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Pioneering Female Race Car Drivers

A look through history at some of the most influential female race car drivers and pioneers.

female race car drivers

Race car driving has always been seen as a stereotypically male sport. But men aren’t the only people who love fast cars and the smell of burnt rubber. For as long as there’s been professional race car driving, there have been female race car drivers. Racing is actually one of the few professional sports in which men and women are allowed to compete with (and against) one another.

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From the first NASCAR race ever to the many active drivers today, women have always been a part of racing as a sport and as a culture. To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’ve compiled some of our favorite and most influential female race car drivers and pioneers in the following slideshow.

Sara Christian

Sarah Christian was the first female NASCAR driver of all time. She competed in NASCAR’s first race on June 19, 1949 at Charlotte Speedway. Though she competed in just seven races over the course of her career, she opened the door to racing for generations of women to come.

Janet Guthrie 

Janet Guthrie was the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500 and the NASCAR Winston Cup superspeedway race. She holds the best finish by a woman in a top-tier NASCAR race for her sixth-place finish at Bristol in 1977 (she’s tied with Danica Patrick’s finish in 2014).

Janet Guthrie was one of the first people inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of fame. She has also been inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and the Automotive Hall of Fame.

Shirley Shahan

Nicknamed the “Drag-On Lady,” Shirley Shahan became the first woman to win an NHRA pro event in 1966. As the daughter of a race car driver, she learned to drive at only 10 years old, and eventually became her father’s mechanic. She first started racing in the 1950s, and she won the first March Meet in 1959. A series of wins followed. After her 1966 Super Stock win at the Winternationals, she became a racing celebrity.

Shirley Shahan has been inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, the Super Stock Magazine Hall of Fame and the Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

Shirley Muldowney

Also known as “Cha Cha” and “The First Lady of Drag Racing,” Shirley Muldowney was the first woman to get a license from the National Hot Rod Association to drive a Top Fuel dragster. Shirley Muldowney has won a total of 18 NHRA national events.

She won the NHRA Top Fuel championship in 1977, 1980 and 1982, making her the first person to have won two (and then three!) Top Fuel Championships.

Shirley Muldowney has been inducted into the International Motor Hall of Fame, the Motor Hall of Fame of America and the Automotive Hall of Fame.

Lyn St. James

Named among the “Top-100 Women Athletes of the Century” by Sports Illustrated, Lyn St. James was the first woman to win the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award. She specialized in endurance racing, and won two class victories at the 24 Hours of Daytona and the GTO Class at 12 Hours of Sebring.

Lyn St. James was also the first woman to reach over 200 mph on a race track. She was president of the Women’s Sports Foundation from 1990 – 1993, and she has served as a panelist on NASCAR’s National Motorsports Appeals Panel since 2015.

Michele Mouton

As a French rally driver, Michele Mouton competed in the World Rally Championship from 1974 to 1986. She’s one of the only women to ever compete in that series. In 1981, she began driving for the Audi factory team and won her first event.

During her years with Audi, she won four victories and finished runner-up in the drivers’ world championship. As a driver for Peugeot, she became the first female driver to win a major rallying championship. Michele Mouton became the first president of the FIA’s Women & Motor Sport Commission in 2010.

Danica Patrick

Danica Patrick is one of the most famous race car drivers alive, and the most successful woman in U.S. open-wheel racing. She started racing go-karts at age 10, and never slowed down. Danica Patrick holds the only women’s victory in an IndyCar Series race for her 2008 victory at the Indy Japan 300.

She became the first woman to win a Cup Series pole position when she set the fastest qualifying laap for the 2013 Daytona 500. In 2015, she broke Janet Guthrie’s record for most top-10 finishes by a woman in the Sprint Cup Series.

Erica Enders

Erica Enders is one of the most successful female drag racers. She started racing as a Junior Dragster when she was only 8 years old. In 2000 (when she was just 16) she became the youngest NHRA national event finalist. Erica Enders has won three championships in the Pro Stock class of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

In 2015, Erica Enders broke Shirley Muldowney’s record for the most NHRA national event wins by a female driver.

Looking for more women in automotive history? Check out our post all about the most influential female inventors and engineers in the world of driving.

Which of these women race car drivers do you think made the biggest impact? Did we miss anybody? Let us know in the comments below!

Comments
  • MARILYN P.

    Didn’t see anything about Janet Guthrie!
    First woman to qualify and compete in Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500. She was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.

    Reply
    • Ernie F.

      No mention of Sports Car, IndyCar, and NASCAR driver Patty Moise. She was pretty good, especially on the road courses, and a nice person to speak to when I had the opportunity. Thanks

      Reply
  • BETTY D.

    What about Shirley Shahan and her racing. She is on Facebook and speaks at many American Motors Events across the country. Her Drag-On-Lady Hornet was quite famous. Please add her to your history information.

    Reply
  • JOSEPH F.

    Sarah Hopkins has written an interesting piece, but has missed numerous important women racers, starting with the Frenchwoman Madame du Gast, who drove in the ill fated Paris Madrid road race in 1903. Numerous other important women raced during the ’20s, 30s and ’40s. Important to note!

    Reply
  • HOPE J.

    How about Isabelle Haskell de Tomaso? She actually raced cars, built cars with her husband, Alejandro de Tomaso. She took the business over when Alejandro had a massive stroke and ran it for 10 plus years. http://t.co/smcu9hIX56?amp=1

    Reply
      • Joe C.

