It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected people all around the world, and the sports world has been especially impacted. While some aspects aren’t nearly as serious as people getting sick, it doesn’t change that sports have had to make many changes over the past five months.
NASCAR racing prospect Hailie Deegan is one of many young development drivers who had to put their development on pause for a bit. The pandemic stopped the NASCAR season for over two months, and drivers like Deegan had no choice but to adjust.
Many drivers took to iRacing to get their racing fix. And when cars got back to the real track, the drivers got busy racing whenever they could, at tracks they maybe weren’t expecting to race on.
For Deegan, she’s in the middle of her first full season in the ARCA Menards Series. A three-time winner of the K&N Pro Series West (now ARCA Menards Series West), the 19-year-old moved up a class in 2020 in her hopes to one day reach the NASCAR Cup Series. Not only did Deegan have to adjust to a new series, and adjust to a pandemic-impacted season, but she also switched manufacturers for 2020. A former , Deegan, a former Toyota development driver, moved to Ford and currently races for DGR-Crosley Racing.
After a runner-up finish at Daytona, Deegan scored a third at Lucas Oil Raceway and had seven other top-10 finishes. Sitting fourth in points, Deegan and everyone in ARCA and NASCAR enter the unknown of the road course at Daytona International Speedway this weekend. Stock cars haven’t raced on the road course, and the drivers will turn their first laps on the course when the green flag drops on the race.
Deegan talked with The Comeback to discuss her race at Daytona, her adjusted 2020 season, and her future goal to someday reach the NASCAR Cup Series. You can catch Hailie and the ARCA Menards Series kick off a monumental race weekend at the Daytona Road Course this Friday at 5 p.m. ET on TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. On the NASCAR side, the Xfinity Series will race Saturday at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, while the Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series and the NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday at 12 p.m. ET on FS1 and 3 p.m. ET on NBC respectively.
Phillip Bupp: How have you and [DGR-Crosley] been adjusting to all the changes during the pandemic?
Hailie Deegan: It’s been difficult in the development, because obviously the team changed manufacturers, and being at Ford now, there’s a lot of development that has to happen when you change teams. And so, I think it put a little hold on that development. But now, since we’ve been getting back racing, the ball’s been rolling; but I think that little break didn’t help us a ton. I think that we’re definitely getting in the pace of things, trying to figure out what works, what doesn’t work, trying to try new things.
PB: You really answered my next question. In terms of your development, what was the original plan going into 2020, before all this happened?
Deegan: I’ve been trying to keep a long-term mindset. At the end of the day, the big picture goal is to be able to run, and run good in the Cup Series, and be in a good ride and have good races. Whether that’s winning, or just running up front, that’s the end goal. And everything that happens now is to help that goal and get there. And, that may be winning races, that may be running mid-pack and learning everything, and learning all these tracks. And that’s the biggest thing, is getting on these tracks before I race in them in the upper levels.
PB: One big change that we had because the pandemic was, now we’re going to be racing on the Daytona Road Course. All four series are racing, with no practice or testing. And I read you’ve done an IMSA race on the road course earlier this year. Do you feel that gives you an edge over the competition entering Friday’s race?
Deegan: I’ll come out being comfortable on the track. It might take me a few laps to get used to it again, but it might take the guy that’s never been on that track, a few more laps. So, we’ll see once we get there, maybe everyone will figure out the track really quick and I’ll just be like everyone else. But who knows, we won’t really know until we get there though.
PB: In that race, Chase Briscoe was your teammate, and he’s a pretty good road racer. How was he, as a teammate, as you were gaining experience?
Deegan: Super helpful. Him and Austin Cindric were racing for that team, and just the knowledge they have… and I now have built relationships with them, enough to go and ask them like, “Hey, do you have any tips or notes for this track before I go to them?”
And I’m not just talking road courses, I’m talking circle tracks. And we’ve seen Austin Cindric has been doing really good, so I’ll ask him and be like, “Hey, do you have any notes or anything, or like anything at the track that can help me when I go race there in my car?”
PB: Oh yeah, those two are tearing up in the Xfinity. You can’t have two more helpful people.
