ride.

Dee­gan un­der­stands this back­ground and re­al­izes she must strike a del­i­cate bal­ance.

“When it comes to mar­ket­ing, I don’t want to try to play the girl part to get spon­sors, but there are brands that could tie with me that can’t tie with guys. There is op­por­tu­nity,” she said. “It’s not nec­es­sar­ily, ‘I’m a girl, I don’t want to do this type of thing.’ It’s more like be­ing a girl, I could have more op­por­tu­ni­ties to get spon­sors. More busi­nesses that will work with me be­cause there are some brands that can’t work with guys.

As­so­ci­ated Press

DE­BUT — In this Oct. 18 photo, driver Hailie Dee­gan greets fans af­ter prac­tic­ing for an ARCA Series auto race at Kansas Speed­way in Kansas City, Kan. It’s a crit­i­cal year for Dee­gan, the up-and-com­ing 18-year-old.

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