My oh my, how time flies…
On September 30, 2018, NASCAR history was made at Meridian Speedway, as Hailie Deegan became the first female to win a K&N Pro Series race.
One year later, here we are.
To relive that evening in Idaho requires a rewind two weeks further. The 11th race of the 2018 season, taking place at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Dirt Track, the first time the K&N Pro Series had raced on that circuit.
Given her extensive background on dirt, Deegan was considered a favorite for the win. In the weeks leading up, she repeatedly said anything short of a win would be a disappointment.
She wound up pacing the field in practice and made her first bit of history, becoming the first female to win a K&N Pro Series pole award. As the race wound down, she wasn’t able to catch and pass eventual winner Sheldon Creed.
"I feel like I almost failed myself," Deegan told NASCAR.com. "That was my race everyone expected me to win that race out of any of them. And I thought to myself ‘if I can’t win the dirt race, I’m not going to win any race.’"
"I was so disappointed in myself."
Coming off two finishes outside the top 20 in their last three races, then crew chief Kevin Reed Jr. shared his drivers agony, but saw it as a stepping stone to something greater.
"We finally got a little bit of a monkey off our back," Reed said. "We had a string of bad finishes, bad luck, and Vegas was almost like a fresh start. Even in the shop, Andrew (Mibach, car chief) and I were relieved, almost."
But they wanted more; so they got to work.
Reed and Mibach tore apart the Meridian car to the bare chassis and rebuilt the entire thing. Repeated 6 a.m. wake-up calls, late nights and hard work left them in the best headspace they’d ever been in.
"We were going to win that race," Reed recalled. "I mean, it felt like we had the best shot to win it. Don’t know why, but we worked like we did and made ourselves believe it. We showed up to win that race and were set on kill."
In the shop, confidence was high. But Deegan still had some work to do in that department, reeling off her Vegas dismay.
"I was never really confident in myself. Like, I was never saying ‘I’m the best driver here, I’m going to win this,’ but Kevin did a good job of keeping me confident," she said. "He always said ‘I have the best driver,’ and that’s what really helped my confidence. I was always like ‘I’m not as good as these guys, they’ve been racing a lot longer than me,’ I always felt inexperienced compared to everyone."
Once the No. 19 Mobil 1/NAPA Power Premium Plus Toyota hit the track, it was clear the hard work had paid off initially. Deegan posted the fastest time in practice, but the team missed something in qualifying, posting the fourth quickest time.
The roller coaster of confidence was back. Quick in practice, let down in qualifying. So what did Reed do? Before pre-race ceremonies began, he and Deegan went over a game-plan.
"Before the race I sat Hailie down and was like ‘listen, we’re going to pick a time about 10 laps into the race and we’re going to run that time until I tell you to go hard.’ She looked at me and listened, ran it all night," he recalled. "(I told her) we just need to take our time tonight and we’ll be fine."
By her side at nearly every race since she began, Hailie’s father, Brian, had a similar chat with her.
"That night, we had a talk and I said ‘if you’re going to win this race, you’re going to have to get aggressive,’" Brian Deegan said. "’This track plays to that style and it’s going to reward you if you play to it. You’re not going to make any friends, but the end result will be worth it.’"
Deegan remembers how different of a vibe it was that day, which kept everything in perspective.
"It was just honestly one of the most fun races for me and my crew," she said. "(Kevin) and all the crew guys, we were all just getting along that day. Practice went well, we were fast. That was the one race where I felt like I actually knew what I was doing."
"I felt comfortable. I think you do the best on those weekends when you’re not under pressure. Everything fell in the right place that weekend."
As the green flag flew, Deegan rode inside the top five as she and Reed discussed. Her teammate Derek Kraus was up front dominating for over 185 laps, until the final caution came out.
That yellow flag for Taylor Canfield happened right in front of Kraus, who was forced to slow down and sustained minor damage trying to get around him. He fell back to third for what would be the final restart, giving the lead to the other Bill McAnally Racing driver.
Enter: Cole Rouse.
The then driver of the No. 99 NAPA Filters Toyota was in position for his first career win. All he had to do was hold off Deegan and Kraus for 13 more laps.
Easier said than done.
"We were talking on what she needed to do on the final restart," Reed recalled. "And I said ‘you wait until it’s time and you make your move. However you wanna do it, I’m good with it. You got one bullet, make sure when you pull that trigger it hits.’"
From a team owner perspective, Bill McAnally was in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. Sure, his cars were running 1-2-3, but he foresaw the possibility of what happened earlier this season at Colorado happening that night.
"We always have a meeting at the beginning of the year," McAnally said. "I don’t want then wasting their equipment on each other early in the race, but when it comes down to 10 to go, you need to do what you’re capable of doing to win the race. I don’t want you to leave anything on the table. Do not take a teammate out of the race."
