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Race to Equality – History of Women in Racing

By Michelle Cabatingan

Michelle and Lyn St. James.
Michelle Cabatingan and Lyn St. James.

My love of cars and wanting to race them began at a young age of nine years old. It started on a winter afternoon in 2004 when my dad came home with a brand new PlayStation 2, a gaming system that my cousin introduced to me. Every time I went to visit him we would always be playing the video game, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. I had been asking for one, ever since then. He set the blue box in front of the television, sat down with me and we started to assemble all the cords and inserted them into the television and the outlet. I pushed the “on” button on both the television and the PlayStation at the same time and waited for it to start up. The game that came with the PlayStation was called Gran Turismo 3, a race car video game. I was fascinated by the cars, by the shape of the cars and how they were driving incredibly fast. I played the game every day until it got to the point that I couldn’t beat my own fastest lap times.
As I grew up, I became more aware of the real race cars on television and suddenly, it seemed, video games weren’t interesting enough for me. I needed more. I became more aware and knowledgeable of car models and styles from every day street cars to exotic sports cars. I occasionally watched the NASCAR races on television, thrilled with the skill and speed. Recently, I was watching, a televised race when I noticed the announcers commenting about a female competitor. I had never seen or heard of a female racing in the NASCAR races or any type of auto racing before and so I looked her up. Her name is Danica Patrick, the first female driver I’ve seen competing in the male dominated sport of auto racing. I never knew a female could compete in an auto race against men, and I was captivated. I imagined myself driving, racing a high-powered car and wondering if I could make such a dream a reality. Contemplation of whether this is a possibility for me and other women lead me to ask the question: How has auto racing evolved in accepting women participants?
Today, women are becoming more involved in the sport of auto racing starting at a young age and training determinedly to become a professional driver. However, in the 1940s when auto racing was steadily emerging in popularity in the United States, this was not the case. Males dominated the sport. A look back in history shows the evolution of racing.
The first practical internal combustion engined production automobile was made by Karl Benz. Cars were invented to get from point A to point B other than the usual horse and carriage used many years ago but as time passed better engines and faster cars were being built and as a result auto racing was born. “Auto Racing began soon after the construction of the first successful gasoline-fueled automobiles and the first race ever organized was in Europe during the year 1887. In 1894, the Parisian magazine Le Petit Journal organized what is considered to be the world’s first car race from Paris to Rouen ” (Legends). Auto racing has come a long way to get to where it is present day and is continuing to grow.
An organization called the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) was formed in 1944 to support motor racing in the United States. The SCCA was a sexist organization consisted only of white upper class male members. It was similar to a very exclusive country club; the members would only ask their friends or anyone with money to join. The early events of SCCA treated women as less important than the cars in attendance. If women attended the events they were more likely portrayed as “eye candy” for the men. Early on it was assumed that if a woman played a role in the SCCA competition than it would be a navigator for her favorite driver during road rally race. “The other frequent role portrayed was that of a attractive pit-bunny supplying needed distraction from the rigors of competition or an obedient pit-wife supplying sandwiches or even faithfully holding the stopwatch or the pit board while their husbands raced by on the track” (Hylton 30). As women began to participate in these roles, the SCCA began to recognize their involvement in the sport. “After a number of years, the Indianapolis Region of SCCA established a “Ladies Navigator Trophy” to go to the women who scored the most points in the supporting role” (Hylton 32). There was no consideration given to the fact that a woman would be able to strap on a helmet and challenge the men.
“In the 1950s, a few women daringly competed in sports car racing and so special “ladies races” were presented in combination with some SCCA race meets (Hylton 30). But these were type of events in which women were treated as less significant races and where the men would kindly lend their race cars to women for just a few laps around the track. Clearly, women competitors were not taken very seriously.
In 1953, in Los Angeles, California, a group of ladies formed the Women’s Sports Car Club, they wanted to participate in racing events. Tired of feeling like they were assigned to secondary status in the rapidly growing sport, they did not wish to participate only in the “ladies” events. They wanted to be part of the main event. The group then teamed up with the San Francisco Region of SCCA. “They assisted in running the races, it included car numbering, timing, lap scoring, corner observation, registration, checking people in, handing out tech forms, running mimeograph and checking passes” (Hylton 34). These tasks or jobs still relegated women to lesser roles; with women the division of the sexes showed the profession’s position that racing was clearly a male sport, capable of only simpler tasks.
As the 1950s wore on, a few women drivers broke the gender barrier and competed head- to-head against males. Denise McCluggage started racing in 1956 and very quickly she went to the top. She became accepted at the top events around the country, as well as international events in Europe and the Bahamas. Her comments in Women in Sports Car Competition showed her desire, “I drive my poorest in ladies’s races and I don’t like them very much. I feel more comfortable with men. I frighten easily and I do not like to be frightened so I avoid such situations where I can, she confesses” (Mull 18). McCluggage’s profession as journalist assisted her in moving forward with her racing career, she was equally well known for her writing as for her driving. The blending of roles as a journalist and as racer made her unique, and her talent in both careers allowed her to use the position to an advantage that gave her opportunities that most women did not have. McCluggage, a legend in the small portion of female drivers, led the way for other women to enter the competition for sports car racing, one was Donna Mae Mimms.
In 1963, Donna Mae Mimms accomplished the unthinkable. “She had won a SCCA national driving championship, a class H production, which is one of the most popular types of racing in SCCA, competed against almost 300 drivers all across the country” (Hylton 34). A very successful and popular competitor, Mimms also went on to write articles for some popular car magazines at that time. Denise McCluggage and Donna Mae Mimms were two women who not only wrote articles, they set the foundation for future female drivers successes in American sports car racing.
All-female Ring Free Oil Driving Team (L to R) of Suzy Dietrich, Donna Mae Mims, Smokey Drolet, Anita Taylor-Matthews, Janet Guthrie and an unidentified driver.
All-female Ring Free Oil Driving Team at the 1967 Daytona 24 Hours. (L to R) of Suzy Dietrich, Donna Mae Mims, Smokey Drolet, Anita Taylor-Matthews, Janet Guthrie and an unidentified driver. (photo: Al Wolford Collection)

