Female empowerment seems to be a huge topic these days. We talk about females becoming CEOs, Financial managers, or board directors. Even CEOs of the World Bank. And that seems to be a shock for many. Somehow women were never thought to be a rightful part of the global business scene. Thankfully, this is not the case in the world of racing.

Women have been racing for at least 122 years now. Men may have raced much longer than women, but women were never as far from motorsports as one might expect. Despite their lack of legal liberties, they have been a vivid part of the racing community ever since day one.

The first recorded ladies’ race

There’s probably no surprise that the first women who dared to race were in Paris, is it? The city that combines effortless elegance and passionate riots. A city of revolution in so many senses.

So it wouldn’t be a mistake to call Parisian women “the elegant rebels”. And just like many other predominantly male fields, racing went through a female revolution as well.

It was a bunch of Parisian women who disrupted the field of racing the way it was known back in the 19th century. In June 1897, eight intrepid French women climbed aboard motorized tricycles and took part in the world’s first recorded ladies’ race.

The race went under the name “Championnat des Chauffeuses”. The eight women who took part were mostly theatrical ladies from Paris.

Image source: essar.co.uk

At least two of them were music-hall performers, and one was a costume designer. The latter, Lea Lemoine, won the race. She was awarded the title “First female motor racing champion”. Her award – a bracelet. How Parisian.

The event was traditionally a part of the “Course des Artistes” sporting contest for celebrities. The previous editions of the races hosted mostly actors and theater people. There was an event for painters at least one time as well.

Traditionally, the biggest attractions of such contests were bicycle races. The tricycles in 1897 were quite an innovation. Especially when you imagine female racers riding them. The tricycles were light and simple to drive. The one in which the winner Lea Lemoine rode had a special frame designed by Clement – one of the leading manufacturers at that time.

Lea Lemoine was the winner at the Championnat des Chauffeuses three years in a row. In 1897, she finished fifth in the Coupe des Motorcycles race. By 1899 at least three other French women had raced tricycles or small cars in open competition and soon after that many more women showed a willingness to take part in such events. The idea of female racing quickly spread through France and beyond. Women from Belgium, UK, and the USA began racing in official female races in the early 1900s.

Choosing to Race

By the time of World War I, women from Germany, Canada, and Russia also chose racing as their passion. Many of them originally had other plans for their occupation but quickly switched to racing once they got into the hype of being behind the wheel. Their love for cars was stronger than anything. And there are plenty of women in the 20th century who proved it.

Image Source:Bibliothèque nationale de France

One was Helle Nice. A professional dancer who chose to trade her dance slippers for driver’s gloves. In 1929, she won a Grand Prix Féminin. Thrilled about the excitement of having a ”great roaring race car in your hands that wants only to go faster,” she carried on racing in the 30s. That early victory secured her a sleek Bugatti and the nickname ”The Queen of Speed.”

Another prominent female racer was Gwenda Janson. A self-taught WWI ambulance driver. She began racing with a 1000-mile promotional Ner-A-Car recumbent motorcycle. In 1935, she became the fastest woman around Brooklands, with a lap at a speed of nearly 136 mph. Her record was never broken and the race shut down several years later.

Women always found a way even though society expected different things from them at that time. To serve society and to serve the family. Yet, the few who successfully turned these expectations around gave an example to many generations ahead.

The economic boom after the Second World War allowed many wealthy people to pick up racing as a hobby, and women did not fall behind. Among them was Sara Christian – the first female NASCAR driver. She competed in NASCAR’s inaugural race at Charlotte Speedway. Her finish as fifth at Heidelberg Speedway later in the season remains the only top-five finish results for a woman in NASCAR.

NASCAR: The Female Firsts

NASCAR is ahead of other competitions, as it’s one of the few sports where men and women race equally. The race has seen varying levels of female participation over the years. After Christian, only a handful of female drivers followed in her steps and began racing in NASCAR in the 1950s and 1960s. Since the 70s, however, female drivers have been on the rise. Here are the few that earned their memorable spots in the history of NASCAR.

Shawna Robinson

In 1988, she became the first woman to win a NASCAR Touring Series event (Daytona Dash Series), also earning “Rookie of the Year” and “Most Popular Driver” honors. She also became the first woman to earn the pole position for a NASCAR touring series race in her sophomore year. Robinson would later become the first female driver to clinch the pole in any of the three major series, winning qualifying for March 12, 1994, Xfinity Series Busch Light 300 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

It was in the 1990s when women began to compete more frequently in the NASCAR lower series. In 2003, it was Robinson who had the first all-female pit crew for a Craftsman Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Janet Guthrie

She was the first woman to compete in a NASCAR Winston Cup stock car race in 1976 and the first female driver to race in the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500 in 1977. However, she had already pushed the gender boundaries with other accomplishments in male-dominated arenas. Before her career in racing, she earned a degree in physics and her license as an aerospace engineer. Guthrie’s notable achievements got her included in the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1980 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006.

