Hailie Deegan was resigned to the notion that she would not have a high school graduation ceremony. Being homeschooled was a sacrifice made so she could devote the time necessary to develop a career as a professional race car driver.
So last week while many of her friends attended their graduation at Rancho Christian High School in her hometown of Temecula, Calif., Deegan, a rookie on the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, was focused on qualifying for the Carneros 200 at Sonoma Raceway.
The folks at Sonoma, however, had a surprise.
During driver introductions, Deegan, the daughter of freestyle motocross legend Brian Deegan, was handed a cap and gown to wear over her racing fire suit and then presented with her diploma.
“I really had no clue,” said Deegan, who started in the third position. “It was pretty cool.”
In addition to being a graduate, Deegan recently was one of nine drivers named to 2018 NASCAR Next class, which identifies prospects with the potential to make it on the racing circuit.
She is a member of the Bill McAnally Racing team and the only full-time female driver in the K&N Pro West Series. This is all before she turns 17 in July.
“Graduating high school is a game-changer as far as my career,” said Deegan, who in 2013 became the first female to win a championship in the Lucas Oil Off-Road Racing Series, taking the Junior 2 title. “Right now, I had been pretty limited to staying on the West Coast because of trying to get all of my work done for high school.”
Deegan had been balancing high school with going to the local go-kart track on Tuesdays and driving at Irwindale Speedway on Wednesdays. Weekends were spent racing late-model cars at tracks around Southern California.
That had been her routine since she started competing in off-road races when she was 8.
“More than anything, graduating from school is a stress-releaser,” Deegan said. “I can focus mentally completely on my career. Now, I can really spend all the time that I want on the track. If you are going to be good at something, you really have to put in the time to work at it.”
Given her roots, Deegan was likely to end up in some kind of motor vehicle. With 10 medals, Brian Deegan is the most decorated freestyle motocross rider in the history of the X-Games. He began transitioning to car racing in 2009.
“I knew how to ride a dirt bike when I was really young,” she said. “But it was never like this is what I want to do. I always felt sketchy on a dirt bike — to this day.”
Steering a four-wheel vehicle was a different story.
Deegan became the Modified Kart National Champion in 2016. She then began the transition to asphalt racing by driving “Legend” cars for Rev Racing as part of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program.
She made her first NASCAR Next Team in 2017 as the youngest member and also became a member of Toyota’s driver development program.
In January, Deegan was signed by McNally Racing. She is the only full-time female competitor on the K&N Series — West or East.
Deegan is already drawing comparisons to recently retired Danica Patrick.
While Deegan understands, she says she thinks the comparisons are based almost exclusively on both being females.
“We came from totally different backgrounds,” said Deegan, who always favored seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmy Johnson. “We’re totally different driving styles on the track and different personalities off the track. I think the only thing people are trying to attach me to [Patrick] is for being another girl.”
There are no shortcuts to a NASCAR career. Deegan is willing to be patient, gaining experience to optimize her chances to be a long-term success.
The immediate goal is to get her first win on the K&N Series and staying full-time in 2019.
Deegan hopes to advance to the Camping World Truck series, the Xfinity Series and one-day in the not so distance future, the Monster Energy Cup Series.
“You typically only get one shot at this,” she said. “You have to be ready for them when the opportunities come.”
Sometimes top-tier racers end up driving in K&N events. In her debut in March at Kern County Raceway Park, Deegan found herself battling late for position with Cup Series wins leader Kevin Harvick — finishing seventh to his fourth.
After the race, Harvick said, “If I had to pick one person to say, ‘All right, that’s the person [Kevin Harvick Incorporated] would want to represent because of potential,’ it would be Hailie Deegan.”