The 1970s accelerated racing for women into high gear when a newcomer left her work on the race track, opening doors to race cars for women. As auto racing was becoming widely popular in America during the 1960s, amateur racing was evolving into a professional sport. Car companies began to take advantage of this newly televised entertainment and began sponsoring drivers to advertise their company on national television. Two popular types of races are NASCAR, the most famous type of stock car racing and the Indianapolis 500, one of the most prestigious competitions in car racing. Legendary racer, Janet Guthrie had the experience of driving in both races. In 1977, Janet Guthrie became the first female to ever qualify and compete in the well-known Indy 500 race. However, she already pushed the gender boundaries with other accomplishments in male dominated arenas. “Even before she started racing around a track, Guthrie earned a degree in physics and her pilot’s license. She also applied for the first scientist- astronaut program in the United States. In other words, Guthrie had no problem asserting herself in a ‘man’s world’” (Why). Guthrie became the female counterpart to well known Mario Andretti, world champion racing driver.

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To fully understand the road to becoming the first female Indy 500 driver, I contacted Janet Guthrie. After long hours of research on the internet I came across an email, in which I was able to ask the legendary driver a few questions. She has been racing for 13 years and had a good racing record, she explained. That was the reason why she received a call from a long-time Indy 500 car builder and team owner, Rolla Vollsedt, asking if she would like to take a shot at the Indianapolis 500. She revealed,
“At some point he decided he wanted to be the first team owner to bring a women driver to Indianapolis. He would talk with his sports car friends and would always mention my name, which is when I began to gain a reputation. What I didn’t anticipate was the outrage it would cause. The general idea was that women didn’t have the strength, the endurance, the emotional stability; women were going to endanger the men’s lives. The only way I could put a stop to this was on the racetrack.”