With that in mind, Deegan stayed with Rouse for the entirety of the run. Peeking high, peeking low, staying within striking distance, ready to pounce.
"Those last three laps when I was on his bumper, I was so tense," she said. "I’ve never squeezed the wheel so hard and been so engaged with my whole body. I was trying to be as precise as possible, and I don’t think I could have any more precise with how I was driving, seriously trying to make zero mistakes."
"White flag, go get it," Reed radioed to her as the final circuit commenced.
Then came the bump-and-run heard ’round the world.
Deegan dove inside of Rouse, bumping him into the high groove coming off Turn 2.
"I remember hitting him and running for my life, as fast as I could," Deegan said with a chuckle.
She held it low in Turns 3 and 4 and took the checkered flag, leading one of the 208 laps, but made sure it was the most important one.
History was made.
The cool-down lap and moments following the checkered flag are still a blur for Deegan, as she tried to recall the emotions but remembered everybody screaming on the radio.
"I got the checkered flag and everything started to sink in after I did those horrible burnouts. There’s a lot more I could have done better," she said with a laugh.
Said McAnally: "It worked out as good as it possibly could for having contact with your teammate."
Her father Brian was the one at the go-kart track everyday, helping perfect her race craft, aggressiveness, bump-and-runs, how and when to set up passes. And even though he knew that she knew what to do, his nervousness as a coach turned into nervousness as a father.
"We started getting excited and even talked about it," Brian said. "Like ‘if you’re in second place, on the last lap, you have to go for it, dude. There’s no question.' She executed it perfectly and did it at the perfect time. I was starting to freak out. She just needs to get to the finish. I was so nervous that last lap, I was trippin’. ‘No way she’s freakin’ winning the race.’ "
To say @mmgeneral and Marissa Deegan are bursting with pride for their daughter would be an understatement.
— Davey Segal (@DaveyCenter) September 30, 2018
"It’s just a lot of built up emotion, a lot of years, a lot of work, a lot of hours," he said. "Everything paid off there that night for us to go win. Definitely one of the coolest moments in my life and our racing history. Me, (Hailie’s mother) Marissa, everyone was in tears for sure."
"Some people are like ‘oh, it’s K&N,’ but like, (expletive) man, no girl’s done it yet! It was a really, really big deal for sure."
With the thrill of victory comes the agony of defeat. Now out of racing and in the real estate business, Cole Rouse recalled the final lap vividly.
"I remember the white flag of course," Rouse said. "Thought I had a big enough gap and thought I was going to win. She bumped me, and I tried to get back to her in Turn 3. I was thinking about going to the grass and door slamming her to win, but I probably would’ve gotten penalized for that."
Understandably, Rouse was upset, but he’s at peace with the race and is happy to be a part of NASCAR history — albeit on the wrong side of it.
VIDEO RECAP: Hailie Deegan’s Historic Night
"After that I was pretty disappointed," he said. "The fans were booing me because I said some stuff I shouldn’t have said on the microphone, just heat of the moment. But it doesn’t bother me anymore. I’m honestly glad she won, it’s a way bigger deal for her to win than me and I got to be a big part of the first female winning a NASCAR race."
From the self doubt of Deegan on the Vegas dirt to Reed’s work ethic in the shop, the road to the winner’s circle for the No. 19 camp wasn’t an easy one. But the belief went a long way.
"It was one of those weekends that Andrew (car chief) and I went there and said we’re the guys to beat," Reed said. "We made ourselves believe it. We walked around like it, we talked like it, we had that feeling and it’s rare you get those feelings in motorsports. It was almost like we couldn’t do it wrong."
"It just all fell into place so right that it was meant to be. We were there at the right time in the right situations. It was a storybook deal, honestly."
Following the Victory Lane celebration, Deegan returned to her hotel, got a couple hours of shut eye and flew home, trophy in hand. As the news made waves on social media as the East coast of the United States woke up Sunday morning, the reaction started pouring in.
"That’s when it really hit me," she said. "Everyone was sleeping on the East coast because the race was so late. It was like 10-11 p.m. on the West coast, nothing really hit hard until the next morning. I remember going back to the hotel, I think I slept for like two hours, and I looked at my social media the next morning and it was just crazy."
And so has the whirlwind that has been the 365 days that have followed.
"It felt like it was so long ago, but I also feel like it just happened," she said. "Now that I’ve won three races and it’s all kind of there, it’s like dang, we’ve accomplished so much and all the work we’ve been putting in."
As the celebration died down, the grandstands emptied and the yellow Meridian water tower looked over the almost empty speedway, haulers began to file out as the lights flickered.
Before Deegan departed around 12:30 a.m., a faint echo emanated from some fans giving her one last hurrah on the night that was.
About 200 yards in the distance, Deegan gave them a thumps up, a hearty "yeah!" pumping the trophy up in the air, and took off, still covered in Gatorade and confetti.
A fitting end to a historical night.