Image Source: wttw.com

The 2000s brought huge support for female drivers. NASCAR has made continual efforts to make sure they get more female drivers with programs like “NASCAR Drive for Diversity”, which was launched in 2004. In 2014, the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series formed the Lady Cup, a championship system for female drivers.

Danica Patrick

A woman with multiple firsts in American auto-racing. Danica Patrick joined NASCAR in 2010 after being an IndyCar racer for more than five years. She is known for her victory in the 2008 Indy Japan 300 race which is the only win by a woman in an IndyCar Series race. This made her the most successful woman in the history of American open-wheel racing.

Danica Patrick has 191 starts for seven years at the NASCAR Cup series from 2012 to 2018. She was the second woman to clinch a pole position in the Nationwide Series since Shawna Robinson in 1994. In 2012, Patrick was voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Nationwide Driver, becoming the first woman to receive that award in NASCAR’s top three divisions.

She became the first woman to win a Cup Series pole position by setting the fastest qualifying lap in the 2013 Daytona 500, finishing eighth. Patrick bested Janet Guthrie’s record for the most top-ten finishes by a woman in the Sprint Cup Series in 2015.

Few know that in order to pursue her racing career, Danica dropped out of high school. She admits that it wasn’t hard for her but it must have been for her parents. And that was one of the things that motivated her even more – once she had given up the things society tolerated, she knew she had to make her dream really work. The female determination can be more powerful than anything.

Racing against stereotypes

Many female drivers had to go through similar choices. In the past as well as today:

  • Raise a family or race on the tracks?
  • Win a college scholarship or win a race?
  • Marry a daring man or dare to be more than a man?

Can women have both or do they have to make a choice? What do they have to sacrifice in order to be accepted as part of the racing world? How do these women deal with the amount of prejudice that other people throw at them daily? And if you wonder what exactly that is, I will give you yet another example:

Maria Teressa de Filippis was the first woman to compete in the race that we know today as Formula 1. In 1958, she finished 10th. And as an “award” for her debut,  she was denied the chance to race the following year. What is worst – she had to face the Race director’s critique:

 “The only helmet a woman should wear is the one at the hairdresser’s,” he told her. 

The choices women make in order to follow their dreams are often the exact reason others laugh at them. And somehow they leave a mark stronger than any award. Carol “Bunny” Burkett, the first and only woman who won the IHRA Alcohol Funny Car drag race (1986), got a nickname exactly because of her former job as a hostess at a Playboy Club of Baltimore. Nobody noted, however, that she had taken the job in order to support her racing. If that was a man, wouldn’t he be praised for his efforts? Why women aren’t?

It seems like being a woman who loves racing means constantly being questioned and second-guessed. Even today. And this refers to female racers as well as just female racing fans.

Can a girl be a fan at least?

If you are a car girl who loves racing, you constantly go through questions that are meant to prove your worth as a fan. As if you have to prove that you know as much about racing as men do. You have to give arguments for your favorite team and driver, you have to prove you know who won the Monster Energy Cup Series in 2007. And in 1997. And in 1977 just in case.

Just like soccer in Europe, racing in America is still quite unwelcoming to female fans. Despite the huge contribution of women in the sport throughout the years, the judgmental thinking overrules. Women should talk about beauty and kitchen stuff and they have no place near the garage. But why is that? According to Nielsen Scarborough, the NASCAR audience is almost 40 percent female. It seems like more and more women are choosing the race tracks over the kitchen.

And not only that. Women are involved in all areas of the auto industry. More women than ever have a driver’s license in the US. There is an increasing number of women in hard physical jobs such as auto mechanics or truck driving. So men should get used to seeing more female power in auto-related fields. Because in the end, it all comes down to one simple truth:

“The car doesn’t know if you are a female or a male” – Kenzie Ruston 

So take your hat off to all these women who have made driving or racing their top priority – both as racers and as sincere fans. But also take a deep bow to the women that have managed to combine the passion for racing with the job of being a mother, running a family, and managing a business. Because these are the people we should all look up to. Not because of their gender but because of their strong will and determination to live their lives fully.


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