How I Got Here with McKenna Haase

Each week, I ask a member of the racing community about their career path and journey to where they are today. Up this week: McKenna Haase, a 21-year-old sprint car driver, team owner and college student. Haase is the first female to win a race at the famed Knoxville Raceway in Iowa. This interview was recorded as a podcast, but is also transcribed for those who prefer to read.

I understand you grew up in Iowa. Were you a race fan growing up or anything?

No, I wasn’t. My family was kind of your typical ball sports family. We grew up in Des Moines, but I went to school in a small town called Carlisle. We played like every sport, especially softball was big in my family.

When I was in third grade, we went on vacation to Tennessee and we were walking through a shopping mall (the Opry Mills Mall in Nashville) going to dinner and we ran into Kasey Kahne. But I didn’t know it was Kasey Kahne at the time.

I knew he was famous, because all these girls were around him wanting autographs. Being a third grader, obviously you want to see what’s going on. But we almost didn’t go over there, because it was kind of out of our way to see what was going on. Finally, I reluctantly went over and there was some lady there and she said, “Sorry, this is this is over. Kasey is done.” And so I’m like, “OK. I didn’t come here to see him anyway.”

So we left and we were walking back to our parents and they said, “Turn around.” Well, (Kasey) had followed us, because he thought we didn’t get his autograph.

He starts talking to us and asking us about racing in Iowa and all of this stuff, and it was really awkward because I had no clue what he was talking about. But I was trying to act cool. I was trying to read this sign with his name.

McKenna Haase, right, meets Kasey Kahne at a Nashville mall. It was a meeting that would change her life. (Courtesy McKenna Haase)

So we left the mall and I was stoked. My parents just thought it was a fad, you know? Like, “Oh, she met some famous guy in this mall. Now she thinks she’s a fan.” I eventually got his T-shirt and I wore it like every day. And I just became obsessed with not just Kasey, but just following racing.

In the meantime, I had a cousin who lives in Arkansas who started racing micro sprint cars. I went on vacation to watch him and I like fell in love with the idea that kids could race. And in between that time period, I went and watched Kasey race.

What kind of race did you see him in?

K&N, actually, at Iowa Speedway in 2008. And at Iowa Speedway, they had a display for Slideways Karting Center in Knoxville (a slick track). These cars looked like my cousin’s and they were sprint car-style go-karts. The guy who was working there was like, “Well, you can drive one.” And I like died, you know?

So we came to Slideways here in Knoxville and they just go like 20 miles per hour and it’s just like a little track. But I took it really seriously and I started going out there every weekend and I’d put in like 200 or 300 laps. Months went by, and there’s about 15 different cars there. So I would memorize all the cars, the way they handled and the different ways they were set up.

I was 11 years old at the time and in the midsummer/fall they had a kids league on Thursday nights. I really wanted to join that, so I begged my dad. We went down on a Thursday and they were like, “We’re sorry, but no other kids showed up for the league.” So I was super disappointed. They said, “But there’s a men’s league and you could do that instead.”

I look at my dad and he’s thinking “No way,” because I’m just this little girl and there were like 30 men here to race these go-karts. But I decided to do it and I ended up doing that every Thursday for two years. I would always get the trophy for youngest participant at nationals and stuff like that. And it was just really fun.

McKenna Haase (the only girl in the photo, toward the right side) raced in a men’s go-kart league for two years. (Courtesy of McKenna Haase)

In the meantime, I went to watch my cousin race and died over the fact that kids could race. I was just just mesmerized. This dirt track I watched my cousin at was in Oklahoma. So my parents lied to me and they told me the only dirt track in the world was in Oklahoma. So I could never be a race car driver because it was too far away.

So I became obsessed with this racetrack and the drivers — like I idolized these kids. You would have thought these were NASCAR drivers. I memorized every kid who raced there, their background. I memorized the rulebook. I memorized the prices of all the cars and I tried to come up with this financial plan to go race in Oklahoma. I’m 12, and I re-crunched the numbers like 100 times and there was no way, because micros were $6,000 and the gas to get there, there was no chance.

