Celebrating Women’s History Month with Ten Women Who Made Racing History

Celebrating Women’s History Month with Ten Women Who Made Racing History

It is the month of March and while most are concentrating on a world-altering virus, we here at RacingJunk.com are trying to continue concentrating on the sport that we all love. Since it’s Women’s History Month, what better way to do so than with a nod to those who have broken the glass ceiling?

Although women are becoming more common in the world of racing these days, this certainly wasn’t the case in earlier times. As anyone who has been around this sport for long knows, motor racing has been a predominantly male hobby since day one, but despite appearances women have never trailed that far behind. In fact, women have been impressing fans of this sport much longer than many may realize, which is why we decided to take a look at a few of the powerhouse women who have paved the way for some of today’s rising female stars – and who continue to do so to this day.


Elfrieda Mais

Celebrating Women’s History Month with Ten Women Who Made Racing History

This adventuresome airplane stunt woman and wing walker decided to try her hand at racing in 1912. While the racing sanctioning bodies of her time tried to deny her the chance to race, the Indianapolis, IN native managed to obtain a license from the IMCA (International Motor Contest Association) to race.

Despite only being allowed to drive in exhibitions and speed trials against the clock, Mais used this opportunity at an IMCA race at West Side Speedway in Wichita, KS on July 4, 1916 where she set an unofficial two-lap track record of one minute, 24 seconds on the half-mile racetrack. Mais also made one of the most impressive two-lap runs in one minute, 11.6 seconds on the half-mile Kansas State Fairgrounds racetrack on July 5, 1920.

In 1911, Elfrieda married driver John A. “Johnny” Mais, who competed in the 1915 Indianapolis 500. While the marriage with Mais didn’t work out and Elfrieda would later marry Ray Laplante, she continued to appear at racetracks and in stunt shows as “Miss Elfrieda Mais.” Mais was fatally injured during a stunt-driving exhibition at the Alabama State Fair in Birmingham on September 27, 1934.


Sara Christian

Celebrating Women’s History Month with Ten Women Who Made Racing History

Long before names like Danica Patrick and Jennifer Jo Cobb became well-known, there was Sara Christian. The first woman to drive into NASCAR history, she competed in NASCAR’s first race on June 19, 1949 at Charlotte Motor Speedway as well as in the famed race on the Daytona Beach Road Course, on July 10, 1949.

This 28 car field also included Ethel Mobley and Louise Smith, which made it the first race to include three female drivers.

The only woman to score a top five finish in the sport was also married to driver and NASCAR car owner Frank Christian until 1955. Christian’s fifth place remains the highest finish in the NASCAR Cup Series.


Denise McCluggage

Celebrating Women’s History Month with Ten Women Who Made Racing History

Known as Lady Leadfoot, Denise McCluggage raced cars when few women dared. Beginning her career as a journalist in the early days of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Eldorado, KS resident first wrote women’s features before moving on to cover extreme sports like skiing, sky diving and racing. It was while she was living in San Francisco that she also discovered early sports cars being imported into the United States, which helped her fall more in love with the sport.

After finding a passion for this sport, it wouldn’t be long before she managed to convince her editors at the Chronicle that she could cover these racing events better as an entrant, since female reporters weren’t welcome in the pits or garages. After becoming the pioneer of participatory sports journalism, McCluggage also became a well-known driver who didn’t just drive, but won. In fact, in 1959, McCluggage drove a Porsche RS to victory at Thompson Raceway in CT, took fifth in the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, in 1960 and won the GT class at the Sebring (FL) 12-Hour race in 1961 driving a Ferrari.

Before the decade was over she raced all over the world, winning at the Monte Carlo Rallye in 1964 driving a factory-entered Ford Falcon and competing at some of the world’s great venues; Daytona Beach, FL, Nurburgring, Germany and Elkhart Lake, WI. This talented driver even became one of the founders of America’s first motorsports weekly, now published as Autoweek, was awarded the Ken W. Purdy Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism and became the first journalist to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2001.


