By Vincent Delforge, Special to Kickin’ the Tires
Female representation in the ARCA Menards West Series has often been consistent since its creation in 1954 compared to other NASCAR series. And the icing on the cake, many female drivers were able to demonstrate their talent because they had good cars.
In recent years, Julia Landauer, Nicole Behar, Brittney Zamora, Hailie Deegan and Gracie Trotter, to name just a few, have achieved top-10s, top-fives, podiums, poles and even victories for both Deegan and Trotter. And there are also many women who work for the series, among the officials and in the teams. There are many women mechanics, crew chiefs and even team owners.
This list of female drivers will grow in 2024 with the young Danica Dart. At 16-years-old, she was born on August 3, 2007, the rookie from Ephrata, Washington, will become the 37th woman to start a West series race when the green flag is waved on March 8 in Phoenix, AZ for the launch of the 2024 season, the 71st in the history of the series.
Since her debut at the age of six in quarter-midgets, she has successfully progressed through the ranks in the different categories (Go-kart, Pro and Super Late Models since 2019) and will continue in 2024 in the West Series a new and important step of her career, on the road that will hopefully lead her towards her ultimate dream, the NASCAR Cup Series.
She will drive with Kennealy Keller Motorsports this season. The team formed in September 2023 and led by the mother and daughter duo with Francesca and Harley Kennealy respectively, made a strong impression with its two drivers, Robbie Kennealy and Kyle Keller at the end of last season.
With three full-time cars, KKM will be a force to watch closely in 2024. Dart will be able to rely on the experience of her two teammates and the team’s technical staff which has many talents, including the experienced and champion crew chief Charlie Wilson or the Kizer family.
If exceptionally she will have the No. 07 for the first race of the season at Phoenix Raceway, she will have the No. 11 for the other 11 scheduled races.
It’s time to learn more about Danica Dart, who she is, and what her goals are for the 2024 season.
Vincent Delforge: Danica? A well-known first name in NASCAR. But is there any reference to the famous Danica Patrick?
Danica Dart: “Yes it was. She was a popular driver during the time I was born and my dad says I was named after her. He was a big NASCAR fan and he had a few favorite drivers and Danica Patrick was one of them.”
VD: Danica, can you introduce yourself, who are you? Where do you live? At 16 you are still in school, what are your hobbies away from the race track?
DD: “I am Danica Dart, I am a 16-year-old race car driver. Some of my hobbies away from the racetrack consist of flying, and hanging out with my family and friends. I enjoy skiing in the winter, and in the summer I love going boating and wake surfing. But really I’m always doing something that has to do with racing, in the winter I’m racing Go-Karts or on a sim, I also spend most of my evenings in the race shop and in the gym.”
VD: How did your passion for car racing come to? Family influence? Your father Paul was a driver in the past. Sim Racing? Watching races on TV? Are there one or more drivers who inspire you, who serve as models for you?
DD: “My passion from racing really came from my dad, he’s the one who got me into my first race car which was a quarter midget. I have just been obsessed with the adrenaline I get from racing, even just the sound of race cars makes me happy. I really look up to my dad as an inspiration and role model, he is an amazing driver and really knowledgeable as he was really good in sprint cars. I’ve never really looked up to anyone else the way I look up to him as a person and driver.”
VD: You started racing at six years old, right? So can you sum up your racing experience until the end of 2023. Apart from the family team, which teams have you driven for?
DD: “At 6 years old I got my first race car which was a quarter midgets. We were living in North Dakota as my dad was a company man in the oil fields. After my dad would get off of work on Fridays we would drive all night long to tracks around Montana. The closest track to me was seven hours away. I spent two and a half years racing quarter midgets.
“We then moved back home to Washington state and got involved in Bandoleros. We ran them for a couple years and then once I turned eleven we got a Late Model so I could drive in the Junior Late Model Series in Washington.
“It was a series that included tracks in Washington, Idaho and Oregon. There wasn’t a lot of cars in that series but all the drivers came from a long line of racing so the competition in that class was pretty tough.