Like I said, I grew up in a small town. I was going to school there, and there was a local sub shop/ice cream shop that’s really popular. So I start going in there, and lo and behold on the counter was a picture of a sprint car-style go-kart — like what I’d seen my cousin race. But it looked a little bit different from my cousin’s. And so I freak out.

I’m like, “Oh my gosh. Surely there’s a racetrack in Iowa, because this race car is on dirt and this sub shop is in Iowa.” Side note: It was a picture of an Outlaw Kart, but I didn’t know that at the time because my cousin raced micro sprints and this was an Outlaw Kart. All I knew was it looked like a funny looking little sprint car, you know?

This was before like phones and smart phones — for me, anyway. So I would memorize a sponsor a day on the race car. I’d go to the sub shop, look at the picture, memorize the sponsor and go home and Google it to see if it would lead me back to wherever this car was. The name on the car was too small. The name of the driver, so I couldn’t read it.

You would think I would just ask the owner, but he was friends with my dad and my family wanted nothing to do with me being a race car driver. So I was always going behind their back to do this.

So you’re sneaking a peek at this picture without letting on that you’re actually quite interested.

I mean, my parents knew I was obsessed with all this stuff, but they were kind of trying to keep me from it. My parents knew about Knoxville Raceway — they went here in the 80s.

Oh, so they definitely knew.

They knew. They just…lied. (Laughs) So in late 2009 I went to Slideways with my grandparents one day and they were bragging about my cousin racing micros and all this stuff. And the guy working at Slideways goes, “Oh that must be like the cars those kids race at English Creek Speedway.”

I paused and was like, “What did you just say?” He’s like, “Yeah, you know — English Creek Speedway, that go-kart track south of town.” And I freak, because this has been like months and months and months now, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh. This must be the place.”

So I’m memorizing it. Again, I don’t have anything to write it down on or a phone to look it up. I’m like, “English Creek Speedway. English Creek Speedway.” And I go home and I Google “English Creek Speedway” and lo and behold, up pops this car in the sub shop! I’m like, “Oh my gosh.” And so I freak out.

They just didn’t look like sprint cars. They were like funny-looking little cars, because Outlaw Karts weren’t popular at all at the time. I showed it to my dad and my dad was basically like, “Those cars look dumb and we’re not going to watch them.” Finally, I talked him into it and we went and watched. And of course I’m just freaking, because this is just like the track in Oklahoma, and I’m like, “There’s more than one! And it’s right here in Iowa.” Obviously, I come to find out years later there’s thousands of dirt tracks. But at the time I’m thinking, “This is a gem.” And so I took him there as much as I could talk him into it.

So in 2009, I found Knoxville. I came here in May of 2009 for the first time and we came to the 360 Nationals and were walking around town and there’s a shop here that sells Outlaw Karts. So I go in with my mom — not my dad — and I meet the owner of English Creek Speedway in this go-kart shop.

He’s trying to explain Outlaw Kart racing to me, but everything he would start to say, I would finish the sentence. So he’d be like, “The 125 class…” and then I would finish the sentence and say, “This is the age range.” Because I had memorized the rulebook at this point.

He would just kind of look at me funny, like, “Whoa…how do you know all this, kid?” And I was like, “I read it on the Internet,” and he’s like, “That’s crazy. Well here’s my business card. My grandson races box stock. If you ever want to get in his car one night after the races and drive it, you can.” So I’m just freaking out, you know?

And at this point in time, this kart shop where they sell go-karts, it was my dream to buy a firesuit from them. Because I knew I was never going to be a race car driver, so if I can’t be a race car driver, at least I want to own a firesuit.

Just the suit?

Just the suit. And so if you look back at pictures of me racing at Slideways, I had the same outfit I’d wear every week. It’s all-black — long-sleeve black shirt and long black pants and then black wrestling shoes. That was the closest thing I could get. I thought I was a stud walking around in this.

