McKenna Haase has a necklace that says “Remember why you started.” Never have those words meant more than the last 15 months.
There has been a lot of reflecting over that time period. Haase remembers meeting Kasey Kahne in a mall on vacation when she was in third grade, and how it ignited a passion for the sport.
That fire never left. It led Haase into the 305 Sprint Car ranks and then to the 360 Sprint Car division at the famed Knoxville Raceway. She also built a strong brand off the track, which led to strong sponsorship for her self-owned team.
Still, Haase never lost that love for working on and driving racecars. It’s that love and her desire to build a professional racing career that led her to the decision to move from Iowa to Indianapolis and embark on a 360 and 410 Sprint Car schedule in 2020.
“When I think back to really why I got into this sport, it’s because I wanted to drive racecars and started working on them and driving at the lowest levels,” Haase said. “All of the other stuff, the marketing, which was the only way I could fund my racing at that age, came after that.
“I’ve always wanted to travel and race, but I just never had the budget to do it. So, I finally moved out to Indy and wanted to be taken seriously as a racecar driver and not just a brand.”
Continued Haase, “I get to go back to working on cars, too, and just be immersed in racing itself. Being in the racing capitol of the world will be helpful with that.”
Haase, of Des Moines, IA, started racing in the 305 Sprint Car division at Knoxville Raceway in 2014. She moved up to the 360s in 2017 and managed a pair of wins in the division one year later.
Knoxville was the perfect place for Haase to not only cut her Sprint Car teeth, but also get exposure. But, she also realized that she needed to travel to become a better driver and realize her dream.
The move to Indianapolis occurred in April and was kept pretty quiet. So much so that Haase didn’t tell some of her close friends, because she didn’t want to be bombarded with questions or have it affect her racing season.
Still, Haase believes the move is needed as a major piece of the racing puzzle. The rest is hitting events in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, as well as Iowa, to hone her skills.
“I’ve been saying it for years, but I promise I mean it this time, that we are going to race outside of Knoxville,” Haase laughed. “That doesn’t mean we won’t race Knoxville, but I just never had the budget to race outside of Knoxville.
“I love my life in Iowa. I had a great business network, racing network, and my youth motorsports programs were based out of Des Moines. So, I had a great life building, but I came to the realization that it wasn’t the life I wanted to live long term.”
A MEMORABLE MESSAGE
One thing Haase hasn’t had a lot of over the last three years is free time. Along with running her own race team, building youth programs, and increasing her brand in racing, she also was a full-time student at highly regarded Drake University.
Academics have always been important and even emphasized. Haase attended the College of Business and Public Administration at the school, studying Finance with Track and Investment Analysis.
Not only was she a 4.0 student, she was President of the Investment Club. Haase has also been academically published, penning a piece on the economics in racing that appeared in the International Journal of Motorsports Management.
One day, the Dean at Drake called Haase into his office and gave her some advice on her career. The spoken words still stick today.
“He had been watching me, and said, ‘McKenna, I wouldn’t be saying this if you didn’t have a 4.0 GPA,’” Haase said. “He’s like, ‘I can see you are anxious to get out of here and are completely overloaded with these other things you have going on. Your racing career won’t always be here, but our school will be, and I want you to chase that dream.’
“It pushed me over the edge. I just remember walking out of his office and feeling the weight of the world was off my shoulders. I actually didn’t listen right away and became a part-time student, and even that got to be way too much with all of the sponsors, the foundation, and the development team.
“I, finally, called it quits with pretty much a senior year left. It was the best decision I ever made. Not that I’m against education, I love education, but I just felt it wasn’t right for me. Moving to Indy was the best decision I ever made.”
BUILDING A RACING RESUME
Haase figured out early on in her career that taking care of sponsors and gaining exposure was going to be her ticket to building a successful team.
Few have done it better in such a short amount of time. Haase, 22, doesn’t get money from her family but has made ends meet by building a sponsorship base that is in the neighborhood of 30 strong.
Outside of racing, Haase, who does ninja and Taekwondo training, has also increased her brand by earning a spot on NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” a show that features men and women competing on difficult obstacle courses.
Now, Haase is looking to have the same sort of success on the racetrack. But to do so, she will have log laps and experience, regardless of car or class.
Haase has a good start. She has run a Midget, a Sprint Car, and Outlaw Kart. She recently tested a Super Late Model and has tested an F-2000 on the simulator.
“I’ve never driven a racecar I didn’t love driving,” Haase said. “The only thing I’ve been in long enough to win in was a Sprint Car … Other than an Outlaw Kart when I was younger.
“It’s taken me 20 nights or less to win, but don’t get me wrong, it’s been up-and-down until that first win. I just feel like I haven’t had the chance to truly show all of my talent, because I’ve only raced 10 to 20 times a year.
