Unlike Formula One, where women have been reduced to the role of Grid Girls or the occasional test diving job, NASCAR has for decades provided an opportunity for female drivers to test their skills in the most challenging races – and to compete on a level playing field with their male counterparts.
Sara Christian took part in the inaugural NASCAR race at the Charlotte Speedway in 1949, while Janet Guthrie, who became the first woman to drive in a superspeedway in 1973, often beat some of the best male drivers of the same period.
In the modern era, Danica Patrick has served as a role model for young female drivers who want to make a career in NASCAR. These new faces include Natalie Decker, who has already earned a reputation for being a fierce competitor on and off the track.
Unlike many NASCAR stars, Decker didn’t come from a NASCAR family and had to beg her Dad to buy her a go kart when she was nine. It didn’t take long for her to start racing and winning, however, taking four karting championships in two years and moving onto racing 4-cylinder modified stock cars when she was just 12-years-old.
Decker may not have come from an established NASCAR family, but she was following in the footsteps of her cousins, Paige and Natalie, who have both competed in the Xfinity Series and the Camping Work Truck Series, but who have now been surpassed by their more determined and talented cousin.
Natalie Decker moved into the big time in 2013 when, at the age of just 16, she made her debut in the ARCA Midwest Tour. It was an impressive inaugural season, with Decker finishing third in the points competition and winning the prestigious Rookie of the Year title in 2013.
It wasn’t long before some of the NASCAR teams began to pay attention to Decker and her obvious talent on the track, and she secured a place in the 2015 Drive for Diversity program, a scheme which is designed to encourage more women and people from ethnic minorities to become involved in the sport.
Decker’s first taste of a competitive NASCAR race came in 2016 when she finished 38th in qualifying for the Alpha Energy Solutions 250 race at the Martinsville Speedway. She failed to make the field, but along with her experience in the Alan Kulwicki driver development program, it was clear that Decker was set for a successful career.
In 2017 and 2018, Decker returned to her roots and drove for the Venturini team in national ARCA races, making her debut at the Toledo Speedway in a race in which she came home in 11th place. At the start of the 2018 season, Decker won her first ARCA pole at Daytona, eventually finishing in the fifth position.
Decker’s 2018 ARCA performances were so impressive she was even invited to do some test driving in a Le Mans Prototype racing car at the Sebring International Raceway. The car was fielded by family friend Tony Ave, who himself enjoyed an impressive NASCAR career, and Decker was due to take part in five races for his Trans Am team.
An action-packed 2018 ended with an announcement from NASCAR team DGR-Crosley that they had signed Decker to race a partial NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series schedule in 2019. This was a big step up for Natalie, but this ice-cool racer didn’t let the pressure get to her – even though her debut race was a bit of a nightmare.
Things couldn’t have gone much worse for Decker when she finally got the chance to make her debut in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series at Daytona. Her No. 54 Toyota truck ended up on fire on the first lap, after a piece of debris punctured a front tire and ruptured the vehicle’s oil line.
Despite the obvious danger of being behind the wheel of a flaming racing truck, Decker managed to steer the vehicle into the pit lane where her crew helped her out of the car and dealt with the fire. Within a few minutes, Decker was already able to laugh about the incident with her crew chief – after she had been checked out by the team medics, of course.
Natalie Decker has already proven that she is just as tough as established NASCAR drivers – and she is just as competitive as her male counterparts too. At the 2019 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at the Kentucky Speedway, Decker was involved in an on-track incident with Spencer Boyd, which saw both drivers eliminated from the race.
Perhaps showing her inexperience, Decker was unable to let the elimination go and found herself confronting Boyd after the race – and even grabbed his hat and threw it on the floor before being escorted away by members of her team. She was also given a verbal warning from a NASCAR official for her temper tantrum.
The Decker girls may not come from a NASCAR family, but that doesn’t mean that they have no link with the world of motor racing. In fact, her family is a big name in the rather niche world of snowmobile racing, and her dad used to own the Eagle River Derby Track, where the World Championship Snowmobile Derby takes place every year.
Clearly, Natalie, along with her cousins Paige and Claire, have decided that they want to challenge themselves on a bigger stage than the world of snowmobile racing, setting their sights on the elite circles of NASCAR instead. It probably helps that NASCAR races tend to take place in warmer cities too!
You can’t fail to notice that as well as being a great driver, Natalie Decker is also pretty easy on the eye. There are always going to be some critics who say that this is the only reason the 22-year-old has made it as far as she has in the sport - but don’t forget that Danica Patrick managed to combine a successful career with supermodel looks.
Like any ordinary 22-year-old, Decker is a big fan of social media and has also found ways to use it to promote her racing career, as well as what she gets up to her in her private life. As well as her official website, Natalie is also a regular poster on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, where she is a big fan of selfies at the track.
The NASCAR star is not afraid to give her fans a glimpse of her life behind the scenes too, including shots at the gym and at yoga class which show just how hard racing drivers have to work in order to keep fit. With over 100,000 followers on Instagram Natalie has to keep her fans entertained.
Not everyone is a fan of Natalie Decker’s attitude toward social media. Her fellow female driver Hailie Deegan threw some serious shade at Decker on July 2019, when she was quoted as saying that she was “a racer, not a model” when telling Dale Earnhardt Jr that she wants to be taken seriously as a racer. Not that Decker seems to care…
Time will tell whether Natalie Decker or Hailie Deegan makes it to highest echelons of NASCAR – or maybe they both will – but Decker is certainly making the most of her current opportunities and enjoying living her best life while it lasts. Sport is an uncertain career, and you have to enjoy the ride while it lasts.
Decker certainly doesn’t act like a precocious supermodel when it comes to race day; she is more than happy to get her hands dirty with the rest of mechanics and to pitch in when they need to some work on her vehicle to make sure that it is up and running for race day.
Sources: NY Times, ESPN, Home Tracks, Motor Sport