And so I run home with his business card like, “Dad! Dad! This guy gave me a business card and he said I can drive one of these cars after the races.” My dad looks at me and he goes, “McKenna. You’re not doing that. That’s only for kids that might be race car driver someday and you’re never going to be a race car driver, so you’re not doing that.” And I’m crushed.

So I kept his business card forever, and we keep going back to watch. You can read in my diary, I talk about about taking my dad to the races and one of my favorite lines I wrote was, “I think Daddy really likes this deep down, he just doesn’t want to admit it.” And then I wrote, “He said I can’t be a race car driver because only the kids with nice equipment win and only the kids who have parents that know how to work on race cars win.” And my dad doesn’t know how to work on a race car.

So I start saving my money. My parents said, “When you’re 16, you can get an Outlaw Kart. When you can drive yourself there and drive the car there and pay for it yourself.” So I came up with this financial plan on how I was going to have enough money by the time I was 16. An Outlaw Kart is like $3,000.

So I start saving my money. Now I’m 12, and so I have this plan set up for when I’m 16. I have $800 saved, roughly. And finally it’s almost the end of the season at English Creek and my dad agreed to let me get in this kid’s car. It was only because this was my second year at Slideways and I could run like second in the feature — but I was so tiny, I couldn’t beat the guys because like they weighed more, so they went faster. No matter how good I could drive, I could never win. It just got to the point where we were constantly fighting every night coming home; I would just cry and cry, like, “I want to be a race car driver.”

What do you think was his biggest hesitation? Was he worried about safety?

At the time, I just thought he was being a mean dad. Looking back, I think it was because even though my dad didn’t know much about racing, he’s a smart guy in general and he knew enough to know that it was expensive, that it was dangerous and that we knew nothing about it. It was risky and just something he didn’t want to put me through.

He was trying to save you essentially from getting your heart broken or physically hurt or something, right?

Right. And also at the time, we had a couple of family tragedies at this time period, too. So it really wasn’t the best time to be asking, also. It was very risky on my part to be pushing for this so hard at the time.

So you were saying you were about to get in this kid’s car?

Yes. So we bring my helmet and we go to the race and I get in this car and I’m nervous. Because here I’ve been begging now for years and this is my shot. I had no choice but to be fast, because otherwise my dad was going to say, “No, you’re not good at this.”

I remember the kid’s dad pushed me out there and I was like, “OK, what line do you want me to run?” He’s looking at me like, “Just figure it out, kid. You can take it easy. It’s not like the Daytona 500 here.”

I had watched like a million YouTube videos — in-car cameras — and memorized them from inside the cockpit. I was just going to mimic exactly what they did. So they fire the engine up on the straightaway and I just like take off and I was just on the fence — about scraping the wall. The kid later on — the driver — said, “Man, I thought you were going to wreck that thing.” So I went for forever. I kept going and going. Eventually, the car ran out of gas.

I didn’t know this, but my dad was standing in the infield. Apparently, the dad looked at his son and said, “Well, son, it looks like I found myself a new driver.” We’re good friends with his family now.

But yeah, the car runs out of gas and I pull in and I was like, “Did I do it right?” They’re like, “Yeah, you did fine.” At that point, I look at my dad and it’s like, “Well now what?” And a week later, I heard him like on the phone with some people.

I had every single go-kart that was for sale in the nation memorized by heart. I checked every day, all day, the classifieds. Had every price memorized. I still have the ones I wanted saved on file. I have newspaper clippings in my house with highlighted trailers that I was going to buy for sale, little flatbed trailers that I got in a local newspaper.

So I had this all planned out. I gave my dad my documents. Remember, I idolized these kids, and there was a girl who raced there and she had my dream go-kart. And it was for sale for like $2,800 and my dad called them.