“When we’ve gone to a different track with the Sprint Car, like quarter-mile bullrings or whatever, we’ve been on the podium in a handful of races on the short tracks. But again, it’s just been in Iowa.”
Haase knows it’s all about getting noticed, and even though Knoxville Raceway is the biggest stage in Sprint Car racing, she needs to show more at different venues and on different surfaces.
Running 20 races a year doesn’t cut it. Especially when you are competing for rides with drivers with more experience who travel coast to coast facing some of the stiffest challengers in the sport.
“Rides are not going to come to you,” Haase said. “That only happens for a select few. You have to go get them.
“Obviously, the way the sport is now, it’s money, so it’s extremely difficult. I think it’s still possible and believe if you put yourself in the best position, it can be done.
“For me, if I can just win outside of Knoxville and run a 410 and put good results out in the East … it’s going to take some time and experience … but I just think showing up to the fight is what it takes.”
DOING IT ON HER OWN
McKenna Haase looks up and down the pit area and can do the math in her head. It’s the price she pays for being good with numbers and finance.
Sprint Car racing is an expensive game. The money it takes to run a team doesn’t discriminate whether a car is littered with sponsors or is blank.
That’s something Haase learned at an early age. She started her team at age 13 and learned really quick what it takes to get to the track every week. More important, she realized she couldn’t do it alone.
Haase needed sponsors. And since she turned her Sprint Car endeavors into a business at 17, she has worked tirelessly trying to acquire more partners and take care of the companies that take care of her.
“Every single car costs ‘X’ amount of dollars,” Haase said. “I understand there is better equipment than others, but at the end of the day, you have to pay ‘X’ amount to go to the racetrack.
“Where I struggle with my car — I’m grateful for my sponsors and blessed with great sponsors — is my parents don’t put a dime into what I do other than their time, and I appreciate that. But, they aren’t cutting me checks.
“Sponsorship is the only way I could race. I put my own personal money in, too, but I had to create a brand. It still takes sponsors to put that car on the racetrack.”
It’s tough being a female in the sport. Even the most talented female drivers are sometimes looked at as a novelty.
Haase doesn’t shy away from her brand popularity, but she isn’t content being perceived in that way. She is a racecar driver and wants to be respected for her talent on the track as much as off.
“I just don’t want to be seen as a brand,” Haase said. “I started out as a driver, and I am a driver, a racecar driver. I want to win just as bad, if not more, than anybody, and I’m ruthless about it.
“I’m willing to sacrifice whatever it takes. Obviously, I was a 4.0 finance major who could have gotten a really good finance job. Not only did I not get a degree, I lost the degree. I lost the finance job, I quit my job in Iowa, and moved to Indy just to race sprint cars.”
Continued Haase, “I’m living like any Sprint Car driver in Indy. Just because I own the team, it doesn’t mean I’m cutting a salary. I’m living off percentage and my motivational speaking appearances, so it’s tight and a huge sacrifice.
“It’s really difficult financially, but it’s what I want to do. I have confidence in sponsors to sustain the team, the foundation I’m working on, and speaking appearances. I have confidence that I will be able to succeed in all of that.”
BUILDING FOR THE FUTURE
Haase isn’t the type to wait for things to happen. Instead, she is content rolling up her sleeves and going after what she wants.
Knoxville Raceway has been good to Haase, but she wants more. That desire — her ambition to be a professional racecar driver — is what led to her relocating to Indianapolis, a hub for racing in the United States.
It’s a two-prong attack. Haase needs to get more laps outside Knoxville and increase her exposure. Both lead to more sponsors and more opportunity.
“I didn’t go to Indy because I landed a big sponsor,” Haase said. “Frankly, I can’t even say that I went to Indy to get sponsors, but I did go there to get business connections.
“I would love to get sponsors there. When I originally went out there, I figured it was already dried up with all the teams that are there. Thankfully, a lot of my sponsors in Iowa, they are national companies.
“The best way to describe it is if an Olympian competes in Beijing, they are still going to get a lot of coverage in Iowa. So, even if I have an Iowa-based company, we are racing in Indiana building our brand.”
Welcome to racing in 2019.
Gone are the days of talent being enough. Guys like Steve Kinser, Sammy Swindell, and Doug Wolfgang would have made it regardless of location or wallet. Talent and dedication spoke volumes, and like the National Football League, someone would have found them.
Now, there are more drivers then there are seats, and many owners require a driver to bring a bag of cash, as well as their helmet. If it’s not a rent-a-ride, it’s the family-owned teams dominating the landscape.
Haase knows it won’t be easy to break into the big time, but she is determined to make a go of it. The goal is to race professionally her way, and she will settle for nothing less.
“My current plan, which is subject to change, is to run Sprint Cars,” Haase said. “A combination of 360s and 410s in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.
“Anything I can get outside of that would be great, but I just want to focus on something and go at it full throttle.”