All jokes aside, women can drive. I’ve seen my mom weave through traffic better than most men I know ever could – including my dad, much to his disappointment. For some reason, there’s a stigma around women drivers with the underlying notion that they are notoriously bad at things like parallel parking. Not so! In fact, women in motorsport have been around pretty much since the start of motorsport events, whether in automobiles or on motorbikes.
Believe it or not, famous female racers have taken part in the sport since as early as 1897. Although opportunities for women to compete were scarce at the time, early women pioneers in motorsports were remarkable and left an impression that still encourages female racers across the world today.
In the Beginning
The first notable appearance of women in motorsport took place in June of 1897. Riding motorised tricycles, eight women were seen competing at the Longchamps Racecourse in a circuit race in Paris, France. Another significant event occurred soon after in 1901, where Camille du Gast of France became the first female to race in an international race.
Female racers quickly proved that they were not only talented, bold, and daring, but also sensible. In 1921, one of Italy’s first renowned female racers made a quick-thinking decision to save her life when her car caught fire on a beach in Denmark. Baroness Maria Antoinetta D’Avanzo swiftly drove into the water to extinguish the fire in a daring move that marked the spark of her international presence.
By 1929, the international community was set abuzz by a new world land speed record – and by the lady who set it, Hellé Nice. She participated in not one, not two, but five Grand Prix events in 1931, speeding along in a Bugatti Type -35c on behalf of the Bugatti racing team.
In 1930, the first all-women crew joined in the 24 Heures du Mans contest under leadership of Odette Siko and Marguerite Mareuse. To this day, Siko still holds the highest position ever achieved by a woman driver in the Le Mans from a successful fourth-place finish when she competed in 1932 with a male co-driver.
The resilience of female drivers is further demonstrated by Canadian motorsport pioneer Kay Petre, one of the best woman racers in the 1930s. Despite an accident in 1937 that ended her racing days, Petre continued to participate as navigator for rallies and even as a driver.
Sadly, motor racing and motorsports in general took a dip during World War II as economic and political circumstances demanded center stage.
Despite several years without racing events, the thriving post-war economy led to a renewed surge in motorsports. One area that became particularly popular was the Vespa circuit in Italy, circa 1947. Ada Pace was one of the only female competitors to grace the buzzing machine that is still loved today. In her well-styled leathers and beaming smile, Ada spread an infectious energy that showed how much fun racing could be.
Ever heard of NASCAR? The first inaugural race was held in 1949 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in the United States. Sara Christian was the first-ever woman qualified to drive and although she did not finish her first race, her determination allowed her to place 5th in a NASCAR circuit race in the subsequent months. Her accomplishment still marks one of the highest NASCAR finishes for a female driver to this day.
There’s something special about women taking on a sport that is deemed to be best suited to males. Denise McCluggage was fearless in her pursuit of gender equality in motorsports: besides racing at Monte Carlo and the Sebring Rally in 1954, she was also a motorsport journalist who proudly promulgated the rights of women to partake in motorsports worldwide. Her trademark style, a polka dot helmet, also proclaimed the truth that women can keep up appearances and stay stylish wherever they may choose to go.
Anne Hall, hailing from Britain, is another legendary woman driver that reigned supreme throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In the space of 15 years, she competed in rallies and in particular long-distance rallies worldwide. From winning the Ladies’ Cup at the London Motor Rally in 1953 to taking first prize in the Norwegian International Viking Rally and Dutch Tulip Rally in 1954 and 1955 successively, Anne blazed trails across the globe until her retirement in the late 1960s. Notable women in motorsports were sensible, resilient, stylish, and as shown by Anne: entrepreneurial. She went on to establish an advanced driving school in Britain.
Sir Stirling Moss was a Grand Prix legend and passed his skills on to his sister Pat Moss. She started driving at the tender age of 11 and actually started off as a show jumper. By 1965, she had channeled her energy towards driving – horsepower over horses, you could say – and had taken first place at the European Ladies Rally five times! She remains one of the most successful female rally drivers that the world has seen.
The 1970s saw further advances for gender equality in the motorsports. In 1973, to much grumbling from her male counterparts, Shirley ‘ChaCha’ Muldowney was granted a license to race Top Fuel dragsters. 1979 showed us that women are good at winning: British racer Louise Aitken-Walker won the Ford ‘Find a Lady Rally Driver’ competition from among 2000 participants.
The 1980s and 1990s marked the rise of Michèle Mouton, who participated in rally events worldwide and even set a course record for the world’s most extreme hillclimb, Pike’s Peak. Anne Hall – remember her, from the 50s? – showed us that age is but a number when she returned to racing and even won the Alpine Cup at the age of 68.
The 1990s brought more notable women drivers Lyn St. James, Sabine Schmitz, and Giovanna Amati. St. James was crowned Rookie of the Year on the Indy Car circuit in 1996, while Schmitz won the Nurburgring in a BMW M3 in 1997. Sabine showed us the power of pure commitment to her sport by totalling more than 20,000 laps of the Nurburgring. Amati is still the most recent female F1 race competitor – impressive!
The Recent Years
Throughout the 2000s, women were seen to increasingly participate and win in rallies and races of all circuits and sizes. From Jutta Kleinschmidt’s claim to fame as the first female winner of the Paris-Dakar Rally to Maria Costello’s Guiness World Record at the Isle of Man TT, notable female drivers continue to break ground and prove that motorsports are by no means limited to male achievements.
Time fails us to detail Danica Patrick’s achievements, Irish queen Danielle Murphy’s drifting skills, Pippa Mann racing along in her mean pink racing machine, and Sabine Schmitz’s debut as a Top Gear host in 2015. One thing’s for sure: notable women throughout history have demonstrated that women are every bit as capable of putting the pedal to the metal. Women drivers have always been – and will continue to be – bold and daring, sensible, resilient, stylish, entrepreneurial, and above all else, successful.
*Image credit of Camille du Gast