The hottest driver in all of motorsports right now isn’t Alex Bowman, winner of the recent Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway. It’s not Simon Pagenaud, who drove to victory in the Indianapolis 500, either. Not to take away from either driver’s accomplishments, they aren’t the talk of the sport the way Hailie Deegan is.
Deegan (No. 55 TRD 40th Anniversary Toyota) will make her first visit to the three-eighths mile Elko Speedway in Saturday night’s Menards 250. The track, the smallest on the ARCA Menards Series schedule, has a lot of similarities to another three-eighths mile she raced on earlier this season, Colorado National Speedway in Erie, Colorado. Deegan competed in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West there on June 8 and made a last-lap bump-and-run pass for the win, her second of the season and her third career series win. In each of those victories, Deegan made a last-lap pass for the win and each of those passes involved some contact with the leader.
Deegan makes no apologies for her style of full-contact racing. It’s something she’s been taught and the timing of it is no coincidence.
“It’s funny because people say I will be in second and I try to be dirty,” she said. “They say I take my swing on the last lap because I don’t have any other chances. I take my swing on the last lap because I was trained to do it on the last lap. I could do it earlier no problem. But I wait for the last lap because I know if I do it earlier they will come back at me. That’s what my driving coach has taught me. It’s on the last lap and always on the last lap because that’s what really matters. We practice it two or three days a week. Taking your shots with one lap to go. That’s when you have to take your moves. The last race I should have won it easily but there was a caution that took away the twelve car-length lead I had coming to the checkered. It goes by each situation, but people will either love it or hate it. I won’t make everyone happy even when I make the cleanest pass possible.”
While she doesn’t like making comparisons to other drivers, it’s hard to not see the similarities in her take-no-prisoners approach to the last lap and another famous driver’s approach to the same situation.
“I always looked up to Dale Earnhardt coming into racing,” she said. “I think 90 percent of the racers here have. He’s arguably the number one figure in NASCAR, ever. I think it’s something that people respect him a lot and anyone who is a true racer respects Dale Earnhardt. There aren’t any true racers that don’t. People take that differently but in the end he was a badass racer and everyone knew he was.”
Deegan has never been to Elko Speedway before, and although she does have plenty of short track experience and success under her belt so far, she still likes to come to a new venue prepared. She has spent as much time as she can learning the nuances of Elko’s racing surface and characteristics from a far, mostly through reviewing footage of previous races there.
“Tracks that are on the Toyota simulator, I go on that,” she said. “I practice on the simulator at home. I watch a lot of footage. I watch a lot of past races, test sessions, anything I can get my hands on I study as much as I can. When I get on the track I want to be as fast as I can instantly, I don’t want to worry about getting up to speed. I want to get to the track on top of my game. I really like watching old races because you can see where the fast guy is running and what he’s doing different than everyone else. You get to see where you can make passes, which is crucial on these short tracks. That’s the hardest part. Watching it and learning it is like a straight guideline. It’s like having the answers to a test.”
With wins in the K&N Pro Series West already in the record books, Deegan is anxious to get the ball rolling similarly in the ARCA Menards Series. She has a methodical approach, and with a top-ten finish at Pocono she’s now ready for her first ARCA top five run.
“Coming out of the gate really strong is big for me,” she said. “I like to come out of the gate strong and not have to work at it to get up to speed too much. I like to make my goal for each race and then get better throughout the day. The goal for Elko is a top five. We have a top ten in the ARCA series now we need a top five. Once we get that first top five then we’ll adjust to our first win. We need to set a new goal every week and then work our way into it.”
Deegan and the rest of the ARCA Menards Series returns to action on Saturday July 13 in the Menards 250 at Elko Speedway. Practice at Elko Speedway is set for 2:15 pm ET/1:15 pm CT, General Tire Pole Qualifying is scheduled for 6:15 pm ET/5:15 pm CT, and the 250-lap feature event will go green shortly after 10 pm ET/9 pm CT. The race will be televised live on MAVTV, and ARCA for Me members can follow every lap made by every car entered throughout every on-track session with free live timing & scoring at ARCARacing.com. Discounted tickets to the Menards 250 are available at nearly 40 Minneapolis-St. Paul Menards locations for just $20. For more information, please visit TrackEnterprises.com or call 217-764-3200.