        Charles- did you possibly live in Navesink NJ on Browns Dock Rd, back in the ’50’s? That is where I lived, and I knew Isabelle ( who was driving already, on the horsefarm ) in an electric, very old car.

        Reply
    • JOSEPH D.

      I remember meeting Isabelle at the family horse farm around 1957 or so- she was driving a very tall ELECTRIC car, which I asked about, thinking it was a Ford Model T. She said no, it was not a Ford. And then she zoomed away. My father and grandfather knew her father, Mr. Haskell, and Bud Welch, who helped us mow our farm’s grass, worked for the Haskell’s. Small world, Hope! I also raced sportscars in the ’70’s and ’80’s, and was beaten by Janet Guthrie at Bridgehampton , NY, at an SCCA race. If you could, please ask Charles S. to get in touch- you may give him my email if you wish. I think he may be from the same area. Joe C.

      Reply
  • Clifton T.

    Too bad no mention of Vickie Wood. In 1953, her husband took her to a “powder puff” race at Motor City Speedway in Detroit.[2][4] She commented, “If I couldn’t drive any better than that, I’d quit”.[3] A week later, her husband had borrowed a 1937 Dodge coupe for her to compete and she finished ninth of the 25 women racing in the event that day.[3] The next night they went to a race at Mount Clemens where she won her first race.[2][4]

    She became the first woman to compete against men in races in Michigan.[3] She also set a number of women’s records at American race tracks, including fastest lap (130.3 mph) and fastest one-way mark (150.375) at Daytona International Speedway in 1959 and 1960, respectively, and at Atlanta International Speedway in 1961.[4]

    In 1958, a magazine ad for Pontiac automobiles featured Wood in a photograph and the accompanying text that noted “… Vicki Wood and her ’58 Pontiac taught men drivers a lesson in winning the 50 m.p.h. safe passing event”.[5]

    She retired from racing in 1963. In the late 1960s she and her husband moved to Florida, where she worked in a department store.

    Wood was inducted into the Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame in 2019.[6]

    On June 5, 2020, Wood died in a hospital in Troy, Michigan, at age 101.[1]

    Reply
  • Paul B.

    You forgot Pat Moss. Sister to Sir Stirling Moss and one of the most successful rally drivers in history.

    Reply
  • Patrick D.

    Can’t have a list of landmark woman racers that doesn’t include Divina Galica. Divina is one of the few woman to race in formula 1. She was an Olympic skier and then a coach. She ran the Skip Barber Racing School open wheel race series for years and currently instructs for the Bertil Roos Racing School.
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divina_Galica

    Reply
  • Michael R.

    Dorothy Levitt who first raced in 1903.

    Lucy O’Reilly Schell who was a driver herself, first appearing in 1927 and who won several rally and Grand Prix races, as well as commissioning the Delahaye company for race cars.

    While not technically a race car drive, Madame Marguerite Desmarais co-owned the Delahaye company, and took it back into race car manufacturing.

    Reply
  • Richard T.

    You missed Paula Murphy! I believe she was the first woman to test at Indy and was another accomplished Funny Car drag racer during Shirley Muldowney’s time.

    Reply
  • Chris P.

    It’s kind of interesting that there’s no mention that AAA banned women from racing in its events in 1909, even though drivers like Cuneo and Ramsey had already proven themselves.

    Reply
  • Ralph A.

    “Heart Like a Wheel” is an excellent movie about Shirley Muldowney starring Bonnie Bedelia as Muldowney, Beau Bridges as Connie Kalitta, and Hoyt Axton as Shirley’s father in a great opening scene.
    A couple of years ago I spent a little time chatting with Lynn St. James at a table in the Insiders’ Club chateau at Lime Rock Park. She is a charming, approachable, woman who knows a helluva lot about motor racing.

    Reply
  • David N.

    Denise McCluggage should definitely be in this list. Piloted sports cars against all the big names back in the day. The tip of the spear for women’s rights in racing.

    Reply
  • Shirley Muldowney was the best woman driver I’ve seen and came back after a career ending crash for most and continued to win. Shirley is in another battle now good luck and godspeed Shirley your the greatest.

    Reply
  • You missed Lauren Fix, she started racing at 16, designed braking systems, and still races. A cool story, she raced while pregnant at Lime Rock Park, CT in 1993, after which they made a rule that you can’t race while pregnant. She is a strong driver and currently races in a 850hp car. http://www.laurenfix.com. I met her a few year ago – she is amazing and smart. You may have seen her all other national TV, she is also known as the Car Coach.

    Reply
  • David M.

    Sara Fisher, ran Indy Cars, NASCAR and eventually was a car owner. Also a very classy lady

    Reply
  • Rosemary S.

    What about Ireland’s Rosemary Smith?
    From Wikipedia:
    Her other competition successes included an outright win in the 1969 Cork 20 Rally. Smith has won the ladies’ prize several times on the Scottish Rally and on the Circuit of Ireland Rally, twice each on the Alpine Rally and on the Canadian Shell 4000 and once on the Acropolis Rally. She also has numerous class wins to her name.[citation needed]

    In 1966, Smith appeared as a guest on an episode of What’s My Line. Arlene Francis, Mark Goodson, Ginger Rogers, and Bennett Cerf were on the panel and successfully guessed her “line” as a rally driver.[5]

    Smith founded a driving school in the 1990s. On 10 May 2017, she did a test drive with the show car of Renault F1 on the Circuit Paul Ricard as part of a filming day. This made her the oldest person to have driven an 800bhp racing car.

    Reply

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