By Zack Albert
Published: 17 Dec, 2019
5 Minute Read
CONCORD, N.C. — Ford Performance announced Tuesday the addition of Hailie Deegan to its driver development program, ensuring that the next steps of the rising star’s stock-car racing career will be made with the automaker’s backing.
The groundwork for that progression was spelled out in the mid-December announcement, with Deegan slated for a full 20-race season in the ARCA Menards Series, plus select sports-car events in a Mustang GT4 in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge. Her ARCA schedule will be contested with the DGR-Crosley organization, which made its own switch to Ford last Wednesday.
“It was really cool because they came to me,” Deegan told NASCAR.com about Ford’s interest. “It shows that people care, it shows that they want to be fully invested and want to better your future and have a good relationship for a long time, and that’s something that I was super-interested in when they came to me. I know that it’s going to be a crazy next year, and if everything goes well with David Gilliland Racing, which I think it will because he has such a good program, we should have some good success next year.”
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Deegan became one of NASCAR’s top budding prospects by making history as the first woman to win a race in its developmental K&N Pro Series West (now ARCA Menards Series West) in 2018. The 18-year-old driver added two more series victories this year. All three wins came by bold final-lap passes.
That sort of potential mixed with a sometimes-brash driving style is what drew the attention of Mark Rushbrook, Ford Performance Motorsports’ global director. That she has already established an engaging social media presence came as a bonus.
“From the competition side, it was seeing her aggression on track, seeing how she races, the results that she delivers, and more importantly what we see off the track in terms of her mindset, her commitment to develop in every way that she can, whether it’s on the simulator, driving her own sim at home, a motorcycle, a quad or whatever,” Rushbrook said. “It’s all about getting in a vehicle and vehicle dynamics.
“That’s the biggest thing that attracted us from the competition side, and then also on the marketing side, just the way that she’s already been able to develop such an extensive reach to be able to tell her story at such a young age is very impressive, and that’s only going to continue to grow, we think, as she advances through the different levels inside of NASCAR. We expect her competition level to grow as well as her marketing presence.”
Deegan got her first taste of ARCA competition last season, netting four top-10 finishes in a six-race slate for Venturini Motorsports. That partial schedule included a best result of fifth place at Lucas Oil Raceway near Indianapolis.
Though her new alignment with DGR-Crosley could eventually provide an avenue to the organization’s involvement in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, Deegan says she’s concentrating for now on the two-series task that’s ahead.
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“I think by the end of the year, I would love to. As of now, we’re fully investing into ARCA and our funding is invested into ARCA,” Deegan says. “If some other deals come along, then yeah, I’ll go truck racing. Man, I want to race Eldora. So I for sure do, but at the end of the day for right now, we’re focusing on the ARCA program and being successful there.”
Her aspirations for both series will begin next year in Daytona. Deegan, who has already acclimated herself to Ford’s IMSA entry through simulator work, will drive the Mustang GT4 for real in the Roar Before the 24 test session Jan. 3-5. She’ll team with fellow Ford prospect Chase Briscoe for Multimatic Motorsports in the series’ season opener Jan. 24 on the 3.56-mile oval and road course layout, a day before the annual Rolex 24.
Road courses haven’t been a part of Deegan’s varied background, which has its roots in off-road racing with some go-karting spliced in. Time with Ford’s simulator has helped establish a baseline, something she can build on as IMSA’s opening weekend nears.
“What makes a good driver is well-rounded drivers, ones that are good at multiple things,” Deegan said, “so I think that coming from dirt racing, getting to asphalt, then having some road-course background thrown into it, it’s going to help the whole, all-around stock-car racing a lot.”
Deegan joins a crop of Ford development drivers that includes Briscoe, Austin Cindric, Ben Rhodes and others. Cole Custer, 21, is the most recent graduate from the Ford youth initiative as he joins Stewart-Haas Racing for his rookie season in the NASCAR Cup Series next year.
Deegan’s shift to Ford also represents a family homecoming. Her father, Brian, drove Fords as part of his decorated X Games career, wheeling a Ford Fiesta to Rallycross gold in 2011. He also drove Fiestas in the Global Rallycross Championship and a Ford Raptor in the Lucas Oil Off-Road Series. Tuesday marked the Deegan family’s newest connection to Ford as a No. 4 Fusion with Hailie Deegan’s name above the door sat on the floor of the Ford Performance Technical Center.
The younger Deegan’s move also represents a break with Toyota Racing Development, which fostered her career the last two seasons. While eager to begin her next chapter, Deegan took care to express her gratitude for Toyota’s role in her progress.
“The Toyota program is a great program, and they develop a lot of drivers,” Deegan says. “It has its pros and cons because there’s so many drivers there. I think that they gave me a good introduction to the NASCAR world, helped me kind of find my place, and I think after that, once Ford came to us, it was just something that, OK, what’s going to be best for us long term?”
In the short term, the spotlight has already beamed brightly on Deegan’s emergent career. Her arrival at Ford not only signals the potential for continued on-track performance, but brings the intangibles possessed by one of the sport’s most engaging and marketable young talents.
The jump to a full ARCA slate and IMSA will likely ratchet up that attention, scrutiny that relatively few teenagers have to face. Deegan, however, seems to embrace that spot on the larger stage.
“It’s really hard because at the end of the day in NASCAR racing, you’re going to have a lot more bad races than good races,” Deegan says. “That’s just how it is. One person wins. You’re going to have a lot of bad days.
“The thing is, when the spotlight’s on you, they notice the bad days and the good days. It’s not just the good times and when you’re on top that they notice you. They notice those days that you’re off a little bit, you’re having a bad day or you’re not on top of your game. So that’s something that has its pros and cons, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”