Natalie Decker may not be a household name yet, but that could change in the future. Racing snowmobiles in Wisconsin at the age four and go-karts at age nine, Decker has moved up through Toyota’s driver development and NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program to start racing in the ARCA Menards Series in 2017.

Beginning with a limited schedule with longtime ARCA owner Bill Venturini, Decker began her 2018 season, her first full season, with a pole at Daytona. Her first race on a restrictor plate track, Decker precisely weaved her way through many crashes throughout the race and finished fifth for her first career ARCA top five.

But while she had a great start to the season, it wouldn’t last. A crash at Talladega gave Decker a hernia and after toughing it out for a couple races, needed to get surgery. As a result, Brennan Poole had to fill in at Pocono, but Decker started the race in order to get the drivers points for the championship. Decker would steadily improve throughout the season, grabbing nine top 10s and two top fives en route to a seventh place points finish.

This season, Decker is expanding her schedule and racing a variety of ARCA, K&N Pro, and Gander Mountain Truck Series races with DGR-Crosley. With owners David Gilliland and Bo LeMastus leading the operation, Decker joins a team who has good equipment and is focused on developing the future stars of NASCAR. Just like last year’s ARCA race, Decker got through all the crashes and finished a respectable sixth at Daytona in her first race with the team.

Outside of stock cars, Decker is going to be racing a partial Trans-Am schedule and will be developing her road racing skills. And if everything goes to plan, Decker may be racing in the W Series, which is a six-race all-women open wheel series sanctioned by the FIA meant to increase opportunities for women in motorsports.

Naturally, as one moves up through the ranks of motorsports, the competition gets more difficult and Natalie understands that. She has taken her lumps and has gone through many learning experiences but if there’s one thing to know, it’s that Natalie Decker is tough and she’s not going to let any difficulties get in her way of experiencing her dream.

The Comeback talked to Decker before the Daytona ARCA race. We discussed her racing roots in Wisconsin and her family ties with Danica Patrick’s family, being an inspiration for young girls getting into racing and her upcoming season racing in a variety of race cars.

(Interview has been edited for clarity)

Phillip Bupp: Now, you grew up in a racing family, they raced snowmobiles and you got started in a go-kart, despite those being very different vehicles, what did you learn there that helped you as you moved up into stock cars?

Natalie Decker: Yeah, so I actually did kind of start in snowmobiles when I was four but I only did it for a little bit. And then I got into a go-karts when I was nine. So I would say the biggest thing I learned was, I did oval and road course on asphalt, and I was so young, just starting to learn the lingo, like racing lingo, and just in the environment.

And at a young age, I was already learning what tight was and what loose was and being able to relate that, and I feel like that was probably the biggest thing I learned in go-kart racing that I brought over to stock car racing.

PB: Now you’ve noted that Danica Patrick was an inspiration for you growing up, and your family has a connection with her family. What kind of advice has she given you about racing?

Decker: Yes, we are very close. Our families are my dad raced against her dad in snowmobiles, and then my aunt, who raced snowmobiles, Danica’s mom was on my aunt’s crew, so our families are really close. And I’m not very close with Danica, but I’m really close with her parents, and her dad always gives me a lot of advice. He’s always giving me advice. He’s kind of like another father. I feel like I’m more scared of him sometimes than I am of my own dad [laughter]. He’ll yell at me sometimes, but they’re wonderful people, and they’ve always helped me ever since I started racing.

PB: What is it like being an inspiration for young girls who see you on the track and want to go racing themselves?

Decker: Yeah, so there’s an example that I have that I was here last year at Daytona. There’s a little racing going on in the infield with a bunch of young kids, and I went over there and did some autographs and took pictures. And there were so many little girls racing, and I remember racing karts there was only a few. There was like maybe one or two, and there’s like 15 little girls now, and it was just so cool to see that there’s that many females, young girls coming up racing and how much they looked up to me. I didn’t realize that they all knew me, and it was really cool to see that and how excited they were to meet me.

PB: I know Toyota and their driver development program and NASCAR Drive for Diversity, they put a big emphasis on finding women and girls to get them into the sport and really show what they can do against the boys.

Decker: Yes, and I think that’s wonderful that people are supporting it, and trying to do what they can to support females and get more females involved in racing. Every day just from when I started racing til now, there’s so many more girls racing and so many more girls winning. And I just think that’s so cool to see and I love experiencing it, because when I came through, racing stock cars at local tracks in the Midwest, there was only a few of us. And now you look back, and there’s like 20. So, it’s great to see that, and it’s cool they’re not just racing, they’re also winning.

PB: What do you say to them when they come up to you and seek advice?

Decker: I really like to just tell them not to give up, and I know that’s like the biggest advice everyone gives people, but when I was coming through racing, and I still, I’m still learning myself and still making my way to the top, but the biggest thing is there’s so many hard things that happen and things that make you want to quit, that you just have to remember why you’re doing it and why you love it.

PB: No doubt, it’s a tough thing. I mean at the end of the day when it gets to the top, there’s only 40 seats, so it’s pretty tough to get from division to division, and it gets harder each level.

Decker: Yes, it does get harder each level. The competition gets tougher, and the cars get harder to drive.

PB: Now last season, it seemed to be a bit of a challenge. You started with a pole in ARCA Daytona and a top five, but also in the middle of the season got injured, had to get hernia surgery. About that, what was the feeling like when you had to, when you were forced to get out of the car due to injury, and were you able to pick up some things while you were out of the car during a race and at least learn a little bit?

