The Historic Role of Women in Auto Racing
It is never a surprise for NHRA race fans to see a woman driver standing on top of the podium when the smoke clears at the end of Sunday's finals. After all Leah Pritchett and Brittany Force are among the favorites at any Top Fuel dragster event; and Brittany's younger sister Courtney followed in their older sister Ashley's shoes as a consistent winner in Funny Car. You can add Angelle Sampey's 3 championships (43 overall wins) in Pro Stock Motorcycle and Erica Enders 2 championships (23 overall wins) in Pro Stock, and the minority contingent are always among the drivers to beat on any given Sunday. But, who were the female drivers responsible for crawling behind the wheel to get ball rolling?
The famous Grand Prix racing driver of the 1920s was known by her stage name, Hellé Nice. Having performed as a dancer in Europe's cabarets, Nice became "The Bugatti Queen" after joining the Bugatti Grand Prix team in 1931. Sara Christian and her husband Frank both competed in NASCAR's first race at Charlotte Speedway in 1949 with Sara finishing 18th overall. In the 1950s, San Francisco Chronicle journalist Denise McCluggage began a career in sports car racing that included wins at Sebring 12 Hours and the Monte Carlo Rally as well as induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame. Pat Moss, the sister of Formula One legend Sterling Moss, won the European Ladies' Rally Championship five times during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The 1970s saw three women drivers step into the limelight racing against the fastest men on the planet. Janet Guthrie became the first female driver to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. Guthrie was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006. The "First Lady of Drag Racing", Shirley Muldowney, was the first woman licensed to race NHRA Top Fuel and recorded a staggering 18 NHRA National wins before she retired in 2003. Lyn St. James raced in the Indianapolis 500, had two wins at the 24 Hours of Daytona, one win at the 12 Hours of Sebring and competed twice at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. After she retired in 2001, St. James wrote a book titled "Ride of Your Life".
Now, with Memorial Day Weekend quickly approaching, racing fans are waiting for the official retirement of IndyCar's and NASCAR's most successful female driver. Danica Patrick has 115 starts in IndyCar and is the only women with a win, which came in 2008 at the Japan 300 in Motegi. Patrick's best finish at the Brick Yard came in 2009 the year she finished third, which is still the best performance by any woman driver. In NASCAR, Danica bested Janet Guthrie's record for the most top-ten finishes by a woman in the Cup Series and is credited with 191 NASCAR Cup starts and 1 pole position. Fortunately, there are numerous young women around the world waiting for their chance to rewrite the record books.