This week has brought the news that female racing sensation Hailie Deegan is now part of the development program for the Ford Motor Company’s racing arm. It is believed that the move to Ford Performance from Toyota Racing Development will speed the 18-year-old’s path toward putting her in a ride on one of NASCAR’s national series. The California native and second-generation racer will drive for DGR-Crosley Racing in 2020 on the ARCA Menard’s Series and will also pilot a car for Multimatic Motorsports in IMSA competition. Both of those organizations are supported by Ford.
“I could not be more excited to join Ford Performance and DGR-Crosley,” Deegan declared in the announcement of her new situation. “It became clear quickly that I align with the Ford Performance vision of driver development and our shared drive to win. It is also extra special to get to race with Ford, a family company, that already had ties to my family. Growing up watching my dad race a Ford, and now to be able to do the same thing is very cool.
Of course, the motorsports world has been down this road before. There have been women drivers who have come into the sport, in some cases with much fanfare, with some finding a degree of success and others not. But the real question is when will a female driver finally reach the point in NASCAR in which they will be regarded simply as a “driver” and not as a “female driver”.
Is Hailie Deegan the person who will change that mindset?
Danica Patrick came into the sport and garnered much attention with her arrival in both IndyCar and NASCAR. However, the results did not come close to matching the hype. Although she did win an IndyCar race at Twin Ring Motegi Speedway in Japan, she was never able to follow up on that lone victory with the sort of efforts that would have her be considered a threat to win on a regular basis.
Patrick finished up her run in IndyCar after eight years with a total of seven podium finishes in 116 starts.
Her initial entry into NASCAR gave the impression that she might find much greater success in stock cars than had been the case in the open-wheel ranks. A top-5 and seven top-10’s between 2010 and 2012 in the NASCAR Xfinity division appeared to indicate that the Illinois native was poised to make a major splash once she hit the ranks of the NASCAR Cup Series.
And indeed, that thought was given even more consideration when Patrick qualified on the pole and ultimately finished 8th in the 2013 Daytona 500. Ultimately, however, that would prove to be her only top-10 run of that season. And over the course of the next six years she would only add six more finishes in the top-10 eventually leaving her with a total of seven such results in 191 career starts at the very top level of the sport.
Following up on pioneers such as Janet Guthrie and a few others who carved the initial path into NASCAR for women, Patrick was expected by many to be the first female driver who would contend regularly for wins and who might even become a serious championship contender. But as the results show, that never quite materialized.
Despite building up a formidable celebrity status that has no doubt served the former driver well financially, Patrick just never achieved what many thought that she might.
So, back to the original question. Can Hailie Deegan become what Danica did not? Will she ever be a “NASCAR driver” instead of a “female NASCAR driver”?
Ford obviously believes the answer to both of those questions is yes.
“Hailie has shown in her brief time behind the wheel of a stock car that she’s got what it takes to be successful,” Mark Rushbrook, global director, Ford Performance Motorsports said in the press release announcing the move. “Our goal is to put her on a path to realize our shared goal of winning championships and part of that is gaining experience on tracks such as road courses and superspeedways. We feel this year will serve as a good foundation for what lies ahead.”
Deegan has won in stock cars already as she prepares to make the move to higher levels. Over the past two seasons the daughter of motocross and off-road racer Brian Deegan has won three K&N Pro Series West events and placed in the top-5 of the series standings for that tour in both 2018 and 2019. She has also scored a top-5 finish at Lucas Oil Raceway(Indianapolis Raceway Park) as well as top-10s at venues such as Pocono Raceway and Kansas Speedway after only six ARCA starts.
The young driver has shown that she is not afraid of doing what it takes to win races. Deegan bumped teammate Derek Kraus and sent him spinning to grab one of her K&N West victories. Another race saw her execute a last-lap three-wide maneuver to earn a checkered flag.
History indicates that Deegan has not only the desire but also the talent to succeed. As is the case with any racer, the real issue then becomes all about getting into the right situation with the right people. The move to Ford may or may not prove to be the proper course of action that will decide whether she will succeed in the top ranks of stock car racing.
As was the case with Danica Patrick, there will almost certainly be a great deal of hype from media, sponsors, tracks, and otherwise as Deegan climbs the ladder. While that hype provides opportunities that not all drivers might receive, it also brings added pressure that other young drivers might not face. How well she handles all of that will be key in her development.
For whatever reason, NHRA drag racing has proven to be much more of a competitive avenue for women. Shirley Muldowney, Ashley Force-Hood and Brittany Force are among those who have proven that women can be winners in that form of motorsports.
Will Hailie Deegan earn that type of reputation in NASCAR?
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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