Before Danica Patrick, there were other women who made inroads into the world of motorsports. Women like Janet Guthrie and Louise Smith helped to break down barriers that help make it easier for women to get behind the wheel of a car in NASCAR or NHRA. These women set records that still stand today just waiting for the next generation of women racers to break them.
Top 5 Greatest Women Drivers in Motorsports
by Julie L. Cleveland
While motorsports worldwide appears to be dominated by men, over the years, there have been several women who have taken on the boy's club. Today the name of Danica Patrick is a familiar name to even the most casual NASCAR viewer. However, just because Danica is a NASCAR regular, does not mean that it is easy for her.
Fans of 1980s NASCAR may remember Shawna Roberts or Patty Moise, but neither woman made it much further than the lower tiers of the sport. Even Dale Earnhardt's daughter, Kelley, only raced for a few years before giving it up. Danica may have the money and talent of Tony Stewart on her side, but once she is in that car, it is all up to her.
This does not mean that there have been no successful women in motorsports. They are just few and far between. It may be a bit more common to see women putting helmets on now than in past years, but today's women have some pretty big fire suits to fill. Had it not been for some very successful racing women, drivers like Danica Patrick may not be a part of the starting field at the Daytona 500.
When it comes to qualifying for some of the most prestigious races, Janet Guthrie is a pro. She is the first woman to qualify for both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. She became the first woman to compete in a Winston Cup race and finished in fifteenth place for the World 600 in 1976.
In 1976, Janet was unable to qualify for the Daytona 500, and it was said that her inability to qualify was due to her gender. A.J. Foyt felt differently. He gave her one of his cars to run a few qualifying laps in where she exhibited the talent and speed that would have put her in ninth position for the race. Unfortunately, she had already failed to qualify, so her times did not count that year. A.J. Foyt determined that the only thing she lacked was money for a better car.
She qualified and raced in the 1977 Daytona 500 where she finished in twelfth place and earned the title of Top Rookie. She set a record for the highest finish in an upper end NASCAR race for a woman by coming in sixth place at Bristol. Danica Patrick just tied that record in 2014.
In 2006, Janet was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, and her race suit and helmet are on exhibit in the Smithsonian Institute. Janet is retired.
Shirley "ChaCha" Muldowney is the First Lady of Drag Racing. She was the first NHRA licensed woman, and the first woman to sit in the cockpit of a top fuel dragster. She picked up the championship in the top fuel category in 1977, 1980 and again in 1982. Those wins made her the very first person of either gender to win two and three titles in the top fuel category. She has 18 national event wins under her belt.
Shirley had to muscle her way into racing because in 1958, everyone was against her. It was a boy's club, and she had to fight the NHRA to prove that she could fill the stands and win races before they would issue her a competitor's license. With racers like Don Garlits and Connie Kalitta on her side, she got her licenses and became a competitive racer until a 1984 crash caused her extensive injuries to her pelvis, hands and legs that took her off the track for almost two years.
She made a few comebacks after the fact, but her injuries were too severe, and she finally retired in 2003.
Lyn St. James
Lyn St. James has the honor of being only one of seven women who have qualified for the Indianapolis 500 and the first woman to win its prestigious Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award. She won the 24 Hours of Daytona twice and the 12 Hours of Sebring once.
She retired from racing in 2001 after four years with five starts in the Indy Racing League and 11 CART starts. Her resume includes European endurance racing at events like the 24 Hours of Le Mans. She is a motivational speaker and founder of the Women in the Winner's Circle Foundation.
Before there was the NASCAR of today, there was Louise Smith, who was not content to watch the races on the beaches of Daytona. She took the brand new family car and entered into the race where she promptly rolled it. The wreck was so spectacular, that her photo was featured on her Georgia hometown newspaper before she even got back from Florida. That wreck did not deter her from pursuing racing as a career.
She continued to compete from 1949 until 1956 and finished her career with 38 wins in a number of classes like late models and sportsman. In 1999, she was the first woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. Louise passed away in 2006 at the age of 89.
With three wins and seven international rally podium finishes, Pat Moss is considered one of the most successful auto rally females of all time. She won the European Ladies Rally Championship five times starting in 1958.
Her rally-racing career started in 1953 when she was 18 and continued until her retirement in 1974. During her career, she wheeled for Saab, MG, Austin-Healey, Ford and others. Her racing took her to places like Monte Carlo, Africa, the Netherlands and the Alps. She married one of her fellow drivers, and they went on to participate in 11 international rallies.
Pat died in 2008 at the age of 73.
Even with these women paving the way for the women racers of tomorrow, racing still remains dominated by men. Unless women suit up and join the guys on the starting line, they will not be considered a serious contender for prize money and trophies. They will be shuffled off to the local short track powder puff competitions and drag strip "run-what-you-brung" exhibits. As Danica continues her climb up the ranks and finally secures her first win, she will become the next woman listed in the lineup of woman in racing to inspire another generation. It is a safe bet that eventually, Danica or another woman will break those old records and set the bar higher.