"These 15-year-old guys didn't want a 13-year-old girl beating them."
Hailie Deegan, now 16, has long deflated egos in the male-dominated racing world. In this particular instance, she's referring to when she leveled up to driving modified karts back in 2014, becoming the first female driver to podium and, later, win a race—all during her first season in the division. "Next thing you know, I'm the one to beat," she adds matter-of-factly.
Deegan is preparing to level up yet again, this time to stock car racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series. On Sunday, when she makes her series debut at Florida's New Smyrna Speedway, she'll be the only female driver competing in a field of 29.
She is one of NASCAR's most promising young drivers, with a slew of accolades to her name: first female driver to win a championship in the Lucas Oil Off-Road Racing Series, first female driver to win a Modified Kart championship in the same series (2016), and now both the only girl and youngest member of the NASCAR Next class. This season she'll be with Bill McAnally Racing, the defending K&N Pro Series West championship team.
Though racing is one of few sports that allows men and women to compete together at its highest levels, the vast majority of NASCAR drivers are still men. Only two female drivers have competed for NASCAR's top-tier title since 1990: Shawna Robinson and everyone's favorite name-check, Danica Patrick.
For her part, Deegan is more interested in winning than in breaking more new ground—though no woman has ever won a K&N Pro Series race. The bubbly teenager instead sees the firsts, the podium finishes and the titles as ways to make people take her seriously. "People are usually like, 'Oh, there's always a girl out there who tries to race and is not good,'" she says. "But the thing is, I do win. I have the facts to prove it."
The Temecula, California, native grew up in the business: Her father, Brian Deegan, is the most decorated freestyle motocross rider in X Games history. She remembers watching him in his shop, and when he switched to off-road racing in the Lucas Oil series, Hailie came along.
She spotted the Junior Kart races and immediately begged her father to let her try them—she got her first go-kart for her eighth birthday. "Now I look at seven- and eight-year-olds, and I'm like, 'There's no way I'd let them drive a kart!'" she says. "But it felt normal at the time, even though they'd say 'Turn left,' while I was still trying to figure out where right and left were."
For a while, racing was one of Deegan's many hobbies, which also included Girl Scouts and volleyball. But by the time she was in middle school, her racing schedule had become too rigorous to allow for much else. She started home-schooling in seventh grade after winning her first title in the Junior 2 Kart class and earning the moniker "Dirt Princess."
Deegan has skipped two grades in the meantime and is preparing to graduate. "At school I just felt like I was wasting so much time waiting for the other kids to finish their work," she says. "I'm going to be racing 42 weekends this year, and with school, that's just a lot to do."
Indeed, the track is the filter through which Deegan lives her life—even in school. She loves math (and is studying calculus), which comes in handy when adding up lap times and splits. "The data is so intense once you start going up in the ranks—studying tracks, studying how other people drive," she says. "I feel that's my strong suit."
Deegan's days are divided into three parts: the gym, where she'll usually spend around two hours working out alongside other racing athletes at a facility near her home in Temecula; the track, where she'll spend about six hours on go-karts or with her driving coach; and school, which basically occupies the rest of her time.
Relaxing means listening to Eminem or watching MTV's Ridiculousness, which she insists is her only guilty pleasure. "When I'm racing, I want to put 110 percent effort into it," she says. "I'm not just going to go lollygag when I could be practicing." Deegan adds that almost all her friends are at the race track, though one "goes to regular high school and plays soccer."
As much attention as she is getting for her gender, she says her background as a driver sets her apart. Very few stock car racers come from the world of off-road racing, which Deegan believes gives her an edge. "These kids grew up racing on pavement," she says. "If you're on pavement, you don't get loose [racing code for skid]—it's a constant grip. When you do get loose, everyone panics."
But not Deegan, and her team knows it.
"Most girls you're pushing to get them to go run, but with Hailie we're actually pulling back to slow down and smooth it out," Bill McAnally, her team owner and a former NASCAR driver himself, told espnW.com earlier this year: "She is not one bit scared of speed. She likes to be loose and on the ragged edge."
Deegan cites hitting a rut and flipping 360 degrees—something you only really do off-road—as her favorite moment in racing. "You'll flip multiple times, too," she says. "Everyone's like, 'You flipped a car and you're OK?' And I'm like, 'I'm fine, it's just something you do.'"
Her fearlessness is already inspiring other girls to attempt death-defying stunts of their own. Megan Mitchell, who won the Lucas Oil Junior 2 Karts title in 2017 (the same one Deegan won in 2013), initially decided to start racing after seeing Deegan. "At the time she was racing Junior 2 Karts, and we saw her flip," says Mitchell, now 14. "She flipped, landed on all fours, kept driving and ended up finishing the race. My dad said, 'Do you want to do this?' I said, 'Yes, I do.'"
For both Mitchell and Deegan, surprise is the primary reaction they have to deal with as female drivers—not people telling them they can't do it. "People can't even understand it because they see me and I'm this 16-year-old girl— they don't think that I would be racing cars!" Deegan says. "I pull up my Instagram and say, 'Just watch this.'"
That's not to say there aren't extra challenges to being a girl in a male-dominated sport. Deegan's Instagram is flooded with comments that would be inappropriate for people at any age, much less a 16-year-old. "There's always that one person out of the 10 that's going to say something rude. It's not like it gets to me or anything," she says. "My dad goes in there, deletes the comment and then blocks them—then they start commenting on all of my family's accounts, and we have to block them there, too."
At the track, racing puts a heavy emphasis on meet-and-greets. Deegan says there have been men who have made her feel uncomfortable in those scenarios as well—though she is good-humored about it, since her family is always alongside her. "There are always those people, but I don't really pay attention to it much.
"Honestly, no one even knows I'm a girl until I get out of the car," she continues, laughing. "My truck last year was black and green with big Monster logos all over it, and all of a sudden there's this girl with long hair coming out." It's clear Deegan relishes surprising people, something she'll aim to do this weekend as she begins competing against drivers twice her age. "Everyone's like, 'Oh you're so quiet,'" she says. "But I'm a totally different person when I get in the car."
Regardless of how she winds up performing in her transition to full-time stock car racing, she has already forged an unprecedented legacy—one that might encourage a few more girls to get behind the wheel. "To see girls winning in a class of 40 drivers who are mainly boys is pretty cool and inspiring," Mitchell says. "Seeing Hailie Deegan winning the championship, it was like, Hey, I could do that too."