Decker: Yeah, it definitely sucked that I got a hernia. I got it from the Talladega wreck that I had, so that was horrible, but I only missed one race. And we worked really hard with the doctors and my team to figure out how we can make it the best way possible. I missed the first Pocono race, and Brennan Poole drove my car.

And that wasn’t any way that I wanted to be, like out of the car learning, but I learned so much sitting on the pit box and listening to him communicate to my team, and I learned a lot. So, it was cool with all the things that I learned, but it was definitely not a scenario that I wanted to happen.

PB: Just missing one race after surgery, that’s still … And you still had to start the race and all that [to get driver points], but just doing that, that’s something not too many other people would want to do.

Decker: Yeah, it was definitely difficult, even coming back then. The next race was Michigan. I remember coming back, and it was tough. But I had so many doctors helping me, and my team was really good with working with me. But I healed really fast, and it really helped being young and in shape. And I’m really little, so I feel like when they did it, it just went perfectly. Obviously I wanted to race Pocono, but I knew after the surgery happened, the hernia was bigger than they thought, so I knew after the surgery that I wasn’t going to be healing in a week. It was going to be more than a week.

 

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PB: Now, this season you’re going to be in a variety of cars, and with a new team, DGR-Crosley, doing a mix of ARCA, K&N Pro, and Gander Mountain Trucks, what’s your mindset not only going to a new team, (though you raced with them a few years ago), and moving up to the Truck Series?

Decker: Yeah, so this year’s going to be wonderful. I’m with a new team, DGR-Crosley, and I’m going to be racing. Mostly truck races, I’m going to be doing about 12 truck races, and a few ARCA races, and then one K&N race. I’m also going to be racing a Trans-Am car. I’m going to be doing five Trans-Am races with a different team, with Ave Motorsports, so it’s just going to be a wonderful season.

I’m going to be doing so many kinds of racing and learning as much as I can in all different series, in all different tracks, so I’m really excited for it. I’m really glad I’m kind of doing a whole bunch of different stuff just because this year I can, and I can learn as much as I can with all these different types of cars and two different teams. And definitely going back from road racing to superspeedways, mile and a halfs, short tracks, it’s going to be a good year.

PB: Yeah, just getting that variety, your learning curve is going to be even more than just being in one car.

Decker: Yes, definitely, ’cause I’ll be definitely doing a lot of different tracks. I also tried out for the W Series [an all women’s series sanctioned by the FIA], so I made it to the second round of that, and if I make that, that will definitely be really cool, because I’ll be traveling all over the country doing six races, if I make it. That’s at the end of March, is the second round of seeing who their drivers will be.

PB: Do you see any additional difficulties, as we pointed out, being in higher competition in the Truck Series?

Decker: Yes, just the drivers that I’m going to be racing against. They’ve been to all these tracks way more times than I have, and they’ve been racing a truck way longer than I have, so the competition’s going to be 10 times harder. Also I’m driving a completely new vehicle. I’m driving a truck now compared to an ARCA car or even when I raced back home in Wisconsin. I was really used to racing super late models up really until last year. So, there’s a lot of new things that are going to be happening, and then the competition gets way harder.

PB: With that, what are your goals for this season?

Decker: Well, right now I’m going to focus on Daytona, I really want to win [laughter]. But my goal really is to learn what I can in the ARCA car and bring it over to the truck for Daytona, just because I’m really new with the draft and all that stuff. So, I feel like I’m racing the ARCA car the week before is really going to help me, and then at the other tracks, I just want to learn as much as I can in the truck and from David [Gilliland], and finish in the top 10. I feel like that’s a good goal for me.

PB: And we’ll get you out of here on this. Talking about sponsorships, it’s no secret that’s what makes everything work. You’re moving up the ladder, but it probably doesn’t hurt to have more and more sponsorship. What do you tell a perspective sponsor that convinces them and makes them realize that they want to partner with you?

Decker: Ooh, that’s a good question. Well, racing in general, well just in sports in general, I feel like it’s so good to partner with an athlete, just because so many people look up to them. And social media is so big now, so many people want to be just like Jeff Gordon or Kyle Larson. So when you see Kyle Larson wearing an Arai helmet, that kid that races go-karts at his local track, he’s going to want to have an Arai helmet just like Kyle Larson. So, I feel like that’s really important, and a lot of sponsors really see that. And the sponsors that do see that are the ones you definitely see on the cars.

PB: Yeah, the big thing I notice and is for a lot of younger drivers is they really let their personality show, especially on social media. That kind of resinates to fans of all ages, to see more than just a person that’s in the car is you’re getting the other side. What they do at home, their hobbies and activities outside the track.

Decker: Yeah, I feel like that’s super important, because as a fan, and I’m a fan of some drivers, I like to see what they do at home. I’m a big fan of Martin Truex and his girlfriend, and I love to see what they’re doing, and I love following Sherry. It’s so good to show that on social media and even when you meet fans in person, because that’s what makes them relate to you and want to follow you even more.

[Photo: @nataliedecker]

About Phillip Bupp

News and soccer editor for The Comeback and Awful Announcing. I also do video highlight game coverage for Major League Soccer as well as a freelance writer for hire. Opinions are my own but feel free to agree with them.

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