Janet Guthrie at Indy, 1977
Janet Guthrie in 1977, when she became the first woman to race in the Indianapolis 500. She placed 29th in the Bryant Heating and Cooling Lightning/Offy (photo: IMS)

Guthrie failed to qualify for the 1976 Indy 500 but later that year she began competing in NASCAR, which was even more difficult. “This was in 1976 with meaty tough guys racing; they associated feminism with sissies. There were certain amounts of controversy associated with it because the guys didn’t want her there. Sponsors don’t like controversy” (Why). “They just didn’t know me yet, and they got used to the idea that I wasn’t going to be intimidated. I gained the title “Rookie of the year” and I think it was something that I could be proud of.” In the 1977 Indy 500 race, she credited her car-not herself-with the improvement. “It was a better car; I knew from the tachometer that the speed was fast enough to earn a starting spot in the field. I was thinking to myself that my life was never going to be the same, and indeed it wasn’t,” Guthrie described. Unable to cure a sick engine she was unable to finish the race. But the next year in 1978, she ended up in the top ten spot, ninth place, and that was the best finish by a woman at an Indianapolis race. She stated,
“After that Ninth place win, and the publicity I brought to the track, finding money for me would be falling off a log and it didn’t happen. I didn’t quit willingly, I ran out of money. I am reconciled to the fact that I wasn’t able to continue and set the kind of record that I know I was capable of setting and I will never be reconciled to that but that’s life you don’t always get what you want.”
Janet Guthrie opened many doors for many females to come up and start to pursue driving. I was thrilled to have a conversation with such a racing legend, an opportunity I shall never forget. After weeks of research and reading, I had heard from the driver who paved the way for many others. I also learned how networking pays off. A Danville resident who races classic cars, helped me immensely by meeting with me and lending me some books. Peter Giddings has been racing for 30 years, is an icon of vintage racing and is known all around the world. He owns and races about a dozen cars — Alfa Romeos, Bugattis, Ferraris and Maseratis — dating back to the 1930s.

During a visit to his home in February, he took me for a ride in a 1928 Lancia Lambda around his neighborhood, and we talked about racing in his custom built car garage that looks like a racing club house. His kindness in providing me contacts led me to meeting new people in the racing world who were more than happy to assist me with my project. In late March, I was off to the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California, where I had an appointment with Lyn St. James, a seven-time Indy 500 driver.
The Classic Sports Car Racing Group (CSRG) was holding its 45th anniversary season opener at Infineon Raceway. I observed all the different colored cars lined up row by row followed by drivers in their race suits either checking the engines of their cars or chatting among the other drivers. All the cars ranged from the year 1910 to early 1970s. The scent of the air smelled of burnt rubber and gasoline, the smell was welcoming. The ear-splitting roars of the engines turning on and speeding around the racetrack were constant. It felt surreal seeing over a hundred cars lined up each carrying a unique history. I was introduced to a female driver who has been racing for six years, Sharon Wardman, who agreed to give me a ride around the track when the event allowed drivers to bring a passenger arrived. She owns a red 1963 Rene Bonnet DJet; it is the first mid-engine car ever made in Brussels, Germany. There were 196 built and 95 are left in the world; only 5 remain in the United States and it is the only one of its kind on the western side of the United States. I strapped on my helmet and seated myself inside the small car. I listened as she explained the technical aspects of the car and safety precautions. I felt the hum of the engine at our backs once the car was started up. We took a short drive toward the track and instantly I felt the change of temperature of the engine and the track increase. Once given the signal to start our laps around the track were off the engine getting louder as we shifted gears. The gravity pulled me side to side as we made our way around the turns, reaching speeds up to 110 miles per hour even though it only felt like 50 miles per hour. The engines were all I heard when zooming around the track and I watched the scenery flash by. After the memorable experience I headed toward the press conference room where I would meet Lyn St. James. The room had floor to ceiling windows that overlooked the racetrack.

