Deckers have Danica connection
The Decker girls come from a snowmobiling family in the upper Midwest, push back when pushed -- especially by each other -- and aspire to NASCAR.
Sisters Paige, 20, and Claire, 18, and cousin Natalie, 16, weren't just attempting to emulate Danica Patrick by participating in NASCAR's Drive for Diversity combine last week, but if they make the final cut for the program in December, they will have brought a story full circle. It's a story of snow and speed and Sues.
The Deckers knew the Patrick comparisons were inevitable. And they don't rebuff them. They consider her a role model. And besides, if not for their family, the Danica Patrick phenomenon might never have happened.
Patrick's middle name is Sue, in honor of Sue Decker, who set up Danica's parents on a blind date. Bev was a feisty mechanic on an all-female snowmobile team, T.J. a dashing young racer tearing up the courses of Wisconsin with Natalie's father, Chuck. Sue Decker is "Auntie Sue" to Paige, Natalie and Claire, and is the ex-wife of their uncle, Mike Decker.
"We were very connected," said Allen Decker, father of Paige and Claire. "They called Bev 'Captain Traction.' Everybody had their own name, and Bev and Sue were very close, and ultimately Bev met T.J., and Danica and her sister evolved out of that whole deal.
"We kind of grew up together, starting in '75, traveling together. Just like racers do, we saw each other every weekend, worked together, played together, raced together."
T.J. Patrick, who still has an affinity for snowmobiles, considering his appearances at Eagle River Derby Track for vintage races, called before the combine at Langley (Va.) Speedway last week to wish the girls well.
The Deckers don't brandish the Patrick connection, especially at events such as the D4D combine. But they consider it a fascinating part of their backstory.
"It's so shocking to know our parents raced on snowmobiles just like Danica Patrick's did," Paige said. "To even think we ran in the same go-kart series as her is another crazy thought. We're from a small town where all you know is snowmobiling, and that's all we thought we would ever do. To think now we're out there wheeling a late model is kind of crazy."
Danica Patrick was never more than a recreational snowmobiler, but Paige tried it, Claire despised it -- "I had glasses when I was younger and they would always fog up and I was like, 'Dad, I hate snowmobile racing,' " she said -- and Natalie humored it. Natalie sparked the evolutionary jump from ice to asphalt at age 9 after wearing down her father, Chuck, with her incessant begging for a go-kart.
Paige followed Natalie to the races and soon to the grid without her parents' knowledge when Chuck bought her a go-kart, too -- "I could have punched him in the face over that," Allen said, perhaps dabbling in wry wit -- and Claire followed.
Allen knew the drill. All four Decker brothers had raced snowmobiles competitively. Allen was a Bombardier factory rider in 1979-80 as a teammate of Jacques Villeneuve -- the uncle and namesake of the 1997 Formula One champion -- and Chuck became owner of the renowned Eagle River Derby Track snowmobile course. They also were versed in the financial rigors of the sport, and it was nothing Allen thought or hoped he'd undertake again.
"When Chuck and I got older and got married, we had all girls and we thought we would be building our businesses and going to dance recitals," he said. "We never thought we would be racing because we knew the sacrifices and costs of racing. And all of a sudden, we're back in racing, with girls, and a lot more fierce than we actually were."
Fierce and, so far, successful. Paige this season became the first female and first rookie to win a race in the developmental ARCA Midwest Tour Late Models series and subsequently the first woman to be named rookie of the year. Paige and Claire set series gender records by qualifying second in separate races.
Natalie finished third in points and became the first female rookie of the year in the ARCA Midwest Tour trucks series after producing four podium finishes. She also had a feature win in a Limited Late Model car and a feature win and a third-place points finish in the Madison International Speedway Triple Crown truck series.
Paige was invited to the D4D combine last year but failed to make the final cut for a spot with Rev Racing, the Max Siegel-owned team that fields cars and promotes the careers of young minority drivers. The program has graduates such as Kyle Larson, who will debut as a Sprint Cup rookie in 2014, and Darrell Wallace Jr., whose win in the Martinsville truck race Saturday was the first by an African-American in a NASCAR national touring series since 1963.
Paige's experience last year was invaluable for her, her sister and her cousin, they said, as they were paced through on-track lap sessions and off-track tutorials on the ancillary aspects of racing. The combine consists of evaluations in driving laps, physical fitness, résumé, communications skills, driving knowledge and media aptitude, according to NASCAR. Finalists are chosen by a NASCAR committee.
"She helped me a lot," Claire said. "She didn't want me to feel how she felt. She was there all by herself last year. So this year coming in she told me everything she knew just so I didn't feel like I was alone. She definitely helped me out with scheduling and what we were going to do first and everything else."
Twenty drivers were culled from 95 applicants for the combine.
The girls -- Paige is a junior at Wisconsin-Stout, Claire a sophomore at Wisconsin-Oshkosh and Natalie a high school sophomore -- knew the chances of all of their combine applications being accepted were remote. They will wait until December to learn whether the infinitesimal possibility of all of them earning spots in the program comes to fruition.
The Deckers were dogged supporters of one another and thankful they had the familiarity and support of family members in what is one of the more pressurized moments of their nascent careers. But that's not to suggest they are not dogged competitors.
Claire and Paige were so furious with each other after their wreck together earlier this summer that their crew chiefs kept them separated for two days.
"Definitely, whenever we are in the cars, we are each other's biggest competitors," Paige said. "We are the only two girls in our Super Late Model division. We want to beat each other. We want to be the best. It was funny after the fight, I had people texting me like crazy saying, 'I heard the Decker girls got into a fistfight.' It was kind of fun.
"We hit each other with cars, got tangled up. I don't know whose fault it was, but I ended up hitting the wall in the end. We didn't punch each other."
But they didn't speak to each other until their father and team owner made them sit together in the front of the hauler before their next race and reconcile.
Natalie isn't surprised. Sisters are going to act that way, she said. But she admits the interaction will be interesting when she joins their series next year.
"It's going to be pretty crazy, I think," Natalie said. "All they worry about is whether Paige got new tires or Claire got something new, or their lap times. They worry about each other. I'm going to try not to worry about them because I think if we don't worry that it will all go better. They are sisters so they are always going at each other, fighting all the time, but it's fun."
Her cousins aren't denying it.
"It's going to be great, more supporting, more all that," Claire said. "But it's also going to be, 'Oh, what lap times are Natalie and Paige getting now?' "