The racing world bid farewell to one of its legends this week. E3 Spark Plugs joins fans, friends and family in saying good bye to Betty Skelton, the 5-foot-3, 100 pound lady who proved that women, when given the chance, are a force to be reckoned with on the tracks and in the air.
Skelton, famed Chevrolet Corvette test driver, daredevil speed racer and acrobatic airplane pilot, packed the equivalent of several lifetimes into the 85 years she lived before passing away August 31 in Florida. She is credited with establishing a solid precedent for women’s involvement in aviation, aerobatic performance and auto racing – all the while maintaining a successful advertising and magazine publishing career.
Born in Pensacola, FL in 1926, Skelton skipped out on conventional girls’ toys and games, instead tinkering with toy planes and hanging out with pilots at the municipal airport, learning all she could about real airplanes. At age 12, Skelton made her first solo flight – illegally. Her first legal solo flight happened when she was 16 and by 18, she had landed a commercial pilot’s license and became a certified flight instructor. From there, she developed a flair for aerobatics and performed in aviation shows nationwide.
Skelton held the U.S. Female Aerobatics Championship title from 1948 to 1950, setting a world altitude record in 1949 for flying at 25,763 feet. Two years later, she would break her own record, reaching 29,050 feet. Her most memorable “stunt” (she disliked the word) was cutting a ribbon tied between two poles with her propeller while flying upside down at ten feet above the ground.
“I considered it an art,” Skelton once said. “And I spent a great deal of time trying to convince people that it was not simply diving to thrill a crowd, to make a lot of noise and to put out a lot of smoke. It was an art that took many thousands of hours to perfect.”
Skelton retired from aerobatic flying in 1953 and was working as a charter flight pilot when she met NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. France invited Skelton to Daytona Beach, where she drove a pace car and breached 105 mph on the sand in a Dodge Sedan, setting a women’s record for stock-car speed.
Skelton would go on to become the first woman to drive an Indy Car and land speed records from the sands of Daytona Beach to the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, including a 1956 transcontinental speed record covering 2,913 miles from New York to Los Angeles in just under 57 hours. That same year, she became the first female technical narrator at major auto shows. Soon after, she began test-driving Chevy Corvettes and launched Corvette News magazine (later called Corvette Quarterly). She since has been inducted into 10 halls of fame including the International Aerobatic Hall of Fame and the Corvette Hall of Fame.
“My heart makes me tick,” Skelton said when asked in a 1999 interview what made her tick. “And it’s my heart that makes me do these things. I don’t think I have any better answer than that, except that everyone is built a little differently, and my heart and my will and my desires are mixed up with challenge.”
From the bottom of our hearts, E3 Spark Plugs thanks Ms. Skelton, the “First Lady of Firsts” for inspiring generations of flyers, drivers and dreamers.
Check out this footage (no audio) from a 1948 ceremony honoring Betty Skelton at a Tampa, FL airport, courtesy of the State Library and Archives of Florida.