NASCAR RACER Danica Patrick’s pole position start in this Sunday’s Daytona 500 is a first for a woman driver and a cause both for celebration and frustration.
Why does such an achievement generate so many headlines around the world?
Doubtless because female racers are such an apparently rare breed. Racing is a male-dominated sport requiring, according to many of the men who do it, raw physical strength, a dog-eat-dog appetite for victory and a willingness to tolerate oil under the fingernails.
But look beyond the parade of male drivers who have dominated race meetings over the years, and you start to realise that ever since someone decided to drive their car faster than someone else, women have been there in the thick of the action.
Join us as we celebrate some of history’s fastest racing drivers, who also happen to be women.
1 Dorothy Levitt (1882-1922)
Pioneer racing driver
Notable victories: Southport Speed Trials (1903), Ladies World Speed record (1905), Herkomer Trophy Race (1907)
Who better to occupy pole position in our top 10 than the driver they called the “fastest girl on earth”? Levitt had all the hallmarks of a top-class lady racer, most notably a refusal to pack it in and do needlework instead.
She was also a noted “scorcher”, forever having run-ins with the police for speeding in her car. Endurance trials, land speed record attempts, hill climbs, even teaching Queen Alexandra to drive ‒ when it came to four wheels, Levitt ruled nothing out. “I never think of the danger,” she once wrote.
2 Margaret Allan (1906-1998)
The original Bentley girl
Notable victories: Brooklands 120mph badge (1936)
When your mother is a well-known suffragette and tells you to learn to drive so you can be useful, you don’t argue. Margaret Allan, one of our greatest pre-war racers and record holders, certainly didn’t. She not only mastered the family’s 2-litre Lagonda but raced and won her first event in it.
In 1932 she finished tenth in the Monte Carlo Rally and in 1933, at the wheel of a 4.5-litre Bentley, she lapped Brooklands at over 97mph. MG offered her a team drive and in 1935 she competed in Le Mans, finishing 26th but earning the car maker the team prize. The following year Allan became one of just four women to gain her Brooklands 120mph badge at a speed of 122.37mph in a 6.5-litre Bentley. She went on to win the race.
In her eighties Autocar magazine invited her to test three sports cars. She was too fast for the photographer sent to cover the story, and the piece ran with fewer pictures than planned.
3 Pat Moss (1934-2008)
Legendary rally winner
Notable victories: Liège rally (1960), Tulip rally (1962)
Yes, it’s that Moss but though her famous brother Stirling taught her to drive it was her knack for driving Land Rovers on the family farm that laid the foundations for a successful 20-year career in world rallying.
After Triumph turned her down, Moss got her first professional drive with MG in 1955 and went on to finish third best woman in the RAC rally at the wheel of a MG TF. Three years later, driving a Morris Minor, she finished fourth overall in the same rally.
Success followed success – winning the Liège rally in 1960 in an Austin Healey 3000 (the first time a woman had won an international rally) and two years later the Tulip rally at the wheel of the new Mini Cooper. Moss was unimpressed with the car: “twitchy and pretty unruly on the limit”.
4 Lella Lombardi (1941-1992)
F1’s only woman points winner
Notable victories: Ford Mexico Series Championship (1973), Spanish Grand Prix, sixth place finish (1975)
Inevitably, given the high cost of entry, most racing drivers are born with a silver spoon, or at least a silver spanner, in their mouth. Not so Maria Grazia “Lella” Lombardi. Her father was a humble butcher. He didn’t own a car but one day the young Lella, who loved sports, had to be taken by car to hospital with a hand injury sustained playing handball. The experience, of the car not the hospital, set the future direction of her life.
After saving hard, she bought her own car, a second-hand Fiat, and eventually met a racing driver who was so impressed with her commitment to the sport that she became his co-driver. Later on she landed her first single-seat drive – and in 1973 won her debut race. She went on to race in 17 Formula One Grands Prix and two years later she became the only woman to earn F1 points when she finished sixth in the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix.
5 Lyn St James (1947-)
World’s fastest piano teacher
Notable victories: Indie 500 Rookie of the Year (1992), fastest Indy 500 woman (1995)
If all you knew of St James was that, aged 53, she was the oldest driver at the 2000 Indy 500, you’d think her remaining achievements to be pretty underwhelming. You’d be wrong. The former piano teacher (yes, you read that right) was the 1992 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year (the first woman to win the accolade). She went on to have seven Indie 500 starts between 1992 (she finished 11 in her race that year) and 1997.