I came home from school — I was playing volleyball at the time and hated volleyball, and I’m ticked after practice. My dad was like, “Let’s go get in the car. We’re going to go look at this go-kart.” I was freaking out. So we went and bought it and I gave my dad $800 cash I’d saved and he helped out with the rest. And we went racing.

So there’s those cars at Slideways that I’d memorized all those years, and I’d memorized the setups and the way they drove. The fastest one was the 55. So I picked the number 55 — and to this day carry the 55.

McKenna Haase won another sprint car race in July. (Courtesy McKenna Haase)

That’s so cool.

Seven years later, I went to Victory Lane at Knoxville on Slideways Karting Center Night and put the big 55 in Victory Lane. So it kind of all came full circle.

Now I have my own driver development team — box stock and Outlaw Karts — and they carry the number 55.

That’s so crazy. So you’re in school now. You’re at Drake. And are you a finance major?

I was finance. Now I’m business studies with a concentration in finance.

So you’re basically learning on the job and at the same time completely turning this into a business for yourself while raising funds to compete. How do you juggle that? What what all goes into that?

I would say that’s probably the number one thing most people don’t know about me in racing is they kind of see me running the race team and they think that comes from what I’ve learned in racing, in a sense. Long before I was into racing — since the time I could talk — I was going door-to-door selling whatever I could find to sell.

I fell in love with the stock market in third grade and was into investing ever since. I fell in love with Warren Buffett around middle school/high school and he became my idol. So when I went to college, I became a finance major on an investment track as an analyst — which really has nothing to do with racing. But learning how to sell and learning numbers and finance did give me the ability to sell sponsorship. I was never into marketing and never really interested in that, but I would sell hand sanitizer at sports complexes when I was a kid for a quarter a squirt and make $70 a weekend.

Wow! That’s amazing.

Yeah, stuff like that. I didn’t really like people that much when I was younger; I didn’t like talking to people. My parents used to say that one of their arguments against me being a race car driver was, “You just want to be a race car driver so you can get down in that little cockpit and shove a helmet on your head and hide from the rest of the world and never talk to anybody.” And then I get into racing and I’m like this bubbly, outgoing, talkative person. I think that’s just because I found my place.

But in terms of selling, I learned how to sell. I went banging doors down trying to get sponsors. I moved from Outlaw Karts to micros, micros to sprint cars. And that’s what allowed me to be able to do that, and to do it ethically is huge for me.

Which means what?

Paying sales tax. Keeping good records. Trying not to backdoor anybody else’s sponsors or hopefully not step on anybody else’s toes and deals. Providing sponsors with the services that I promised. Same thing on the merchandise side — having good customer service. Hopefully giving discounts where deserved. Stuff like that and following through with that.

Behind the scenes in motorsports, the business side of it can be pretty nasty and pretty unethical. So (ethics are) something I try and integrate into my business, and a lot of that stems from Buffett, for me. Buffett was big on that as well.

So what all falls under your umbrella right now? Obviously you’re driving, and that has to be the number one thing.

Yes.

You’re getting sponsors yourself.

Yes.

And you’re doing the deals with them yourself. You’re handling the finances and the books of the team. What else are you doing?

Yeah, so THR — Team Haase Racing, LLC — is the sprint car team. I do operate that. Like you said, I do all the sponsor acquisition. I do the accounting. I have an accountant and I have an attorney that I work with, but I do most of that. And the sales tax and stuff like that.

I process all the merchandise. I do all the ordering for the merchandise. I process the orders in my basement and mail those. Obviously, the appearances. Obviously, I drive the car. I used to work on the car lot more than I do now, but now I’ve hired a full-time crew chief. I had to get to the point where I was able to do that.

And then I also own Compass Racing Development LLC, which is my driver development program. So for each kid, I kind of coach/mentor them. I help them with their funding, I do their marketing presentations. I do all the graphic design also, by the way — I forgot that — for the marketing presentations. The website, I keep updated. I run all the social media — nine accounts total on that.