You’ll be one of the first to race on the road course, especially with the new Turn 4 chicane. Because of all the unknowns, you may very well be in a position to give some pointers to those Ford teammates in the higher divisions. How important will that be, not only for you to get a good finish and get experience, but to possibly relay what you learn to them?
Deegan: I know we’re going to have a lot of eyes on us, during that ARCA race there, just because of everyone that’s going to be racing after and no one really knows how the track’s going to race. And so, there’s going to be a lot of people watching, but I don’t know if there’s going to be people necessarily asking me what to do, because I’m still learning myself [laughter].
PB: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems from an outsider perspective, psychology goes a long way into road racing. If a driver likes road courses, they’re more likely to do better than someone who may not. Have you seen that to be the case, and do you like racing on road courses?
Deegan: Yeah, I like racing on road courses, I like racing in general. I’ll never say, “Oh, I don’t like going to this track.” I like going to all of them. I think that road courses though, that’s something where I feel a little more comfortable. I’m not saying that I’m better at them, just I’m more comfortable there.
PB: I saw back, when the only racing was being done virtually, you did some commentary work on some iRacing broadcasts. How was that, and how did you find the online racing season while everything was on hold?
Deegan: It was a new scene for me, and I just got my simulator up and running. And I didn’t really do any of the races or anything because [laughter] I’m kind of terrible on it. When you’re racing a car, you feel everything through the seat. When you’re racing on iRacing, you feel everything through the steering wheel and it’s a different feeling. And, that definitely took me a long time to get used to it. But, me and my friends, we have driver group chats and stuff, and I text all of my friends and we’d all hop on the simulator and talk on Discord and race in a bunch of these races. So, that helped me get more comfortable really quick. Definitely not where I need to be on iRacing, but we’re getting better.
PB: Well, that’s a good point about feeling everything through the seat. I play poker sometimes, and when you’re playing online, you can’t see the person to get their tells and their bluffs and all that.
PB: Just like in racing, you can learn so much, but there’s some things that can’t be replicated on the actual track.
PB: Looking at the rest of the ARCA season, you’re fourth in points with seven races to go. What’s your mindset entering this homestretch over the next couple months?
Deegan: I don’t want to just say, “We won the championship.” Say we didn’t, at the end of the day, that’s not my end term goal. My end term goal is to race in the Cup Series. And it’s gaining the experience at this level to get there, and not everything’s going to work in your favor to win the championship. You could be the best driver out there, but if you get a couple mishaps, or your car breaks, or you get wrecked… not everything is going to work in your favor. And so, I think it’s just gaining as much experience as we can before we move up a level. And before we get to the higher series, because I could say I was in the best car in the ARCA series and won every single race, easy. That’s not going to teach me what I need to know for going to Trucks, which is so competitive. And so, I think it’s just gaining the knowledge we can before we head to these other places.
PB: Yeah. You have to have some trials and tribulations, and ARCA’s so competitive because there aren’t as many cars and you’re battling with the same people for the top spots. You had a couple DNFs, and even if they’re not your fault, that can knock you back. So, where you are in the points may not be indicative to how you did as a driver and how you improved throughout the season.
Deegan: Yeah. And I think it’s just all about keeping your head down, working on your personal goals, and not getting caught up in what everyone else thinks because, the end of the day, no one else is in your shoes. No one else is in your exact position. No one knows what you’re going through. No one knows the challenges you face, because everyone else has their own challenges and everyone else has their own thing that they’re working on. And I think that you can’t judge everyone just based on what you see on the outside. You can’t judge them by what they finish. Everyone doesn’t know everything that’s going on, except the person inside that car.
PB: Oh, for sure. Now, I’m sure things are very much up in the air, but you touched on this. Do you know your plans for 2021? Is it ARCA or a few Truck races, things like that?
Deegan: I wish [laughter]. Being a sponsored driver, a driver that relies on sponsorship to race, and it’s the only way I can race. I go year by year. Going to the ARCA series, I didn’t know if I was going be able to run the full series. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to run the full series and some Truck races this year.
But, at the beginning of the year, we figured out what our budget was and what we could run, and that was the full 20 ARCA races. And next year, it’s going to be after the season, everything’s going to be scrambling. We’re going to try to find money to run what we can, which is a matter of how much sponsorship funding we get.