Even at 5’1”, 14-year-old Katie Hettinger will walk into Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway a little taller this Saturday. That’s because on Sept. 4 at the .363-mile oval, Hettinger won the 50-lap Limited Late Model feature as part of the Bobby Isaac Memorial event.
In scoring her first victory at the “Birthplace of the NASCAR Stars,” the Dryden, Michigan-native became the youngest female race winner at Hickory at 14 years, 2 months and 10 days.
She did it in style too. Hettinger put her No. 71 Victory Custom Trailers/Incredible Bank Chevrolet on the pole, but she had to battle fellow Michigander Max Price for the lead, finally earning the top spot on lap 26. The 19-year-old Price stayed in Hettinger’s rearview mirror through the checkered flag as she took the victory in just her 11th Limited Late Model start at Hickory.
“Max and I raced side-by-side for a couple laps on the start before he got around me and then we just kind of stayed in line, pulling away from the rest of the cars, but he never pulled away from me,” Hettinger said. “I was still right behind him, but I had to match my corners right to be able to set up a pass. About 20 laps in my crew chief told me I only had 30 laps left, so I knew that if I wanted to win I had to make my move quickly.
“We were catching lapped traffic, so I put two corners together as best I could. I got a run on Max halfway down the front straightaway and he gave me room going into the corner, so I used it. We ran side-by-side for a lap and when we caught a lapped car, he went a little higher. I was able to get a good run on the bottom and got around him. After that, I was able to pull away and come home with the win.”
Hettinger is a third-generation racer who attended her first race at only four weeks old. By age five, she was racing Quarter Midgets. At first, it was only locally, but soon Hettinger was racing regionally and then nationally, collecting more than 40 wins.
At nine, she moved up to Junior Sprints and 600cc Micro Sprints, competing on dirt from 2016 through 2018. But pavement beckoned. A 12-year-old Hettinger transitioned to full-bodied stock cars in the Champion Racing Association (CRA) Junior Late Model Series. She proved to be a quick study.
After finishing fourth in the 2019 championship and earning the Sportsman of the Year award, Hettinger upped her game in 2020. She took two wins and earned three fast-time awards, one of which set a new track record at Anderson (Ind.) Speedway. She ended the season as the 2020 CRA Junior Late Model Series champion – the first and only female champion in the CRA’s 25-year history.
Since turning 14 on June 25 and getting her NASCAR license, Hettinger has scrapped the “Junior” tag from her Late Model. She competes at the highest level of local stock car racing, commuting from Michigan to race in the southeastern hotbed of the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series.
“If I want to go to NASCAR, then I have to race down here and get used to everything,” Hettinger said. “But just driving in general, I’m comfortable with it, I’m used to it, and I’ve always just loved going fast.”
Her win at Hickory came in her 19th overall start at the track. In addition to 11 Limited Late Model starts, she has made four Late Model Stock starts and four starts in the Carolina Pro Late Model Series.
“The Late Model Stock car is definitely faster. I feel like I have more control in the Limited Late Model just because I’m more comfortable with it and I’ve had so many laps in it, but the more I race the Late Model Stock and Carolina Pro cars, the more comfortable I get. The Carolina Pro Late Model is more fun because it’s faster and I get to race it at a lot of different tracks.”
A return to the familiar confines of her Limited Late Model is on tap for Hettinger Saturday at Hickory. It’s one of the nearly 30 races Hettinger has on her schedule this year as she balances being a high-school freshman with her near-weekly, 700-mile commute from Michigan to North Carolina.
“I juggle everything I do with sports and school and it can be hard sometimes, but a lot of people are very understanding and I’m able to stay on top of it,” Hettinger said. “I still get mostly A’s and some B’s, and I play a lot of school sports, so sometimes I miss a volleyball game, track meet or a basketball game but, overall, I’m able to manage it.”
Hettinger is committed to this juggling act. She’s racing in the Southeast now with an eye on her future.
“The driving styles down here are different, more aggressive, and the cars are faster too,” Hettinger said. “I’m getting some really good experience.
“After I turn 15, I’d like to test and run an ARCA car. The NASCAR Cup Series is my ultimate goal, and it always has been.”
Beyond the pit crew that helps her at the track, Hettinger has the full support of her family as she chases her NASCAR dream. This includes her 11-year-old sister Grace and 2-year-old brother Keith.
“My mom and dad are very supportive and understanding, and my sister races dirt sometimes, but she’s more of a dancer. My little brother loves racing and he always wants to go see Katie’s racecar. They’re all in this dream as much as I am.”