By Brian Eberly, Contributing Writer
What was originally announced as a three race ARCA schedule for the 2017 season back in March has expanded to seven races for Natalie Decker as the 20-year-old driver has experienced success and gained valuable experience behind the wheel of a Venturini Motorsports Toyota.
Decker has achieved several accomplishments with her family-owned Super Late Model team over the past few seasons, including earning the first podium finish for a female racer in the ARCA Midwest Tour. After recording several victories in Super Late Model competition over the past couple of seasons, Decker has adapted well to the bigger, heavier ARCA car.
“I’ve really liked the heaviness of the ARCA car. I feel like it suits my driving style a little bit more than the Super Late Model that I have been driving,” Decker told Motorsports Tribune during an appearance at Race Fan Rally in Joliet, Illinois. Decker’s appearance at the rally was part of a program between Venturini Motorsports, Musselman’s Apple Sauce and People Against Distracted Driving’s (PADD) to raise awareness to the dangers of distracted driving. Decker was a clear fan favorite at the event, as she signed autographs, mingled with fans and handed out free samples of Musselman’s.
Decker made her debut in May at Toledo Speedway and finished 11th after running inside the top-10 during the majority of the 200-lap event. In addition to a lead lap finish, the car was loaded on the hauler without a scratch.
In her second start at Elko Speedway, the rookie driver once again ran inside the top-10 for the majority of the race, but was relegated to a 13th-place result after receiving a restart penalty in the late stages of the event.
In June, Decker made her first start on a track larger than a mile when she tackled the 2.5-mile track in Pocono known as the ‘Tricky Triangle.’ Transmission issues resulted in the completion of only 65 of the races 80 laps and a disappointing 27th-place result. Returning to Pocono for the series’ second race in July, she earned her first top-10.
The string of firsts continued for the Eagle River, Wisconsin native in August when she made her first professional road course appearance.
“I thought I was nervous going into my first Pocono race, but when I was getting strapped in to go race at Road America I was so nervous. We had rain tires on because everyone said rain was coming and then it never rained. I was really nervous but once the green flag flew I was pretty confident that I could just keep it on the track and get a good finish.”
Decker conquered the 4-mile, 14-turn scenic road course in her home state to earn a career-best 7th-place finish after surviving a wild final lap.
“That was really crazy. The caution came out with one lap to go and we came down pit road. It was crazy on the restart and people were wrecking everywhere.”
As has been the theme for Decker in her five ARCA starts, she brought the car back to the garage with nary a scratch.
“Growing up, ever since I started racing, that’s been the thing, bring the car home in one piece and keep it clean. That’s been one of the goals other than getting a top-10 and I’ve accomplished those goals in the past two races.”
With two top-10 results in her past two races and completing 97% of the laps in her five starts, Decker has improved throughout the season.
“The understanding of the car is where I feel I’ve improved the most. It’s a lot different. The second time I went to Pocono I didn’t really understand a lot of the aero stuff. I was getting aero tight when I was trying to pass someone and I couldn’t really understand that and my spotter talked me through it and two laps later I figured it out and passed the guy. So just experience and seat time.”
An obvious key for drivers is to develop a good working relationship with their team and especially their crew chief. Dave Leiner has been calling the shots for Decker this year.
“I love working with Dave Leiner. My first time working with him I went and I tested the car about a week before I was going to my first ARCA race at Toledo. I literally fell in love with my crew chief. I was like ‘you are amazing.’ I felt so comfortable. He is so fun to work with and he is such a good teacher. I wish I had him in high school teaching me he’s that good at teaching.”
The next challenge for the popular Midwest Late Model driver comes on Friday night at Kentucky Speedway. The race was officially announced as part of Decker’s schedule earlier this week and comes as a result of her performance to date and the additional support of Madison, Wisconsin-based sponsor N29 Capital Partners, LLC. The start will mark her first race on a 1.5-mile track and serve as preparation for the previously scheduled season finale at Kansas Speedway next month.
“I’ve done a mile and then I’ve done Pocono. So the distance is right in between and I’m really nervous for a mile-and-a-half but I’m also super excited and I can’t wait to get there.”