Rising talents Deegan, Daniels and O’Leary are carrying the torch for women in motorsports

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Hailie Deegan’s season-opening victory in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series West at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last weekend was that she doesn’t consider the victory big news just because she’s a young woman.

To Deegan, the achievement is important because of the strong statement it makes about the season to come. She’s there to win. And she’s already shown she can.

Today marks International Women’s Day – and in the sporting world, in particular, it’s appropriate to look at how women’s roles have changed with a concept so basic as opportunity.

Deegan, and many women involved in the competition side of NASCAR, continue to carry the torch forward.

“I think that’s the great thing about NASCAR,” Deegan said. “There’s so much room for a girl to come in and take over the sport, do things no one else has done. In the world now, there’s not a lot of areas to do that and I think NASCAR presents a lot of opportunities for a girl to come in and to really do that.”

Certainly that’s been the case in ways both ordinary and high profile. The NASCAR industry has women in major leadership positions – from Lesa France Kennedy, who is CEO of the International Motorsports Corporation and Vice Chairperson of the NASCAR Board of Directors to Julie Giese, who oversees this week’s race venue, ISM Raceway in Phoenix, to Jill Gregory, who serves as NASCAR’s executive vice president & chief marketing officer.

But the sport also has women working hard on race day in other varied and innovative ways – driving cars like Hailie Deegan, and working on pit crews like Brehanna Daniels and Breanna O’Leary and serving as race engineers such as Angela Ashmore and Andrea Mueller – all roles even recent generations didn’t necessarily foresee. Ashley Partlett Malec was among the pioneers who worked in the garage for Chip Ganassi Racing for years.

Both Deegan and Giese were just named to Forbes Magazine’s prestigious Women to Watch in 2019 list. The recognition is well-deserved and something these women are glad to embrace. And best of all, they aren’t alone in their endeavors.

“Everything I’ve worked for and everything I’ve planned to accomplish, I’ve wanted this all to happen,” Deegan said of her increasing success in NASCAR.

“I think I just put the most pressure on myself. There is other pressure, but mostly from me wanting to perform the best I can, not just going out there and being the best of a couple girls, I want to be the best driver out there.”

Both Daniels and O’Leary share the same kind of sentiment in terms of working hard. However, they were both college athletes and neither says they had even considered working in the NASCAR industry until rather unlikely paths were established.

Daniels still laughs telling the story of when the game announcer the Norfolk State University girls basketball team she played for, stopped her one day at lunch – mid-bite – to encourage her to attend an on-campus tryout for the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Development program. 

“She told me, I feel like you’ll do a really good job because you do good at anything you put your mind to,” Daniels recalled.

“She pulled out her phone and showed me a video of a pit stop and my reaction was, ‘dang that’s fast’. Not knowing much about anything, I was just fascinated by it all.”

Daniels vividly remembers an unlikely source of motivation she gained while attending the tryout. She was the only woman among four men at this particular stop and one of the other male students participating told her, “girls don’t really make it in this” – that this line of work was not for women.

“That just gave me that extra motivation to make this happen,” Daniels said. “I’m going to score, I’m going to be that change, that difference.”

And she has been. The rest of the story is both “history” as the saying goes, but also the future.

O’Leary agrees and shares a similar story of NASCAR origin. As with Daniels, she hadn’t been a particularly robust fan of the sport. She was a college softball player at Alcorn State University in Mississippi and working a job as a graduate assistant in the school’s strength and training program.

She tried out for NASCAR Drive for Diversity in 2016 and, following a national combine, was selected for the program and began working with race teams. O’Leary credits the hard work and mental strength she developed as a college athlete to help her in this completely new venture. It was admittedly outside her comfort zone, and a personal challenge.

“Everybody is shocked at first then thinks it’s just the coolest thing ever,” O’Leary says of the reaction she gets from friends and family about working in the NASCAR pits. “I think of course women are probably thinking, ‘it’s great to see women out here,’ and the reaction I’ve gotten from men, is at first maybe disbelief then followed by, ‘that’s cool.’

“I never would have imagined the impact that has come from this. And that’s the most rewarding part of it, being a role model for younger girls who thought this was something they couldn’t do or maybe were scared to do.

“I hope I make them proud and set a good example so it’s always looked at in a positive manner. Looking at the bigger picture they would see my whole story, of working hard to learn something brand new that can get you somewhere regardless of gender.”

Last month Daniels and O’Leary pitted together on Rick Ware Racing’s No. 52 car in the Daytona 500 – the first time female graduates of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Pit Crew Development program went over the wall in the Great American Race. This weekend Daniels will once again be on the No. 52 car in the Cup Series and O’Leary will be pitting the No. 77 car in the ARCA Menards Series race.

“I receive messages, pictures and videos on a daily basis of parents showing me their little girls trying to change a tire,” Daniels said. “Young people, old people, everyone reaching out.”

And, she happily reminds us, her ability to achieve this goal is also a reminder for others what devotion and pursuit can achieve no matter the hurdles you must overcome.