Race Weekend Central

Natalie Decker, Derek Lemke Taking NASCAR Journey Together

Natalie Decker and Derek Lemke sat on the floor of the air-conditioned Reaume Brothers Racing hauler at Richmond Raceway on Friday, July 28.

The temperature was near 100 degrees; the heat index, near 110 or higher. Lemke had just finished his practice and qualifying runs for the following night’s Worldwide Express 250, the finale of the 2023 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series’ regular season and his first-ever appearance in a NASCAR-sanctioned race.

“I surprisingly didn’t have as many nerves as I thought I would going into it,” Lemke told Frontstretch‘s Adam Cheek that afternoon. “I don’t even know if when I pulled onto the track I was still super nervous, but I was flustered to say the least. … I don’t think I hit any of my fans, my visor was all wonky, and I was going onto a live track that was like five minutes into practice. So I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into.”

Decker and Lemke became engaged in December of 2022, and both now have Truck Series starts under their respective racing belts. Decker has 32 appearances in the series to date, including holding the distinction of the highest finish ever in trucks by a female driver — fifth at Daytona International Speedway in 2020.

“We’re both very competitive in everything we do together,” she said, “but we grew up racing together, and I grew up racing against him and his dad in the Midwest.

“He’s never beaten me, actually,” she added with a laugh.

That competitive spirit doesn’t mean the pair won’t help one another at the racetrack.

“It’s been fun to be able to make my NASCAR debut and lean on Natalie a little bit for some questions and things like that,” Lemke said. “I like to think that I help when she’s racing. I don’t know that it always goes that way.”

According to the couple, the advice goes both ways.

“Honestly, when he’s racing, I like to give him the best advice I can give him,” Decker added. “Even when I’m racing, and they’re new tracks to me and he’s never even been on them — he’s a racecar driver, so he’s even constantly giving me advice. I feel like it just goes back and forth no matter if we’ve been at those tracks or not.

“But I do have to say, when the [No. 33’s] crew chief asked you after your first five laps, ‘hey, Derek, how you doing?’ and you said, ‘I’m f’in out of breath,’ I was dying laughing, because I know you know what it feels like to race cars, because you’ve done it your whole life. But this is just completely different and so much more physical. So I’m just glad you now really know how it feels.”

Lemke is no stranger to getting behind the wheel, as experience up north in legends cars, late models and even snowmobiles provided him with valuable seat time.

“My home track is Elko Speedway [in] Minnesota,” he said. “… I think being able to hop into all those cars and and adapt quickly has helped me come to Richmond here and kind of start to get it quick — I don’t want to say I got it quite yet.

“To be honest, it hasn’t hit me until right now, after qualifying, that I’m racing in NASCAR. I kept telling Natalie, like, ‘I’m in denial. I don’t want to believe it until I know I’m for sure in the race.’ And I think I’m probably gonna have a hard time sleeping tonight.”

The pair met at the then-18-year-old Lemke’s home track of Elko Speedway, where Decker, then 14, had arrived to race for the first time — not against Lemke, but rather his dad, as father and son were in different late model series.

“I saw him in the line ready to get wristbands to go into the pits, and he was wearing a hat backwards and it said [hockey brand] Bauer on it and it was baby blue,” she said. “I played ice hockey in high school, so I’m like ‘holy s–t,’ if that man plays hockey and is a racecar driver…I turned to my dad [and] said, ‘Dad, I’m gonna marry that guy.’ And then [Derek] told me ‘hey, I’m 18. Call me when you’re 18.'”

That’s exactly what happened: both were racing in Florida, Decker rang Lemke and the rest is history.

“I said ‘Happy Valentine’s Day, and by the way, I’m 18 now,'” she said. “‘Can we start going on some dates?'”

Racing is in the Lemke family’s blood: Lemke’s father, Jon, also has one career Truck Series start under his belt along with plenty of other on-track experience. That truck appearance came 20 years and 10 days prior to his son’s division debut, on July 19, 2003. Jon Lemke finished 32nd at Gateway in the No. 93 for Lonnie Troxell.

“I got into racing quarter midgets, living my dad’s dream, in 1979,” the elder Lemke said. “… Derek was born into racing, per se, as much as we could up in the upper Midwest, and [we] got Derek into quarter midget racing and kind of followed the same patterns of what I did when I grew up. He’s always had way more talent than I’ve ever had. He’s just born with it. I think I had to learn mine.

