While motorsports worldwide have seemed to be dominated by men through time, there have been a number of female racing drivers who’ve taken on the boy’s club. Today the title Danica Patrick is a recognizable name to the most casual NASCAR viewer. But just because Danica was a NASCAR regular, doesn’t mean it’s easy for her.
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Fans of 1980s NASCAR may Recall Shawna Roberts or Even Patt Moise, but neither one of these women made it much farther than the lower tiers of the sport. Even Kelly Earnhardt, (Dale Earnhardt’s daughter) just raced for a few years before deciding to give it up. Danica may have the money and ability of Tony Stewart, but after she’s in that vehicle, it’s all up to her to pull down wins and race hard to the front.
This does not indicate that there have been no successful female racing drivers in motorsports. They’re just few and far between. It might be somewhat more common to see women putting helmets on now than in previous decades, but today’s girls have some pretty major fire suits to fulfill. Had it not been for some very successful racing girls, drivers such as Danica Patrick might not be a part of the starting area at the Daytona 500.
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When it comes to qualifying for some of the most prestigious races, Janet Guthrie is an expert. She’s the first girl to qualify for both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. She became the first girl to compete in a Winston Cup race and finished in fifteenth place for the World 600 in 1976.
Back in 1976, Janet was not able to qualify for the Daytona 500 and it was stated that her inability to adapt was because of her sex. A.J. Foyt felt otherwise. He gave her one of his own automobiles to conduct several qualifying laps where she exhibited speed and talent that could have placed her in the ninth position for the race. Unfortunately, she’d failed to qualify, therefore her times failed to count this season. A.J. Foyt decided that the one thing she lacked was cash and a better automobile.
She hurried and qualified at the 1977 Daytona 500 where she finished in twelfth place and got the title of Top Rookie. She set a record for the highest finish ever in a sanctioned NASCAR race for a lady by coming in the sixth position at Bristol. Danica Patrick recently tied that record in 2014.
In 2006, Janet was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, and her helmet and suit are in an exhibit in the Smithsonian Institute. Janet is retired.
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Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney is the First Lady of Drag Racing. She was the first NHRA licensed girl, and also the first woman to sit in the cockpit of a top fuel dragster. She picked up the championship at the top gas class in 1977, 1980, and again in 1982. With these victories, she became the first woman or man to win two and three championships in the top fuel category. She has won 18 national championships.
Shirley had to fight her way into racing since the odds were stacked against her in 1958. It was a boys’ club, and she had to battle the NHRA for a competitor’s license by demonstrating that she could fill the bleachers and win races. She acquired her license and became a competitive racer with the help of racers like Don Garlits and Connie Kalitta until a 1984 collision left her with significant injuries to her pelvis, hands, and legs, forcing her to miss nearly two years of racing.
After that, she tried a couple of comebacks, but her injuries were too serious, and she retired in 2003.
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Lyn St. James
Lyn St. James holds the distinction of becoming the first woman to win the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year title and the only one of seven female racing drivers to qualify for the race. Daytona and Sebring are two of her favorite races, and she has won them both. She’s a badass.
After four years of racing, including five outings in the Indy Racing League and eleven in the CART, she called it quits in 2001. At events like the 24 Hours of Le Mans, she has competed in endurance racing in Europe. She is a Women in the Winner’s Circle Foundation motivational speaker.
Louise Smith, long before the modern-day NASCAR, was not content to merely see the races on the sands of Daytona Beach. Her new family automobile was a total loss when she entered the race and soon rolled it. Even before she returned from her trip to Florida, her photograph of the wreckage appeared in her hometown newspaper in Georgia. She didn’t give up on racing after that accident.
From 1949 until 1956, she raced in a variety of classes, including late model and sportsman, and concluded her career with 38 victories. As the first woman admitted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, she made history in 1999. 89-year-old Louise passed died in 2006.
Pat Moss is regarded as one of the most accomplished female racing drivers of all time, with three wins and seven international rally podium finishes. Beginning in 1958, she won the European Ladies Rally Championship five times.
Her rally-racing career began when she was 18 years old in 1953 and lasted until her retirement in 1974. During her career, she drove for Saab, MG, Austin-Healy, Ford, and other manufacturers. Her racing brought her to Monte Carlo, Africa, the Netherlands, and the Alps, among other places. She married one of her fellow racers and they went on to compete in 11 international rallies together.
Pat passed away in 2008, at the age of 73.
Despite the fact that these women are paving the way for the female racing drivers of tomorrow, motorsport is still dominated by men. Women will not be regarded as serious competitors for prize money and trophies unless they put on a suit and join the men on the starting line. They’ll be escorted to local short track power puff competitions and drag strip “run-what-you-brought” displays.
Danica will become the next lady featured in the lineup of female racing drivers to inspire another generation as she continues her ascent through the rankings and finally earns her first win. It’s a reasonable assumption that Danica or another woman will soon break those old records and raise the bar.