Pat Moss

Celebrating Women’s History Month with Ten Women Who Made Racing History

One of the most successful female auto rally drivers of all time, daughter of British race car driver Alfred Moss Pat Moss learned to drive at the tender age of 11 years old.

Moss began her sporting career on horseback, where she began her career as a successful showjumper and member of the British showjumping team. After meeting her then-boyfriend Ken Gregory at the age of 18, Moss was introduced to club rally racing and was hooked. In 1954, Moss bought a Triumph TR2 and officially started rallying more seriously. One year later, she was one of the only women competing for MG Cars, where she began a relationship that lasted seven years and netted her three championships.

Following this successful run, Moss took overall victory at the Liège–Rome–Liège in an Austin-Healey 3000 and went on to finish secnd at the Coupe des Alpes. In 1961, she finished secnd at the RAC Rally. In 1962, she was third at the East African Safari Rally in a Saab 96 and, at the RAC and also earned her biggest achievement – winning the Netherlands Tulip Rally in a Mini Cooper.

After marrying her husband and fellow rally car driver Erik Carlsson in 1963, Moss joined Saab Racing to race with her husband. Together, they competed in 11 international rallies, where this high-speed sportswoman would earn three top-5’s at the Acropolis Rally, Liège-Sofia-Liège as well as the Monte Carlo Rally between ‘63 and ’65. In December 1969, Moss and Carlsson had a daughter, which led Moss to become less active in rallying. She nevertheless joined Renault Alpine and drove her Alpine A110 to 10th place at the 1972 Monte Carlo Rally before finally retiring in 1974. In October of 2008, Pat Moss-Carlsson died of cancer at the age of 73. She was survived by her husband Erik and daughter Susan.


Shirley Muldowney

Celebrating Women’s History Month with Ten Women Who Made Racing History

The “First Lady of Drag Racing” was both the first woman to receive a license from the National Hot Rod Association and the first to female to drive a Top Fuel dragster.

Born Shirley Ann Roque in Burlington, VT, Muldowney began street racing in the 1950s in NY. At the tender age of 16, Muldowney married 19-year-old Jack Muldowney, who both taught her to drive and built Muldowney her first dragster.

In 1958, Muldowney made her debut on the dragstrip of the Fonda Speedway; a few short years later she would obtain her NHRA pro license. She competed in the 1969 and 1970 U.S. Nationals in a twin-engine dragster in Top Gas. With Top Gas losing popularity, Muldowney switched to Funny Car, buying her first car from Connie Kalitta. Around this time, Muldowney and her husband began to drift apart and divorced in 1972.

Muldowney won her first major event at the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) Southern Nationals in 1971 and two short years later she became the first woman to race her way into the Top Fuel category. An unprecedented three NHRA Top Fuel world championships followed, in 1977, 1980 and 1982, once and for all disproving the views of those who felt drag racing was no place for women.

A crash in 1984 would leave Muldowney sidelined due to injuries including crushed hands, pelvis and legs, which necessitated half a dozen operations and 18 months of therapy. After returning to racing in the late 1980s, this queen of speed continued to compete in select races until her retirement at the end of 2003. Muldowney was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2005.


Janet Guthrie

Celebrating Women’s History Month with Ten Women Who Made Racing History

The first woman to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500 began her professional life as a pilot and flight instructor, aerospace engineer, technical editor and public representative for some of the country’s major corporations.

Along with a passion for aeronautics, Guthrie also had a passion for speed, which led her to the purchase of a Jaguar XK 140 and eventually competition in the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA).

