Beyond the hype: Hailie Deegan out to show she's worthy of attention, NASCAR spot
Jack Irving has scouted hundreds of drivers throughout his life, but he says there’s something special about the buzz around Hailie Deegan.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Irving, senior manager and commercial director for Toyota Racing Development, the motorsports arm of the Japanese car company, which has invested as much or more in NASCAR driver development than any of its competitors over the last decade.
The 18-year-old Deegan is drawing major attention in NASCAR and has the industry wondering whether she can become the sport’s next superstar, one with the gravitas to attract much-needed mainstream attention.
In a short span, she’s built an impressive résumé. Multiple wins in NASCAR’s lower divisions. An energetic social media presence with hundreds of thousands of followers. Endorsements with Under Armour and Monster Energy. A burgeoning merchandise line. A racing pedigree, as the daughter of racer and X Games athlete Brian Deegan.
Still, industry executives preach patience. After all, she’s young and at least a couple years away from being able to compete in NASCAR’s premier Cup Series. To get there, she must keep winning. Anything short of that could lead to derisive comparisons to Danica Patrick, the trailblazing female driver who accomplished plenty but still became polarizing because of the outsized attention granted to someone who never won a race in NASCAR.
“In all the years I’ve done it, with some drivers who have been ridiculously good, I’ve never seen the impact [Deegan’s] had,” said Irving, who was the TRD executive who helped sign her to Toyota in 2016. “My concern in the beginning was: ‘Can you stay focused on your craft and have all of these other distractions around?’ I’ve been at the racetrack when there are two or three cameras on her and people following her around — and as much as I’m used to that in NASCAR with big drivers, you don’t typically see that [in NASCAR’s lower levels].”
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Born in 2001 and now splitting her time between her family’s home in Southern California and the NASCAR hotbed of North Carolina, Deegan’s rise has been steep. She originally raced off-road trucks before her mom signed her up in 2016 to race in the U.S. Legends cars Summer Shootout program, the Speedway Motorsports Inc.-owned junior racing series that many NASCAR drivers competed in during their younger days. She then tested a late-model stock car, where she caught the eye of a scout associated with Toyota.]
In 2019, she’s been racing in NASCAR’s fourth-rung K&N Series plus the ARCA Series. Deegan is being groomed to graduate to NASCAR’s national series ladder as soon as next year by making some starts in the third-tier Gander Outdoors Truck Series, Irving confirmed.
When asked about what makes her driving skills so impressive, Irving pointed to her ability to relay the right information to the team about how the vehicle is handling so mechanics can make the right adjustments. Deegan also has developed a penchant for driving aggressively, which is a can’t-teach attribute that has helped her earn last-lap passes for all three of her wins so far in NASCAR. That’s also earned her some social media critics.
“When she says what changes she wants in the car, and the team makes an adjustment, it goes faster — and that’s a lot harder than people give credit for,” Irving said. “Having an aggressive driver is not something you can teach; you can tell them, but if it’s not in them to be aggressive, it’s really hard.”
Fast forward to 2019, and without having run a race in any of NASCAR’s three national touring series, Deegan is already ranked No. 3 out of all NASCAR drivers in social media value this year, according to MVPindex (see chart, page 18). Perhaps even more remarkably, she’s No. 1 in total engagement among NASCAR drivers and No. 46 in the world, in value, for women in sports, MVPindex said.
With more than 490,000 followers on Instagram, Deegan already has more on the platform than any active NASCAR driver, notable because NASCAR is a Twitter-heavy sport but Instagram is seen as the social platform that has the most young users. Almost 90% of her engagement and social value comes from her Instagram account, where she averages 25,000 engagements per post with a 12% engagement rate, according to MVPindex. She’s also a standout on Twitter, where she is ranked around 50th among drivers based on followers but around 20th in mentions.
Deegan has achieved such social media prowess because many NASCAR fans — and wider proponents of women in sports — are desperate to find the sport’s next female heir apparent to Patrick, mixed with how energetic and clever Deegan is both in person and on social media. She recently tweeted about how her Uber driver drove the wrong way down a one-way street. Uber’s customer service account replied to her, asking for more info on her driver. In a reply that garnered nearly 3,000 likes, Deegan said: “I’m not gonna snitch on the man. Unless you wanna sponsor me.”
This buzz on social media has made Deegan alluring to brands.
Brian Deegan was one of the first endorsers of Monster Energy when it was known as Hansen Energy. He remains a brand ambassador to this day, making the partnership between the energy drink company and Hailie Deegan an authentic family affair.
Mitch Covington, Monster Energy’s vice president of sports marketing, said Monster will continue sponsoring Deegan as she rises up the NASCAR ladder. “We are huge fans and Monster is firmly behind her. The Deegans are a big part of the family here,” Covington said. “Hailie is a sweet girl, but she’s all business on the track.”
For Under Armour’s part, the apparel company first partnered with Deegan through UA Next, a program it uses to identify its next generation of endorsers. Deegan, who also was part of a similar program for NASCAR called NASCAR Next, then officially signed as an endorser in 2017.
While UA also has a deal with NASCAR’s most popular active driver, Chase Elliott, the company has interestingly been more heavily touting its relationship with Deegan, featuring her in social media posts where she is working out in UA garb.
UA, which envisions working with Deegan on its training and women’s lines, featured Deegan in an Instagram post in May touting its Rush product that attracted about 458,000 views. UA declined to share specifics on how Deegan’s content performs for the company but said that it “has been among some of the brand’s highest engaged content recently.” The company added that she “resonates extremely well with the younger consumer, which makes us excited for what’s to come and telling her story.”