And then I go to college at Drake. I’m the president of the Drake Investment Club. I’m in the American Marketing Association, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and the College of Business Leadership Council, which also entails the service committee.

And then outside of kind of all that, I have a job. I work at a promotional products company. And then outside of that, I do ninja warrior training, as well as I’m a second degree blackbelt in martial arts and Krav Maga. I don’t do all that full-time anymore; I do ninja warrior full time as an athlete.

How do you sleep or do anything, ever?

You know, I get asked that a lot and I don’t want to sometimes I hate sharing how much I’m involved in, because I don’t want to promote the sense I’m higher than anybody type of thing. You know what I’m saying?

I believe in living a life that’s simplified and having quality happiness in life and I think the world is too stretched. I think there’s too much tension. And so I don’t want to try and promote that.

But I think it comes down to what you can handle. For me, it hopefully comes down to not me. Compass is a great example of something that’s not about me and I don’t want that to be about me. I don’t want thanks. I don’t want anything in return. I want that to be me giving back to the sport.

Same thing with the investment club. That’s not really for my benefit. I just hope to share and educate others on investing. Do I really have the time for it? Probably not. But I try and make time for things that involve other people and impact other people.

So with the investing in the stock market, you’ve done well enough to help support yourself with the team and your funding efforts? Is that correct?

Most of the investing has been with my personal money. There is a way to invest in terms of actual stock market with an LLC’s funds. And I’ve been looking into that more going forward. I’m huge on asset allocation and profit maximization — that’s very big for me with this sprint car team. And in motorsports in general, I think that’s the biggest thing I focus on.

Where do you go from here? You’re still so young, but you’ve accomplished a lot. You’re starting to live your dream. You have accomplished more than you probably originally thought you were going to. What’s next?

I got my first win here in Knoxville in 2015. That was in a 305 sprint car (which means it had a 305 cubic inch engine). I won three times in the 305. And then this year, I won in the 360 also and I did that twice.

I mean, no chance was I ever going to be a sprint car driver — let alone win. And so those were big accomplishments for us, and if I died tomorrow, we’d be proud of that. But I don’t feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. And I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished everything I’m supposed to accomplish.

As far as what’s next, you can never be 100 percent sure. I want to race professionally and I want to impact the world in the most significant way possible. I think the race car is just the medium and the platform in order to do that. I’ve always said the goal is NASCAR. That would reach a lot of people, and I’d like to have a larger voice and a larger impact and I think that would give me a medium to do that.

If that’s not in the cards and that’s not part of God’s plan for my life, then maybe it is midgets and sprint cars professionally. But regardless, I want to be behind the wheel. I know I’m involved in a lot of things in life, but being behind the wheel of a race car has always seemed right no matter what.

A couple more follow-ups here. First of all, Kasey Kahne — I’m sure he knows the story by now? Have you talked to him about all this?

Back in 2014 was the first time I’d seen him since. And I gave him my driver resume, and it had the story inside along with a little newspaper article. And I just gave it to him and I’ve never talked to him since.

So it is funny after all these years — I probably say his name every day or every other day in my life because I get asked all the time, “How did you become a race car driver?” I think I’m his personal marketing assistant in that regard because I do talk about it all the time. But the funny thing is is I’ve never talked to him about it.

That’s funny. And second, I assume once you started getting more into it, your parents are fully on board now and happy to see you doing this?

Yep. So my dad and I ended up learning how the cars work. He and I worked on my race cars all through the Outlaw Karts, all through the micros. And then the first year of sprint cars, it was kind of still him and I, but we had some help and some people teach us the ropes.

It wasn’t until last year that I hired a crew chief for the first time. That was the first time my dad wasn’t the head guy. It was really cool to see my dad go from having nothing to do with it to being so knowledgeable about the race cars.

And then my mom, she still really didn’t have a lot to do with it up until my sister graduated and moved to Nashville, and now my mom doesn’t have to spend as much time with her traveling to softball games and stuff. My mom has been a big help with the merchandise and not necessarily the racing, but helping me do other things in life so that I can focus more on racing.

