Classic Car Capital

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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  1. Michelle, this is good work! The skillful writing and thorough research, with insightful selection of points to include, suggest a future in law or journalism. However, those may take second place to your aspirations in the sport of speed. From PlayStation to Go-Karts, to Hooked On Driving at Thunderhill, you’re on a fun path, already paved by the exciting female drivers you studied. As you learned, the world of racing has changed and women at speed are respected for their accomplishments.

  2. It is not well researched enough-Rene Bonnet didn’t build cars in Brussels Germany wherever that might be- maybe he built them from Brussels Sprouts because the French aren’t too keen on eating them.

  3. This paper is a good response to recent and unfortunate sexist comments by Stirling Moss, who declared, “We’ve got some very strong and robust ladies, but, when your life is at risk, I think the strain of that in a competitive situation will tell when you’re trying to win. The mental stress I think would be pretty difficult for a lady to deal with in a practical fashion. I just don’t think they have aptitude to win a Formula 1 race.” Whereas it’s true that no woman has won any F1 race yet, this fact cannot be due to what Stirling Moss thinks. There are plenty of examples of Moss’ error in this paper. Congrats to the author!

  4. Well researched article, except that you missed one lady who was the best lady driver in SCCA racing on the west coast 1964-1967. She drove a C Prod Alfa Romeo GTZ and was was a great competitor. She joined SCCA in 1959 in Detroit for the specific purpose of going racing. She participated in one “ladies” race and decided that she was much more suited to racing with the men. Thus started her racing carrer in SCCA racing. She went on the SCCA Southern Pacific Division champion in 1966. She finished 2nd at the SCCA National runoffs (then called the ARRC) at RIverside International Raceway, putting on a great come-back effort from an off course excursion that put her at the back of the pack, gaining 11 second on the leader every lap….all with a broken car. Had the race been one lap longer, she would have won the race. Her name…..Nadeene Brengle.

  5. the un-named driver on the 67 team was Gabriella Koenig. I crewed on Ring Frees team.Smokey Drolet was my freind as well

  6. I can’t understand an article about “History of Women in Racing” without a mention of the most successful woman ever in motorsport, Michelle Mouton

  7. Nice article! At an amateur level, it’s a lot of fostering a welcoming environment. My local car club has been fighting lately over whether or not to post old pictures of guys with trophy girls…. a lot of people don’t understand that it sets a tone of what role women are expected to take. I’m documenting my first 24 Hours of LeMons race in an effort to inspire others to participate.