Remember this name: McKenna Haase. You will see it again. I don’t know where, exactly. But bet on it. Haase made her first entry in the history books last Saturday, when she won a sprint car race at the Knoxville Raceway in Knoxville, IA.
Sprint cars are squat, high-octane beasts that can top out around 150 mph. Their V8 engines generate so much power that they often use large “wings” to stay glued to the ground. This being racing, it’s no surprise that the drivers are overwhelmingly men.
With her victory in the 305 class on Saturday night, McKenna Haase became the first woman ever to win a main-event race (or “feature”) in Knoxville’s 114-year history.
I should say “woman” with scare quotes, because McKenna Haase is 18 years old. She just gave the commencement speech at her high school graduation last week. We will, no doubt, see her again. Here are some of the possible vocations that lie ahead for this youngster’s promising career.
1) Pro racing star
When I saw that an 18-year-old kid was winning car races, I thought, the driving age in Iowa is 16. How the hell is two years enough time to become an ace racer?
But Haase was racing well before that. Her official racing career started at 12, with lighter, lower-speed vehicles called “micro-sprints” and “outlaw karts”. Then, last year, she graduated to the sprint car level at the Knoxville Raceway and finished 2nd in this very race.
But her goal — the one she set as a freshman — was to win it all. Saturday, she put a big check mark in that box, taking 1st in her green, white, and pink #55 sprinter. The edge of its top wing is emblazoned with her nickname, “Sassy”. The flat fins on the side read “Powered by Pork”, which is the slogan of one of her sponsors, Iowa Select Farms.
What next? As it happens, sprint-car racing is more than a hobby for some: It’s a way to hone and improve skills in order to crack the big leagues of motor racing, like Indy and NASCAR.
“Sassy” Haase says one of her near-term goals is to join the “World of Outlaws”, which is perhaps the top league for sprint-car racing in the U.S. Longer term? Well, her idols are NASCAR stars Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, and Danica Patrick. Enough said.
2) An ESPN talking head
“Everybody always asks me if racing scares me,” Haase said in an interview at her high-school graduation. “It’s not the racing that scares me, it’s the thought of where I’d be without it.”
That is one polished, ready-for-production quote. Call up the networks. Even if nothing comes of McKenna Haase’s sporting career, she’s tailor-made for anybody needing a pithy quote or commentary on the day’s racing events. Haase’s got a face and smile and story that hits every pressure point in a broadcast executive’s body. TV gold.
3) Proto-feminist icon and all-around media personality
Wait, you promised TV gold! But in a Monday interview with the Iowa sports program SoundOFF, Haase responded cheekily to the standard question: How could she ever top a week in which she a) broke a record at Knoxville and b) graduated as valedictorian of her high school class?
“I don’t think I’m ever getting married, or anything like that, because that can’t top this,” she said with a sleep-deprived grin.
Teenage goofiness, or gender-political zing? You be the judge!
In all seriousness, Haase reminds us of the power of branding in the social-media age. We now live in an era when athletes can speak directly to the public how and when they want, in snippets that are taken to represent who they really are.
If Haase becomes a star racer in an overwhelmingly male sport, she will enter the public view, much as Danica Patrick did. How will she shape that persona? Will she be an apolitical, racecar-junkie insider? A CNN talking head occasionally consulted on boxing and DeflateGate? A Republican feminist vegan environmentalista? In our age, all these identities are available. And celebrity is just one TLC reality show away.
4) Anything, as long as it’s better than you
This might be a good time to mention that Haase was recently named an “all-conference” golf player. Oh, and she’s a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do. Oh, and she had a 4.0.
Oh, and she wants to major in finance when she starts at Drake University (Des Moines) this fall. Party time, right? Hell no. Last December, Haase was interviewed by The Motley Fool, one of the most popular stock-picking sites on the web. She was eight years old when she first asked her parents how the stock market works, she said. She’s given presentations on investing to her high school classes. She admires Warren Buffett. She has ten stocks in her portfolio. She has a portfolio.
Sometimes in sports, we come across a “can’t-miss” prospect. Haase, I submit to you, is a “can’t-miss” prospect at life. One day, you and I will be ants in the great shadow of her accomplishments, whether they’re on the racetrack, Wall Street, or TV. But it will be interesting, too, to see how we as a society receive her. Will she be an icon, a confirming vision of how we want gender equality to look? Or will she be reduced to an empty media personality? The answer will say a lot about Haase and the choices she actually makes. But it will also say a lot about us.
Cover photo: Photojeania, Inc.
SAQIB RAHIM | @SaqibSansU
Like many fans, Saqib Rahim is the product of his sports traumas. The 49ers losing, year after year, to Green Bay in the late 1990s. USA Hockey losing to Canada in the gold medal game of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver – in overtime, no less. The San Jose Sharks perennially discovering new depths of failure, such as becoming only the 4th team in history to choke away a 3-0 series lead. But it’s all good. He’s over it. They helped make him the man he is today, and they made him curious about why sports are so engrossing and important to us. They helped him realize that sports are about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.