“After racing Jr Late Models for two and a half years the class kind of fizzled out so I was forced to run up with the Pro Late Model Series. At 13-years-old I was thrown into the Pro Late Model ranks. I had to learn things very quickly, it did not come without some growing pains.
“Over the past couple of years I have entered some of the biggest races in the Northwest and have had many top-10s and even a couple podiums. I was really close to getting a podium finish or possibly even winning the Montana 200 Super Late Model race, but had some issues during the last few laps.”
VD: Apart from the family team, which teams have you driven for?
DD: “The answer is I have not. This year is my first opportunity to branch out and I couldn’t be more excited.”
VD: For you, what is your greatest achievement since becoming a racing driver? Your greatest victory?
DD: “My greatest achievement is being approached by Kennealy Keller Motorsports and even being considered to be on their team. My greatest moment so far is not in victory, but when I was running 4th out of 23 cars in my very first Super Late Model race, I feel was my greatest moment.”
VD: Do you remember your very very first race? How had it gone?
DD: “I’m not too sure what to say about this one because I don’t remember. We have been to so many different tracks and so many late nights and long road trips I honestly cannot recall. I remember my first Pro Late Model race only being 13-years-old, I was very nervous.
“Everyone was so intimidating. Some people thought I didn’t belong, and that I was too young, so I just wanted to go out there and do my best and show them that I did belong. Like I said before there was growing pains early on, but by 15 and 16-years-old I have solidified myself in the Northwest as a respected young driver.”
VD: Like many young drivers, you also practice on Sim Racing. Is it a good school to learn tracks and there are many that you will discover this year, for the car setups?
DD: “I practice on a sim any chance I get, I feel like the sim has helped me be more consistent. It has also got me comfortable at tracks that i’ve never been to in real life so when I show up for testing I have a good feel for the line and breaking / lifting points.”
VD: When did you join KKM Driver Development and apart from the West Series, what will be your racing program in 2024?
DD: “After the Vegas race in October of this last year is when I started talks with KKM, and officially became a team member in December. My racing program will hopefully be 8 races with KKM, and a half dozen Super Late Models races in the Northwest.”
VD: How did this opportunity arise to race in West Series in 2024 with KKM? How did it all come together? Can you tell us about the genesis of this project?
DD: “Honestly it just came out of the blue. We like to run Las Vegas once a year to finish out out our year in the Pacific Northwest. It’s nice for the family and all the sponsors to get away and just go have fun. Our main focus was the Jr Lates and just run the Pro Late race for more seat time. But for whatever reason our car was super slow as a Jr Late in Vegas but really fast as a Pro Late. We managed our way through the Jr race kind of stinking it up.
“Then once the Pro race came I knew we had a really good car. The car didn’t fire off very well but after a long run, it started to come in. After about lap 60 to 70 out of 100 We were the third fastest on the track.
“As laps winded down we actually got faster at one point we were the fastest car on the track. After a solid finish of seventh we were pretty happy overall with the weekend. Kyle Keller won the race so his dad along with the rest of the KKM team were watching.
“They noticed me during the race and the way I handled my car. About a week after the race they reached out to me and my dad and asked if we would be interested in being a part of the team. Now that I have got to know them and spend time with the Kellers and the Keneallys, I am so happy that this all came together. They treat me very well and are giving me this opportunity so I am very grateful. I just want to do everything I can to bring the team results.”
VD: Coincidence or not, KKM used the No. 11 last year in November at Phoenix. But you’ve used this number since your debut. Does No. 11 have a special meaning for you?
DD: “Yeah I definitely thought that was pretty cool that they used number 11. My biggest inspiration which is my dad wore number 11, so I wear it for him. It’s basically my whole family lucky number also by now. It wouldn’t feel right to change my number.”
VD: We can see the seriousness of your preparation since you were able to do two days of testing in Madera (December 10) and Irwindale (December 28). How did it go? Satisfied with this first handling of your new car? Satisfied with your progress, your lap times, each time you took to the track?
DD: “So my first time ever in an ARCA car was December 10th when I tested at Madera Speedway, I went down there super nervous and not knowing what to expect. I ended up going out about five times that day and made massive gains.