“It’s cool to see his progression. … Proud moment.”

Richmond wasn’t the duo’s first time working with Josh Reaume, either, as Decker attempted the truck race at Talladega Superspeedway for his team in the fall of 2022. Though Decker failed to qualify, the connection led to discussions of Lemke attempting to race at Martinsville Speedway in the spring, but RBR’s shop fire in the offseason delayed those plans.

Lemke’s NASCAR clearance only includes short tracks for the time being, though, so Richmond it was.

“I really just wanted Derek to know that he should just keep taking it all in and enjoying every moment,” Decker said. “…I was extremely nervous for qualifying for Derek, way more nervous than I’ve ever been for even any of the races I’ve ever done. I thought I was gonna throw up … I would rather be out there my first time than watching him his first time, it was making me so nervous. But I I really believed in him. And I knew that he was gonna have a really, really good lap.”

Decker made her most recent NASCAR start at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where she qualified 33rd and finished 34th in SS GreenLight Racing’s No. 08, backed by Cracker Jack’s “Cracker Jill” initiative supporting women in sports.

She highlighted that partnership with Bobby Dotter as well as working with Emerling-Gase Motorsports, but also expressed her hope to have her fiancĂ© join her in the Xfinity Series annals.

“Since I haven’t been at the track much racing, we’ve had a lot of time to figure out what we really want out of racing for ourselves and our careers,” Decker said. “So we’ve been working really hard for a lot of amazing things to happen next year.

“The experience on track is the most fun for me, but I do like the business side of racing. And I would say going from ARCA to trucks to Xfinity, even doing Trans Am and road racing, [what] I learned the most is who to surround myself with at the track.”

Decker has more than 70 starts across the NASCAR Xfinity, Craftsman Truck and ARCA Menards Series.

“With the trucks, you really have to almost hold your breath and be tense and up on the wheel, and it’s so momentum-based,” Decker said. “If you lose momentum, you’re screwed for four laps. But [in] Xfinity, all racing is momentum, but it’s not as traumatic if you lose a little bit of momentum [and] it won’t take as many laps to get back up to speed if you make a mistake.

“Also, just the way that trucks drive on a mile-and-a-half, even ARCA cars, they’re like wide-open, on edge, and [with] the XFINITY car there’s a lot more lifting. That’s just how I grew up racing short tracks and super late models; there’s lifting, a lot of roll speed. That’s what really matters on what’s going to make a fast lap, is your roll speed through the corner and getting off really nice.”

For his part, Lemke utilized the simulator to prepare for the race weekend and to help him with repetition, though he noted that the buttons and switches for brake fans and other miscellanea — things not in the sim — were adjustments he had to make.

How did those opening moments of practice go?

“He stalled it,” Decker said, laughing.

“I did stall it,” Lemke said, also laughing. “Honestly, just getting fitted in the seat until I got in it with all my gear on, I never even pushed on the gas pedal … so I was just kind of winging it, but also I think that helped because I wasn’t nervous before anything, I was more flustered and not nervous.”

“… I was thrown off with just the steering in the truck itself — I think I’ve driven a super late model with no power steering, and it still turned easier.”

Lemke did get the sea-foam-green, red-numbered JAG Metals No. 33 Ford rolling and made laps, practicing with the likes of three-time champion Matt Crafton and eventual race winner Carson Hocevar.

“I got in a hole of some pretty good trucks,” Lemke added. “The fact that they didn’t run me over and pass me, that was a good confidence booster. … I knew we were in a good spot, so I just wanted to make sure that we got in the show and I can have 250 laps now tomorrow to figure things out.”

Lemke qualified 31st and finished 33rd in his first-ever Craftsman Truck Series race, crossing the line ahead of Mason Massey, Spencer Boyd and owner-teammate Josh Reaume.

“We’re in the show, so I’m gonna go home and kind of relish that,” Lemke said roughly 24 hours ahead of his debut. “… I can’t thank everyone at RBR and Josh [Reaume] enough for having me and giving me an opportunity like this. I’m excited to say that I can make my first NASCAR start.”

“He’s not just a NASCAR wife anymore,” Decker added. “He’s also a NASCAR driver. And now I’m a NASCAR driver and a NASCAR wife.”

About the author

Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.

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Christopher

Decker and Deegan should have a match race and see who crashes the most

Deacon Blues

Great interview, Adam!