Brooklyn, Mich. — While Danica Patrick’s racing career has come to a close following last month’s Indianapolis 500, Natalie Decker is just starting out in what she hopes will be a journey that leads her to the Monster Energy NASCAR series.
Decker, 20, is competing in her first full season in the ARCA Racing Series and finished 15th in her No. 25 Toyota Camry for Venturini Motorsports in Friday’s 200-mile race at Michigan International Speedway to kick off the weekend.
Decker competed part-time in the ARCA series last season for Venturini, finishing 11th, and on the lead lap in her debut in Toledo, then earning a season-best finish of seventh at Road America 100 in her final race of the season. She plans to run the entire 20-race schedule this year and has three top-10 finishes, including a fifth at Daytona, seventh at Toledo and eighth last weekend at Pocono.
Decker had hernia surgery last month and climbed in her No. 25 Camry at Pocono, running the first lap before giving way to Brennan Poole, who completed the race. She plans to run the entire race at MIS.
So, how did Decker get her start in racing?
Decker’s father, Chuck, owns a snowmobile race track in Eagle River, Wis., and she persuaded him to buy her a go-kart when she accompanied him on a business trip as a 7-year-old.
“When I was 7, I went with my dad on his business trip and we saw a go-kart track, so we stopped and watched and it was then that I told him I wanted a go-kart and I wanted to race NASCAR,” said Decker, who handles interviews like a NASCAR veteran who has been in the business for decades.
“Then, for my ninth birthday he got me a go-kart. It took a while since I begged him every day when he took me to school. As soon as I got the go-kart, I was hooked. I was already watching NASCAR on TV and really into it, and racing that go-kart every weekend made it even better.”
Decker watched Patrick race in the IndyCar series in Chicago during her pre-teen years, knowing then it was possible for a girl to make racing her profession.
“Danica’s family is really close to my family, since my dad raced snowmobiles against her dad and my aunt (Sue Decker) raced sleds and Danica’s mom worked on my aunt’s sled,” Decker said. “My aunt set Danica’s parents up on a date, and Danica’s middle name is Sue after my Aunt Sue.”
Decker attended a NASCAR race at Texas last year to watch Patrick race and stayed with Danica’s parents at the campground. She had the chance to talk briefly with Danica.
“I didn’t want to stay in a hotel, so I asked T.J. (Danica’s father) if I could stay with them in the campground, so I stayed with T.J. and Bev,” Decker said. “Danica came over and I had the chance to talk with her. She said that it (making it in NASCAR's ultimate series) was hard. She gave me a little advice, saying it’s almost like in high school where the teacher said, ‘This isn’t the real world yet; wait until you get in the real world.’ ”
Decker, who played hockey in high school, competed in late models before moving on to ARCA, winning Rookie of the Year honors as a 17-year-old, and winning as many as six races in a season.
Harrison Burton, the 17-year-old son of former NASCAR driver Jeff Burton, won the ARCA race at Pocono, but won’t be competing at MIS.
Brandon Jones, 21, will be competing in Saturday's Xfinity Series race for Joe Gibbs Racing at MIS, also taking over for Burton in the ARCA race.
Decker, who said she went upward of 200 mph at Pocono, talked about what she expects at MIS.
“The whole time you’re just holding it wide open at Talladega and Daytona, and I expect it to be a little different here; don’t think you’ll be able to hold it wide open for the entire race,” Decker said. “I know it's a two-mile track, but I kind of feel like it will be like a mile and a half and they are really hard race tracks, and that’s where I need to get more experience at because I come from short track racing.”
No doubt, Decker is into speed, saying she’s had dreams of being a fighter pilot.
“I’ve had other dreams, when I was younger and even still to this day I’ve always wanted to be a fighter pilot,” Decker said. “I’m really into the military. I wish I could do so much for the military. I wish I could send them stuff all the time. They do such an amazing job and I couldn’t be racing today if it wasn’t for them. I still want to get my pilot’s license.”
Decker is attacking her dreams and Friday's ARCA race will be another step in the right direction.