Other brands that have worked with Deegan include Credit One Bank, which featured her in a “Women in NASCAR” content series, and iK9, a subsidiary of security/defense company Xtreme Concepts that focuses on providing trained dogs for security services and emotional support programs.
Of course, she is also a major endorser for Toyota. Deegan has been promoting the return of Toyota’s venerable Supra line of road cars this year, and she figures to play an important role in the car company’s efforts to evangelize the next generation of car buyers about why a Toyota should be the car they choose.
Deegan told Sports Business Journal she is looking to partner with about four blue-chip companies rather than line up as many sponsors as possible.
“There’s always a ton of little sponsors that want to get involved, but we’re trying to keep the group small enough to where it’s the heavy hitters — a solid four, great supportive sponsors is what we’re looking for,” Deegan said. “[Having a ton of sponsors] makes things a lot more complicated. … [I’m looking for] people who describe me best: Under Armour describes my training aspect; Monster is more my type with the aggressive personality.”
On top of sponsorship, Deegan’s merchandise is becoming a hot seller, with new shirts or diecast offerings often selling out within a few days of going on sale. Brian Deegan still runs his own merchandise website called ShopDeegan38.com, and uses it to sell merchandise from Hailie and his son Haiden Deegan, a 13-year-old motocross prodigy who already has more than 625,000 Instagram followers.
But out of Brian, Hailie and Haiden, it’s Hailie whose merchandise is the bestseller on the site, according to the Deegans. Hailie said her sales are going so well that she convinced her father to give her a 5% royalty on her business. She has adjusted her merchandise designs to be more in line with what NASCAR fans want, which tends to be shirts with bold graphics and multiple logos as opposed to more simple designs.
“It is really cool to see the support from NASCAR fans. Out of all the fans, they support their drivers the most,” Brian Deegan wrote in an email.
Deegan is represented by her dad and his longtime agency, Connexions Sports & Entertainment, on top of Toyota’s major role with her.
The family-affair nature of the Deegans is a constant; Hailie’s parents or grandparents have traveled with her through most of her races in recent years because she only just turned 18. Deegan also says that her father is constantly coaching her and reviewing tapes to see how she could go faster.
“I’m in the position I am because how he brought me up in the racing world — he’s been through it all,” Deegan said. “He’s been through the media side, on-track side, the breaking-the-bones side — good, bad, everything. It’s better for me to have someone who already went through it all and can direct me in the right direction than to have to figure it out on my own. He’s always been on my side.”
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Toyota has been instrumental to not just Deegan’s career but that of many rising NASCAR drivers in recent years. Having only entered the premier series in 2007 and going against rivals Ford and Chevy, which have been in NASCAR since the mid-20th century, Toyota has invested heavily to catch up. Toyota has the most robust marketing program and stacked driver development roster among the three car manufacturers competing in NASCAR.
Irving credited TRD President David Wilson with building the structure of the unit, and he said that among the most important things the company has done to develop drivers is partner with top-class teams. For example, Deegan races with Bill McNally Racing, which has long been seen as the class of the NASCAR K&N Series field. Toyota’s premier series partner is Joe Gibbs Racing, a four-time series champion.
Irving declined to disclose how much Toyota is investing into its racing program. He said equally critical has been getting some of its vendor partners from the street car business, such as JBL and Safelite Auto Glass, to become sponsors of Toyota teams.
“First of all, it’s just because no other manufacturer is doing and putting as much funding and effort into these kids as Toyota is — they’re developing the whole next generation of NASCAR racers,” Deegan said. “It’s a lot of investment for them, and no other manufacturer has been stepping up like they have, so that’s what makes them the key [entity] for any development driver coming up.”
Meanwhile, from the league perspective, NASCAR clearly has an interest in seeing Deegan succeed, as it runs a sport that is still trying to recover from the retirement of several star drivers in recent years. The sanctioning body has been keeping Deegan top of mind for fans and media in recent months, helping coordinate interviews and even having her take part in this year’s Daytona 500 media day as an analyst for NASCAR.com.
“Her social feeds are not lap times or how the car was running; she talks about her lifestyle, training regimen, what she’s doing with her family — all the things fans want to know about their favorite drivers.”
Jill Gregory, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, said Deegan has received the same support from the sanctioning body’s driver services department in things like media training as other drivers have. But Gregory said Deegan stands out for her willingness to accept virtually every opportunity that NASCAR brings to her.
“The one thing I see her do really well is taking advantage of opportunities that come her way and putting herself out there,” Gregory said. “Her social feeds are not lap times or how the car was running; she talks about her lifestyle, training regimen, what she’s doing with her family — all the things fans want to know about their favorite drivers. They want to understand what’s going on underneath the helmet.”
As a whole, the industry appears to be bullish on Deegan’s potential. According to a survey of more than two dozen executives across NASCAR, the majority said they expect her to eventually reach the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and compete for wins. No female driver has ever won a Cup Series race.
Still, some remain skeptical. Deegan knows she’ll have doubters; she says she reads her social media mentions, and about 75% of them are positive. But she has gotten some harsh comments — with a recent example being after she passed a driver for the win on the last lap but made contact with the driver in the process, spinning him out and driving a debate on social media afterward about whether the move was fair or foul.
“I feed off it. In the end, not everybody is going to like you,” Deegan said. “Everybody’s going to have their opinion. I’m not changing my driving style.”