Hailie Deegan is no ordinary 17-year-old girl. That may sound cliché, but in Deegan’s case it is undeniably true.
The daughter of motorcycle and off-road racer Brian Deegan has made a name for herself thanks to her infectious personality and impressive results during her first full season of stock car racing.
Until last year, Deegan had focused mostly on off-road racing, but at age 15 she was already searching for her next challenge.
“When I was 15 and racing in off-road I was already racing in the pro class. I was winning. There wasn’t much more to accomplish in the off-road world,” Deegan explained. “I was kind of at the best I could do. I was like, ‘I’m 15, I don’t even have my license yet and I’ve already accomplished everything I really wanted to.’ So I was like, ‘What’s a new challenge? What’s something I can work toward next?’”
It wasn’t long before Deegan got her answer. One day her mother, Marissa, stumbled across NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program while searching online. Mom quickly signed her daughter up, a decision that proved vital to her future.
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“My mom, she randomly came across something online. It was the Drive for Diversity program,” Deegan recalled. “She ended up signing me up and I ended up getting accepted to try out and I got into the program. That was kind of my entry point (into stock car racing).”
Soon Deegan’s world was upside down. She went from racing off-road trucks to driving Legend Cars and late models. It was all new to the California native who’d only raced off-road vehicles on dirt.
“I think that off-road racing … it’s just what I grew up doing,” said Deegan, who became a member of Toyota’s driver-development program in 2017. “It’s what my dad did, so we weren’t big in the NASCAR world at all. The NASCAR world compared to the off-road world, it’s almost a different sport. It’s all completely different people. Everything is just really different. It’s a different type of racing. It’s like comparing NASCAR racing to F-1, there just isn’t a ton that collides.”
By the start of 2018, Deegan had garnered enough experience that Toyota felt it was time for her to move to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series. She was partnered with Bill McAnally Racing, a team that has won the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West title on eight different occasions with drivers such as Todd Gilliland and Brendan Gaughan.
“I remember going to a race when I first got into (NASCAR),” Deegan said. “I think I was 14 or 15 and I went to a K&N race at Kern County (Calif.). I was like, ‘This stuff is huge. Look at those cars.’ Next thing you know, I was racing that. It felt like a big jump.
“Toyota thought that I was ready and the team thought that I was ready,” she added. “I was a little nervous, a little hesitant because, honestly, this last year was my first full year in stock cars. I don’t have much experience.
“When I was younger, I had a video, I think I was 8 or 9, I was like, ‘I want to race NASCAR.’ It’s funny when I watch that because I had no clue what I wanted to do. I had no clue that I would be out of the off-road world when I was 15.”
Instead of putting expectations on her to go out and win races and a championship, Toyota and Bill McAnally Racing officials told Deegan to focus on developing her skillset.
“I kind of just made my goal, like, OK, just start with a top 10, top five,” Deegan recalled. “Toyota was like, ‘You don’t have to go out and win everything your first year. This is about developing you. This is your learning year. Next year will be for that.’”
But like any good racer, a top 10 or a top five wasn’t going to be good enough for very long. In her second K&N start and first in the West division, Deegan finished inside the top 10 at California’s Kern County Raceway Park.