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The next Danica? Ford signs racing female phenom Hailie Deegan

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Could Hailie be the next Danica?

The racing world was abuzz Tuesday as Ford Performance Motorsports signed female driving phenom Hailie Deegan. Desperate for the next Danica Patrick — the popular IndyCar and NASCAR superstar who retired in 2018 — the motorsports community had its eyes on the 18-year-old Californian as the Next Big Thing.

Hailie Deegan will race full-time for Ford in the ARCA oval series in 2020 while also gaining road course experience in an IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge Mustang GT4.

The only woman to win NASCAR K&N Pro Series (NASCAR feeder series) races, Deegan will race full-time for Ford in the ARCA oval series in 2020 while also gaining road course experience in an IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge Mustang GT4. She will strap into the Mustang for her first official Ford ride at Daytona in January.

“Hailie has shown in her brief time behind the wheel of a stock car that she’s got what it takes to be successful,” said Ford Performance chief Mark Rushbrook at Ford’s Concord, North Carolina tech center. “Our goal is to put her on a path to realize our shared goal of winning championships and part of that is gaining experience on tracks such as road courses and superspeedways. We feel this year will serve as a good foundation for what lies ahead.”

What lies behind is already formidable.

Born into a racing family that includes her father Brian, a Ford Fiesta Rallycross veteran, Deegan started racing dirt bikes at the age of 7. At age 14 she was Modified Kart National Champion and at 16 was named 2016 Lucas Oil Off Road Driver of the Year. Since transitioning to asphalt in 2018 in the K&N Series, she has won three times with eight pole positions secured.

The youngest driver and only female in the series, she was initially recruited by Toyota as part of the exclusive NASCAR Next class of drivers before Ford signed her away to its development program.

“(At Ford) there's a lot more focus and a lot more clear path on what they're trying to do with their development drivers, their drivers coming through the ranks, having enough seats for them,” Deegan said at the North Carolina news conference.

That she is the rare female in NASCAR’s farm system is a surprise seven years after Patrick made her NASCAR Cup debut. Patrick was hailed as a role model for women drivers and a flood of female racers entered motorsport. But as the decade draws to a close, Deegan is the rare talent to make a dent. The race world has high hopes.

“The path that Danica was supposed to have opened into stock cars hasn’t happened,” says veteran motorsports journalist Steven Cole Smith with Autoweek.com. “There have been few up-and-comers with the proper funding. A lot of people think that the female driver with the next real shot is Hailie Deegan.”

Deegan will compete full time with Ford (and its race team partner DGR-Crosley) in 2019 in the 20-race ARCA series - which features longer, high-speed oval tracks than the short track ovals of K&N. Like major league baseball’s farm system, NASCAR employs a ladder system to feed rising talent into its Xfinity and top-dog Monster Energy Cup Series. ARCA is the rung that feeds drivers into Xfinity.

Deegan had a taste of ARCA last year in a part-time ride with Toyota’s team – posting a Top Five finish. Ford pulled off a bit of coup by signing Deegan away from Toyota.

“I'm super excited to kind of rekindle the relationship my dad had with Ford, bring that back to our lifestyle, what we have going on. Now racing a full season in ARCA next year, starting off at Daytona,” said Deegan.

Deegan has been recognized for her aggressive driving style and engaging personality – both key assets in NASCAR’s high-speed, rough-and-tumble playing field where drivers represent auto brands in a multi-million dollar TV fish bowl.

“She already has a large fan base which we're excited to get to know.,” said Ford Performance Marketing boss Rob Johnston, sitting alongside Deegan. “I think a lot of people are going to be joining her as fans because they're going to want to follow the story and we'll be able to link that to showcasing Ford products, whether it be Mustang, maybe the new Bronco, and certainly our trucks.”

Hailie will race in her Daytona debut alongside Chase Briscoe who has followed a similar path through Ford’s racing development program. He currently races in the Xfinity Series as well as IMSA.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.