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Lyn St. James’ story is remarkable. It culminated into victories few others can claim, winning the title of Indy 500 Rookie of the Year in 1992, competing in seven Indy 500’s, in a sport in which few women have ever participated. She became the first woman to exceed 200 mph on an oval track and set 31 international and national closed circuit speed records” (Women Drivers). Lyn St. James is a rare athlete-a woman automobile racer. “She became only the second woman in the 82-year history of the Memorial Day weekend race to qualify for the race and to complete the tough course, finishing eleventh in a starting field of 33 professional drivers” (Women Drivers). In addition to these auto racing accomplishments, St. James is also a writer- columnist, teacher, businesswoman and piano player.
St. James spoke candidly about the challenges a women in racing must endure. Throughout her career, St. James has been told what she can’t do. “At times my own crew members have made it clear that I would be more welcomed in the garage if I fetched coffee rather than asked questions about chassis setup of the car.” St. James explained “My entire career, it has been, ‘Who’s going to work with the girl driver’… Many male drivers have told me, ‘I couldn’t do what you do.’” Nevertheless auto racing continues to adapt to women in competing on the race track. “Sports car racing had progressed a little on the gender-equality front by that time, but the sport was still light-years behind the rest of the world” (St. James 15).
“Money is attached to a female driver.” Lyn St. James explains. In 1999 St. James was struggling to find sponsors to continue to race, even though she was the first female Rookie of the Year and the oldest rookie in Indy 500 history, it was almost impossible to find sponsors. Fortunately for St. James someone took the risk in sponsoring her just weeks before the Indy 500 race in 2000. In a book written by Lyn St. James, she comments:
“I thought that focusing solely on our gender detracted from our racing. Sarah Fisher and I were race car drivers who happened to be women. As long as we were viewed in that context I didn’t mind talking about our accomplishments. Sure, we are women, and sure we were the oldest and youngest drivers in the field, but we had also put substantial speeds on the board in order to be where we were.”

Interviewing Lyn St. James.
Interviewing Lyn St. James.

A longtime supporter of greater opportunities for women in sports, St. James has been involved with the Women’s Sports Foundation created in Arizona. It is a driver development program for women who aspire to become race car drivers and for the last ten years she served as its president since 1990. “The following year she was named director of consumer relations for the Car Care Council, a trade group that addresses safety and maintenance concerns on behalf of car and truck owners” (Women Drivers). Lyn St. James has accomplished many things in her life and is continuing to expand her achievements. After opening her racing school for females, one of her students Danica Patrick aspires as a race car driver gives an example of how successful a female can be in racing.
Today, there are a few female drivers driving professionally, and the number female competitors are increasing. Danica Patrick, who is the most successful women in the history of American open-wheel racing, is becoming a household name. However it was her sister, Brooke Patrick who led Danica into racing. Brooke convinced their parents to get two go-karts instead of buying a pontoon boat. Patrick was hooked as described in Xtreme Athletes: Danica Patrick. “In my first go-kart racing go-karts, I was lapped within six laps by the completion. I knew I had to improve and be determined. But racing is something I wanted to do once I drove that kart for the first time” (Hinman 16). Patrick started in a Junior Sportsman Stock class at a local track. Her class consisted of all boys, ages eight to twelve. Even at a young age she competed against a field of boys to pursue her dream. After the first two years of karting, the boys were often intimidated by Patrick’s aggressive style. As the only girl, she quickly understood that this fact alone would also make her different. Her parents did whatever it took to see to it that she had all of the advantages in racing.
“In 1996, at age fourteen, Patrick won thirty-nine of forty-nine races. Patrick even attended the Lyn St. James driver development program to provide experience for aspiring drivers” (Hinman 20). Patrick decided the next step would be to move to England, so she dropped out of high school and earned her GED. Later, Patrick was one of many aspiring young racers eager to learn how to race open-wheel cars. The environment was very competitive and Patrick did not fit in easily. “All the drivers hung together, and I was left out of the equation a lot. They wouldn’t call me. It was boys being boys” (Hinman 33).
Danica Patrick Indy 2005
Danica Patrick at the 2005 Indianapolis 500 (photo: IMS)