Does my mom like sprint car racing? No. Or at least she doesn’t like me doing it. She likes NASCAR. She likes IndyCar. But she supports me and I think they’re both proud. They’re both still nervous. We do still fight about decisions in racing and my mom still tries to get me to quit.

But deep down, I think they want to see me achieve all my dreams, you know? And they want to see all my hard work pay off, because they’re really the only people who have seen what I’ve truly gone through behind the scenes. When it comes to just the darkest of days and the depressions and the losses and the heartaches, they’ve seen all that. And I think they want to see that pay off.

When you look back at it now, if you had never gone to the mall and gotten hooked on racing, are you the type of person who is going to get so obsessively focused on something and so driven about something where there would be something else to replace that? Or was it racing that brought that out of you?

I think all the stars had to be aligned just right — not just even in the mall, but so many times in my career. I just so happened to be in the right place at the right time. And I truly believe that’s a God thing. I do ask myself a lot: “What would have happened if you wouldn’t have walked over there (to see what the fuss was about with Kahne)?” Because I was standing in the doorway of the restaurant and I left. I’m like, “What if you just walked into a restaurant?”

I think my cousin racing also had a lot to do with it. So I feel like I would have found it either way. But without Kasey, I just don’t know.

I also think my sister, by the way, had a lot to do with it in the sense of I never wanted to do anything like her. She was a softball player and cheerleader and she was really good at all that stuff, and I never wanted to do anything like her. So when I found racing, it was the one thing nobody in my family liked or wanted anything to do with, and I was bound and determined to prove them otherwise. This was going to be my thing and I was going to have something special in my life. Because (sister) Makaila’s softball was really a big thing for my family.

I had a lot of activities I was involved in also. But I think if my parents wouldn’t have been as resistant, I don’t know if I would be where I am today, because I was bound and determined. I was so stubborn and I was going to prove everybody wrong.

In the beginning, even with my friends — nobody in my school raced or knew anything about racing. (They thought) it was lame. And even when I started out, I was 13 or 14 and racing Outlaw Karts against little kids. So it wasn’t cool.

Now people see (the success) today, and it’s hard to take them back to that time and say I kept fighting. I would walk out of school. I did leave school twice at least, just from getting bullied about being a race car driver, wanting to be a race car driver, how lame it was and stupid. I wouldn’t wear race shirts to school.

When I graduated high school, I saw kids wearing my race shirts to school. So to persevere despite all that resistance, I think there’s no doubt today. Sometimes it’s hard (not) to second guess and to doubt and say, “Man, am I really supposed to be doing this?” Like, “Who do you think you are, McKenna?” But then you look back to that, and it’s like, “There was something there.”

Ten years after I met Kasey in the mall, I went down for the NASCAR Drive for Diversity combine. And there was a hurricane in Daytona, so we had to drive in instead of fly in — and we went through Nashville, Tennessee and stopped at the Grand Ole Opry shopping mall, 10 years from the time I met Kasey there.

It’s just little things like that. I feel like I probably still would have found it, but there is definitely something special that happened in that mall that night.

4 Replies to “How I Got Here with McKenna Haase”

  1. What a great story, loved the compassion she has for racing. She is extremely smart and knew what she wanted at a early age and figure out away to get it. Your a great inspiration for young and old people. Good luck in everything you do. Thank you for telling your story..,, Linda

  2. You are amazing! A great story about a successful young girl filled with determination, confidence, a strong leadership desire to help others, your impressive education abilities and most importantly, with your spiritual life and your loving supportive family, the world is yours!! You Go Girl!! Looking forward to your Ninja Warrior competition!

  3. What a great story. We as a society greatly under estimate the power of women. Shame on us for being so stupid. McKenna what perseverance and strength you possess. Keep on keeping on you rock. Looks like I need to add another racing t-shirt to my collection. Best of luck in the future.

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