Notable Women in Motorsport: A Brief History
You don’t have to enjoy cars or love driving to admire the many notable women in motorsport throughout history. Far beyond displaying just technical skills such as braking, accelerating and racing, these women have taught us valuable lessons about the importance of perseverance, bravery, sensibility, courage and confidence.
Since the inception of motorcar racing, female drivers have fought for a place alongside their male counterparts and continue to encourage women across the world to become a part of the exciting world of motorsports. It’s time to celebrate the wonderful ability of women to conquer and thrive in any and all areas so without further ado, here’s a brief history of the most notable women in motorsport.
Believe it or not, one of the first remarkable appearances of women in motorsport happened way back in 1897. Racing motorised tricycles through the beautiful summertime breeze in Paris, eight women took on the circuit race at the Longchamps Racecourse in France. In 1901, Camille du Gast of France followed closely on their heels to become the first female to race in an international competition just several years later.
Another pioneer of motorcar racing demonstrated the value of sensibility in an international race in Denmark, in 1921. Racing along the beautiful coastline, Italy’s famous racer Baroness Maria Antoinetta D’Avanzo took a quick move to drive her car into the beach when she saw that it had caught fire. This event not only saved her life and the lives of other racers, but also served to ignite conversation about the increasing presence of female drivers on the international racing scene.
By the late 1920s, female racers had worked hard to set new records in the field. Hellé Nice pocketed the world land speed record in 1929 and went on to participate in five Grand Prix events – yes, you read correctly: five!
Canadian motorsport star Kay Petre was another notable woman that showed us the power of courage. Despite a near-fatal accident in 1937 that left her unable to continue her professional racing career, she continued to act as a navigator for rallies and served as a co-driver to other successful racers.
As World War II broke, the landscape of motorsports and automobiles changed to reflect the difficult economic, political and social circumstances. Motorsports came to a halt and the focus of men and women alike was shifted to matters of war and conflict.
Surprisingly, motorsports began to boom in the post-WWII era. As economies revived worldwide, there was a renewed interest in motorsports and particularly niche racing areas such as the Vespa circuits in Italy. Donning a leather jacket and gracious smile, Ada Pace dominated the Vespa scene in 1947 to show us how grace and style can be carried with you at any time.
The 1950s was a buzzing time for women and motorsports alike: the inaugural NASCAR race was held in 1949 in the United States and attended by the first-ever woman qualified to drive in the circuit, Sara Christian. Her accomplishments in subsequent NASCAR races still place her as holding one of the best finishes for a female NASCAR driver to this day.
Notable women in motorsport had one thing in common: passion. Whether it was passion for driving or advocating for the rights of women to drive, female racers have always stood up for their presence in this typically male-dominated arena. Denise McCluggage was one such driver who not only wore a trademark polka dot helmet to liven up the racetrack at Monte Carlo, but also advocated strongly for the equality of women drivers in motorsports.
Another great example of perseverance and creativity along with it: Anne Hall, a legendary British racer that took the world by storm throughout the 1950s and 60s. In addition to competing in international rallies and long-distance circuits, Anne went on to establish an advanced driving school to pass on her skills to other female drivers. At the age of 68, she even returned to the racing scene and went on to win the Alpine Cup! Age is but a number, ladies. Maybe your big break will come at 68, never stop believing.
Pat Moss embraced the growing presence of women in motorsports and added her own spice to the mix by taking first place at the European Ladies Rally five times. This brave racer sat behind the wheel from the young age of 11 and never gave up on her dream of racing against some of the best drivers in history – both men and women!
The 1970s heralded another successful era for female drivers. From granting Shirley ‘Cha Cha’ Muldowney license to race Top Fuel dragsters (a move heavily disputed by her male competitors) to launching competitions such as the popular ‘Find a Lady Rally Driver’ competition, the international world had begun to accept the fact that women in motorsports were here to stay – and rightfully so!
By the 1990s, notable drivers such as Sabine Schmitz dominated the world stage to set new records: not only did she win the Nurburgring circuit in 1997; she even totalled more than 20,000 laps of the course to leave her spinning legacy. Giovanna Amati paved new road as the first female F1 competitor and her appearance still marks the most recent female F1 race competitor – ladies, it’s time for us to step up.
Women have made remarkable appearances in motorsports over the years, and will continue to do so for generations to come. From breaking Guinness World Records to winning rallies and races worldwide, notable women in motorsports continue to display values that we all need to cherish and adopt into our daily lives. From bold and daring displays of courage to advocating for equal rights and participation (all while staying stylish, of course!), notable women in motorsport continue to inspire people across the world. What are you waiting for? It’s time to get behind the wheel.
Lisa is a freelance writer and enjoys writing about subjects such as road safety, women in sport and travel, and when isn’t writing can be found relaxing with a good book.
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