As the years passed Danica Patrick made a name for herself. “In May 2005, in her first Indianapolis 500, Danica Patrick became both the fastest woman in Speedway history, with a practice lap of 229.880, and the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500” (Hinman 39). She finished fourth, breaking Janet Guthrie’s record as the first woman to place in the top ten a ninth place 27 years later. Continuing to race, Patrick in 2008 became the first woman to win an Indycar race by capturing the Indy Japan 300. As time progresses, many more opportunities are being opened to more females. Danica Patrick, the most recent and successful female driver dominating her male competitors, shows other women that they can achieve anything with hard work; she is an inspiration. Always stay determined and never give up or in racing terms, accelerate quickly and never let up.
In looking back at my original question: “How has society evolved in accepting women participants in male dominated sports and activities?” I initially felt that it was a perfect question for me; however my meeting with Peter Giddings made me realize that I wanted to revise my topic question and focus on women and racing not other activities. I refined my question to: “How has auto racing evolved in accepting how women participants?” I wanted to focus my whole paper on Auto racing, a very male dominated sport, and how women were becoming more involved and competing against the males. I couldn’t be more thrilled with the modification because of my love of cars and racing. Cars are a hobby of mine and racing was an activity that I didn’t have the time to pursue due to my busy schedule. This project gave me the opportunity to learn more about the sport. I, being a female got to learn how hard it was to get to the point, where women like Danica Patrick and other aspiring female racers are today. During this project, I met, interviewed and befriended many new people, whom of which were people I would never dream meeting in my lifetime.

If it weren’t for this project I would never got to meet Peter Giddings, a kind man originally from England who is an icon of vintage racing and is known all around the world, Ken Clapp, former vice president of western operations for NASCAR, Gary Horstkorta, an automotive historian, writer for SCCA, Janet Guthrie, the first female Indy 500 driver, or Lyn St. James a seven time Indy 500 driver, one of the most famous women racers in America. I’ll draw on this process and experience in the future when I am tackling challenges in my own life; I will make sure I am the one in the driver’s seat in charge of the gas pedal whether I’m in a car or not.

Works Cited
Book Sources:
Hinman, Bonnie. Xtreme Athletes: Danica Patrick. Greensboro, North Carolina Morgan Reynols, 2009. Print.
Hylton, Pete. The Gentlemen’s Club. Legacy Ink, 2009. Print.
Mull, Evelyn. Women in Sports Car Competition. New York. Sports Car Press, 1958. Print.
James, Lyn St. Lyn St. James: An Incredible Journey. Phoenix, AZ: LSJ Press, 2010. Print.
Electronic Sources:
Guthrie, Janet. “Biography of Janet Guthrie.” Janet Guthrie. Web. 16 Mar. 2012.
Michelle Cabatingan 2012 James, Lyn St. “Welcome to the Lyn St. James Website!” Welcome to the Lyn St. James Website! Web. 12 Apr. 2012.
Why We Watch. “Janet Guthrie.” Bleacher Report., 1 Mar. 2012. Web. 20 Mar. 2012.
“Women Drivers at the Indy 500.” A Gannett Company, 19 Apr. 2011. Web. 16 Mar. 2012.
Primary Sources:
Guthrie, Janet. Famous Female Racecar Driver. Email. Personal Interview. 23 March 2012
St. James, Lyn. 7-Time Indy 500 Driver, Sonoma, CA. Personal Interview. 31 March 2012.