In 1995 she set a new record for women drivers, reaching 225.722mph at the Indy 500 qualification weekend. In all, St James contested 15 Indy races and scored one top 10 finish. So no, being the oldest driver at the 2000 Indy 500 isn’t the whole story, by any means.
6 Michelle Mouton (1951-)
Multiple rally winner
Notable victories: Rally Sanremo (1981), Pikes Peak International Hill Climb (1985), German Rally Championship (1986), German Rally Championship (1986)
Being a champion is not all about winning championships, though it helps. It’s also about having the qualities of a champion: determination, courage, resilience and consistency. Rally driver Michelle Mouton had them in spades. She won major championships, of course, but she also battled through the crashes and mechanical failures common in rallying to finish among the top points scorers time after time.
Mouton credited some of her skill to the dancing lessons she took as a girl. “Sweden, in ice and snow, like ballet!” she once said.
7 Jutta Kleinschmidt (1962-)
First woman to win the Paris-Dakar
Notable victories: Paris-Dakar rally (2001), Bajar Rally (2001)
There’s rallying – and then there’s cross-country rallying. Not to take anything away from the former and those who compete in it but the latter is, over its thousands of miles of rocks, ravines and arid deserts, perhaps a tad more demanding on men and machines. And also on those women who have taken part. Women like Jutta Kleinschmidt who from an early age was so dedicated to the sport that she would follow competitors on her BMW motorcycle. Indeed, it was on a BMW bike that she entered her first rally, the 1987 Pharaoh’s Rally in Egypt.
She eventually moved into cars and it was at the wheel of a Mitsubishi Shogun that she won the 2001 Paris-Dakar Rally, the first woman to win the gruelling competition.
8 Vanina Ickx (1975-)
Notable victories: Belgian Procar (1998), Spa 24, third place (2000)
It was perhaps inevitable that having a father who had stood on a Formula One podium 25 times and won Le Mans six times, Vanina Ickx would try her hand at motor racing. Admittedly, she hasn’t been as successful as Jacky but she has stayed the course in a sport not noted for its tolerance of under-achievers.
Her career began in earnest in 1998, starting with a drive in the Belgian Procar series before transferring to the Renault team and claiming her first podium finish. Two years later she claimed third place overall in the Spa 24-hour race.
Subsequent years were spent at the wheel of a succession of race cars contesting Le Mans, the Porsche Supercup, the US F2000 National Championship and Germany’s DTM , among others.
9 Susie Wolff (1982-)
Only woman currently in F1
Notable victories: British Woman Kart Racing Driver of the Year (1996-99), Top Female Kart Driver in the World (2000), Formula Renault UK Championship, fifth overall (2004), DTM, 6 wins (2006)
Many young drivers have succeeded in karting only to disappear from the radar in the scrabble to establish a professional career. Not so, Susie Wolff. Having dominated karting as a youngster, and scooped successive Best Woman Kart Racing Driver awards (mildly patronising given her strong consistency across the whole field), in 2002 she secured a seat in the Formula Renault UK Championship. This paved the way for subsequent drives in the British F3 championship culminating, in 2006, with her joining German DTM team Mücke Motorsport.
Today she is the only woman driver in Formula One. Commenting on her role as the number three driver with the Williams F1 Team she said, “It’s up to me to prove that I possibly do have a chance to start a race for them.”
10 Erica Enders-Stevens (1983-)
NHRA Pro Stock winner
Notable victories: NHRA Rookie of the Year (1999), NHRA Mello Yello (2012)
“You make a mistake, you lose a point. I make a mistake, someone could get hurt.” So says the character of Erica Enders in the 2003 Hollywood movie of the dragster driver’s life, Right on Track. It’s about two sisters (Erica and Courtney) competing in the traditional male sport of drag racing, and coming out on top – and incredibly, it’s all true.
At 16 Erica was named National Hot Rod Association Rookie of the Year. In 2005 she won more rounds in NHRA Pro Stock than all previous women drivers combined and in 2012 became the first woman to win a round in the NHRA Mello Yello Full Throttle Drag Racing series. She contests the first round of the 2013 season this weekend.