DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Up-and-coming NASCAR driver Hailie Deegan wants to be one of the boys, not one of the girls.
She is turning heads and holding her own with her grit behind the wheel to lead a growing number of promising female drivers jockeying to fill the void left by trailblazer Danica Patrick, who retired last year.
“Now all us girls are looking to fill that position, for sure,” said driver Brittney Zamora, Deegan’s new teammate. “We want to be the next female up in the Cup series.”
Deegan, Zamora and Natalie Decker arrived at the Surf Coast last week to begin the 2019 season and continue their steady rise up the ranks of a male-dominated sport.
Though just 17 years old, Deegan learned about her male counterparts long ago: If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em.
To reach Victory Lane, Deegan has underplayed her feminine side and focused on her racing.
“I don’t have many friends at the track,” she said. “I’m not here to hang out. I’m here to win races.”
Patrick’s beauty, brand and business portfolio eventually would make her popular and prosperous, at times outshining her racing resume. Deegan wants to open doors by reaching the finish line first.
“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,” Deegan said. “You can’t act like a total girly girl out there or else you don’t earn the respect of the guys. 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. That’s not how it is.
“To win in racing, you have to come in and be aggressive.”
In a sport not for the faint of heart, Zamora and Decker are no shrinking violets, either.
To reach this point in their careers, each young woman had to endure backbiting, accusations of cheating and on-track intimidation.
“I definitely got a lot of bad comments and a lot of hatred for just going out there and doing my thing,” the 19-year-old Zamora said. “That was kind of tough.”
Decker said the key to survival is to be tougher than her competition. She learned this lesson when she was 12 during her first year racing stock cars.
“I remember passing someone for the lead to win the race and I got a little rough with him, and he yelled at me for it,” Decker recalled. “And I was like, ‘That’s how we race; just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I can’t do that.’ ”
Decker, Zamora and Deegan each has earned scores of checkered flags. In fact, none can remember how many races she has won.
But all three readily recall their roots, having been raised in a world where racing — in one form or another — was a way of life.
Deegan’s father, Brian, is the most-decorated freestyle motocross rider in the history of the X Games and a world champion in off-road racing. Hailie Deegan was raised in the Southern California dirt.
“I was around it 24-7,” Deegan said. “I’ve been around it ever since I can remember.”
Zamora’s start came even earlier. She was just five days old during her first trip to the track to see her father, Mike, race super late-model cars.
“I feel like this is what I was born to do,” Brittany Zamora said.
Decker’s road was one less traveled by stock-car racers. The 21-year-old’s family owned a snowmobile track in Eagle River, Wisconsin, where her father, Chuck, won the World Championship Snowmobile Derby.
At age 4, Natalie Decker looked to follow her father’s path but she quit just seconds into her first snowmobile race.
“I practiced for weeks and there weren’t these other sleds out here, so I only went 10 feet and took my helmet off,” she recalled. “I told my dad I was done.”
As a young girl, Decker also watched NASCAR with her father during the sport’s heyday. Once she got behind the wheel of a go-cart at the age of 6, Decker had found her calling.
“I was like, that’s how I can start,” Decker recalled. “That’s when I knew I wanted to race NASCAR.”
Growing up in Washington watching her dad race and work on cars, Zamora was just 4 when she experienced a similar epiphany driving go-carts.
“Once you get the behind the wheel and actually take a few laps for yourself, you realize what it’s all about,” she said.
A thousand miles south, Deegan learned to love racing on the off-road tracks of California. The first of three children, Hailie received a mini off-road truck for her eighth birthday and would go on to develop her skills in the rough-and-tumble world of off-road racing.
Deegan transitioned to asphalt in 2016 but maintains the edge and mentality she developed on the dirt-track circuit as she begins her second season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series.
“I’m probably one of the most aggressive out there,” Deegan said. “You do something to me on the track, just know it’s coming back twice as hard to you. Off-road racing was so tough and so aggressive, you’d have people flipping, you would flip … ‘Go get back on the track, go hit the guy who hit you.’
“It was just crazy racing. I was like, I have to bring this over here if I’m going to do good.”
Sometimes, holding your lane and giving no quarter can be victory enough for a teenage girl going up against grown and grizzled men.
Recognition among her peers ultimately is earned by winning.
“It took a little bit longer to get respect. You kind of had to do it in a little different way,” Decker said. “I could see little things change here and there. But as I started winning and excelling and moving to the next level, they all started taking me serious and saw that this is what I wanted to do and wasn’t doing it just for fun.”
Decker, Deegan and Zamora each has captured multiple championships, awards and track records in various series. Each step up the ladder, though, is yet another restart.
During back-to-back race weeks last season, Deegan was near the front of the lead pack late. Each time, a car that had been lapped wrecked her.
“That’s something guys wouldn’t do to each other,” Deegan said. ‘If you do that to a guy out here, he’s not going to be happy about it. They saw, like, ‘What’s she going to do about it?’
“That’s when I started throwing some elbows up and was, ‘Hey, I’m not gonna take it anymore.’ ”
From there, Deegan would go on to become the first female to win a race in the K&N series while capturing two poles. She ended the year as the series Rookie of the Year and one of the more intriguing drivers in NASCAR’s feeder system. She was among the drivers — and the only woman — showcased during Daytona 500 Media Day on Wednesday.
Zamora, a K&N rookie, hopes to follow up on the success of her new teammate with Bill McAnally Racing.
“People have expectations for her to meet,” Zamora said of Deegan. “But we’re both here to go out and win.”
Deegan and Zamora got off to disappointing starts to open the 2019 season at New Smyrna Speedway Monday night. Deegan, the race pole-sitter, did not finish the 175-lap event due to electrical problems with her car. Zamora crashed on Lap 156.
Two days earlier, Deegan was at Daytona International Speedway for the ARCA Racing Series, where Decker finished a respectable sixth during the Menards Lucas Oil 200.
“I was like, ‘Hey, this is something that I’m going to want to do forever if I get to race at Daytona,’ ” Deegan said.
The day is coming when more women join Patrick, Shawn Robinson and Janet Guthrie as female drivers competing in the Daytona 500.
Even though Patrick failed to win during a combined 252 tries in the Cup and Xfinity series, she recorded 14 top-10 finishes and made history by winning the pole at the 2013 Daytona 500. Her popularity and staying power showed sponsors that a woman is worth the multi-million-dollar investment to race stock cars at the highest level.
“I think we definitely could see more than one woman racing at the Daytona 500,” said Fox Sports reporter Jamie Little, who has covered motorsports for nearly 20 years. “ ‘When’ is the big question mark. But I would say five to 10 years because there are some tremendous, talented women just climbing the ladder that are three or four steps away from the top level.
“If they keep climbing the ladder and doing it right, they are going to get there.”
Deegan hopes to lead the way.
“I think there’s still so much room in NASCAR for a girl to come in and dominate,” she said. “I want to be that person.”
Whatever the future holds, Deegan, Decker and Zamora want to impact future generations of aspiring female drivers. Inspiring young girls to chase their dreams and stand up to the boys would be a win to celebrate.
“I hope that if young girls see me on social media or TV or racing or wherever they see me, they take a chance on what their dream is,” Decker said. “If it’s racing, if it’s hockey, if it’s soccer, if it’s going to school to become a doctor, whatever it is, to take a chance and just believe in themselves.”