“I would say that the whole team was pretty proud on how my first test went. Irwindale was super fun, I was really able to get comfortable in the car and test it out at faster speeds. Again I showed lots of speed throughout the day, that track was awesome and I can’t wait to race there.”
VD: Is it very different to drive a Pro Late or an ARCA car? Weight, power, size, brakes, everything is different.
DD: “They are definitely different, and the horsepower is definitely there and noticeable. I really like it, it gives me control and I feel like I have that extra power to help me manipulate the car a little more. Pro Late Models are mainly crate engines, have around 400 HP so momentum in a lot more important.”
VD: Tire management is often a problem for rookies in the West Series. ARCA’s car is powerful and heavy. Tire allocation is reduced for testing and racing. In addition, the program on race day is condensed since between practice, qualifying and the start of the race, there are only a few hours.
You have to be in the game right away, there is no room for hesitation or error. Have the tests you recently carried out in Madera and Irwindale already allowed you to learn more about setups, the management and behavior of General Tire tire?
DD: “Obviously I have a lot to learn in these cars, and one of the big things is all the horsepower these cars have and managing my tires without losing too much time on the rest of the field. I have been watching every ARCA west race for the past three months and the competition is very stiff. I know I will have my work cut out for me.
“My goal is to definitely learn as much as I can each time I get in the seat, and communicate with my team so they can give me the best piece possible. I have ran 200 lap races in the past in my super late model, and I was able to excel late in the races by being patient and listening to my spotter.”
VD: Furthermore, who will be your crew chief?
DD: “So far it has been Charlie Wilson and John Keller (father of Kyle Keller). It is an all hands on deck team so it could change here and there, but I think that in Phoenix John will be on the box for me.”
VD: And who will be your spotter? Another question, are you one of the pilots who likes to have a lot of information in the headset or on the contrary do you prefer to hear only brief messages to stay focused on your driving?
DD: “My spotter will be BJ Tidrick, who is my spotter and crew chief in the Northwest. I am excited to have him also, the team won’t mean him until Phoenix, but they are going to love him. I like being talked to a lot, for me I don’t like quiet. I start to think something is wrong with the radios when there’s not enough talking, so I feel I start to drive more conservative.”
Small aside to clarify that BJ Tidrick is the son of Brad Tidrick, a former driver in the West Series between 1985 and 1991.
VD: For 2024, what are your goals in the West Series?
DD: “It would be really cool to get the rookie title, and my goal is definitely to get a top five.”
VD: And more specifically regarding the first race in Phoenix. What is your goal? Knowing that it is a combined race with the ARCA national series and that there will be more than 30 cars at the start.
DD: “Yeah I am really excited for the first race. It’s crazy to think that Phoenix is the first race when it really is the biggest race of the year. I guess it’s a better way to get introduced to the series.”
VD: We now know that your initial program includes a minimum of eight ARCA Menards West Series races with the possibility of doing ten. However you will not participate in two road races at Portland and Sonoma, why?
DD: “I won’t be running the road courses this year, I am going to be running my Pro and Super Late Models on those weekends. Due to a date conflict with other races. So far we are committed to the Montana 200 and Idaho 200.”
VD: Is there a race in the season that you are looking forward to more specifically?
DD: “I am definitely looking forward to Phoenix the most as of right now, it’s my first ARCA race and I just can’t wait to experience it. The race track is also just so cool and I can’t wait to actually be able to race on a track that the Cup series actually races at.”
VD: Where do you see yourself in a few years in motorsports?
DD: “My goal is to just get one race at a time under my belt, I want to continue to be in a race car of some sort no matter what. I love being apart of this sport. I’m going to continue to work hard, stay humble, and take steps towards victory.”
VD: If you want to thank people or sponsors, now is the time.
DD: “First of all I would like to start by thanking all of my sponsors, without them I wouldn’t be able to per sue this dream of mine, so a huge thanks to Guardian Fence and Development, Pioneer Performance, Evers Farms, Ebco construction and all of my other family and friends who have helped me get to this point.”
Many thanks Danica for answering my questions. We will be following with interest your ARCA Menards West Series debut on March 8 for the General Tire 150 at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Arizona. A race combined with the ARCA national series and which will be broadcast live on FS1.