12 Daring Women Who Changed Racing History

When you think of women in racing, you probably think of today’s big names like Danica Patrick or Courtney Force. March was International Women’s month, but it’s always a good time to honor some of the women who paved the way in motorsports, as well as the female drivers out there winning races today.

Helle Nice

You might think that women are only now breaking into the boys’ club of racing, but there have been women on the rack nearly as long as there’s been racing. Case in point: Helle Nice who was dubbed “the Queen of Speed” after winning the Grand Prix Féminin in 1929.

Nice had been a dancer until she injured her knee skiing. She did the natural thing and switched to auto-racing. Nice was the subject of a 2004 biography titled Bugatti Queen.

Helle Nice in Brazil, 1936. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Kay Petre

Kay Petre drove in many races in the 1930s, including finishing the 1934 24 Hours of Le Mans with teammate Dorothy Champney. As ESPN points out, Petre stood 4’10”, but that didn’t stop her from racing a 10.5 Liter V12 (you can see pictures over at Silodrome). She just had to attach wooden blocks to the pedals so she could reach. She briefly held a Ladies Land Speed record with that car at over 134 miles per hour. Petre retired from racing after suffering serious injuries in a crash. That didn’t keep her away from the automotive world, though. She went on to design fabric patterns for the original Mini.

Denise McCluggage

Denise McCluggage is the only journalist in the Automotive Hall of Fame. She also drove in a number of different series and won best in class at the 12 Hours of Sebring, driving a Ferrari 250, in 1961, and won the Monte Carlo Rallye in a Ford Falcon in ’64. She also took fifth at Watkins Glenn in 1960.

Shirley Muldowney

Shirley Muldowney became known as the First Lady of Drag Racing. She was the first woman licensed to drag race by the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). Muldowney went on to win the championship in NHRA’s top class, Top Fuel, in 1977, 1980, and 1982. She was the first person to ever win the championship three times.

Janet Guthrie

Janet Guthrie was the first women to race at the Indy 500, but as she later told the Indy Star, the road was rough. Without sponsors, Guthrie towed her racing Jaguar behind a $45 station wagon, which she also slept in. She also did her own engine and body work on the Jag. To look as professional and polished as her well-funded competitors, Guthrie wore double-layered gloves to protect her manicure when she worked on the car. Guthrie had a string of Indy 500 appearances, every year from ‘76 to ’80. Guthrie also held a record for most top-ten finishes by a woman in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series for many years.

Michele Moulton

Michele Mouton got early support in racing career from her father. He bought her a Renault Alpine and agreed to pay for one season of racing. In 1975 she won the 2.0-liter class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, driving by ear after the car’s rev-counter had failed, as Classic Driver reports. Primarily though, Mouton was a rally driver. She was eventually asked by Audi to drive in the World Rally Championship.

Moulton was on track to win the 1982 World Rally Championship, but car trouble kept her from finishing the last race of the season, allowing Walter Rohrl to overtake her in the standings. She won the 1984 and 1985 Pike’s Peak Hillclimbs, setting a course record in 1985.

Lyn St James

Lyn St James told The Guardian that she spun her daily driver Ford Pinto into a lake at her first race in 1973. Despite this false start, she kept at it and won a regional championship in 1975. She went on to win best in class among the GTO production cars at the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1987 and again in 1990, and at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1990.

She also followed in Janet Guthrie’s footsteps with a streak of seven Indy 500 appearances from 1992 (where she was named Rookie of the Year) to 2000.

Sabine Schmitz

Germany’s Nurburgring is a notoriously tricky race course even for pro drivers. The 12 mile track through the woods has been nicknamed “The Green Hell.”  Sabine Schmitz has a nickname of her own: The Queen of the Ring. She won the 24 hours of Nurburgring race twice in 1996 and 1997. She appeared on the British car show Top Gear several times, once lapping the ‘Ring in 10 minutes and 8 seconds in a Ford Transit van.

Danica Patrick

Danica Patrick might be most famous for her time in NASCAR but she was also a successful IndyCar driver. In 2005 she was named IndyCar rookie of the year. Three years later, she won the Indy Japan 300, making her the first woman to win an IndyCar race.  Patrick is also the one who overtook Guthrie’s Sprint Cup record. Guthrie was glad to see someone take the record, saying it had taken too long.

The Force Sisters

Ashley, Brittany, and Courtney Force are the daughters of 16-time NHRA champion John Force.  In 2008, Ashley beat her father at a national drag racing event, to become the first female drive to win a national funny car event. Courtney Force won an NHRA Top Alcohol Dragster event the following year, at age 21. She beat her sister Brittany on the way to the victory –  and you thought your sibling rivalries were bad. Brittany won the Top Fuel championship in 2017, becoming the second woman to do so, after Shirley Muldowney.

The Future

It’s true that men still by-far outnumber women in professional racing, but who knows what the future holds? Karun Chadhok, a former F1 driver, suggested to Red Bull that parents have a role to play in encouraging girls to take up karting or driving. Maybe the Force sisters and Michele Moulton would agreewould agree. Then again some of the other names on this list paved their own way. Regardless, Michele Moulton, now the president of the FIA’s Women in Motorsports commission, said in the New York Times, she thinks it’s a numbers game. More boys and men get started in racing than girls and women. So if you know a woman who’s thinking about getting on the track, feel free to send her this list for inspiration.

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