Although she was once a research and development engineer at Republic Aviation in Farmingdale, NY, Guthrie decided to pursue racing full-time and quickly raced this to class victories in the 12 Hours of Sebring. Her big break at the top level of the sport came in 1976, when long-time team owner and car builder Rolla Vollstedt invited her to test a car for the Indianapolis 500. That year, she also became the first woman to compete in a NASCAR Cup Series superspeedway stock car race. In 1977, she became the first woman to qualify for and compete in the Indianapolis 500; she was also first woman and Top Rookie at the Daytona 500 in the same year.

Guthrie’s 1978 driver’s suit and helmet are now in the Smithsonian Institution and she was also one of the first athletes to be inducted into the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. In 2006, she was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and her autobiography, “Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle” was published one short year prior.


Michèle Mouton

Celebrating Women’s History Month with Ten Women Who Made Racing History

The only woman to have won outright in the World Rally Championship (four of them, to be precise, starting with Sanremo 1981), Mouton is currently dedicated to forging opportunities in all realms of the sport, so that women like her might be able to emulate her success.

Born and raised in the beautiful southern French town of Grasse, Mouton excelled in everything from skiing to ballet to academia from a very young age. Although she was all set to become a lawyer, Mouton’s passion for motorsports drove her in a whole other direction.

By her early 20s, Mouton had begun competing in amateur rallies after watching a friend compete in Corsica and eventually being asked to co-drive. It was then that she fell in love with the sport and began competing in the French Ladies racing league. Before long, this French driver earned a French Ladies’ Championship and the French GT class championship. Mouton also topped things off with a class win at the 1975 Le Mans 24 Hours.

After being signed by Fiat France for 1977, Mouton finished runner-up to Bernard Darniche in the European Rally Championship. She went on to win the 1978 Tour de France Automobile and record consistent results in her home events in the WRC, the Tour de Corse and the Monte Carlo Rally. For 1981, Audi Sport signed Mouton to partner Hannu Mikkola. In her first year with the Audi Quattro, she took a surprise victory at the Rallye Sanremo. In the 1982 World Rally season, Mouton finished a close second overall to Walter Röhrl, after wins in Portugal, Brazil and Greece, and helped Audi to its first manufacturers’ title. In 1986, she moved to Peugeot and won the German Rally Championship as the first female driver to win a major championship in rallying.

Soon after securing this title, Mouton retired from rallying due to the ban of Group B supercars. In 1988, she co-founded the international motorsport event Race of Champions in memory of her former rival Henri Toivonen. In 2010, Mouton became the first president of the FIA’s Women & Motor Sport Commission, where she is doing her part to bring as many female rising stars to the limelight as possible.


Leena Gade

Celebrating Women’s History Month with Ten Women Who Made Racing History

While we have spent most of this article talking about female drivers, it is pretty cool to know that women in this sport can do more than drive. That’s right, we can do it all – and award-winning race engineer Leena Gade is proving this as the first female engineer to win the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans.

This skilled lady from South Harrow, near London, started to watched Formula 1 Grands Prix on television at the age of 13 with her sister and before long she found herself studying automotive and aerospace engineering. After studying engineering at the University of Manchester and graduating as the only woman in her class with a Master of Science degree in aerospace engineering in 1998, Gade would find herself working at Jaguar as a part time mechanic and data analyst.

In 2007, Gade joined Audi’s race team and was quickly promoted to race engineer. Four short years later, Gade would become the first female race engineer to win at Le Mans, with drivers André Lotterer, Benoît Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler. She and her team won again in 2012 and 2014. In 2012, Gade moved to Germany, where she worked on developing new race cars for Audi in addition to being a race engineer. In December 2012, Gade was named FIA World Endurance Championship ‘Man of the Year,’ and in the same month she received the C&R Racing Women in Technology award. In 2013, Gade was also named an ambassador for the FIA Commission for Women in Motorsport.


Melissa Harville-LeBron

Celebrating Women’s History Month with Ten Women Who Made Racing History

Gade is not the only woman who chose a different motorsports path for her life. Melissa Harville-Lebron is a 47-year-old single mother, who never imagined that her career pursuits would lead her to make history as the first African American woman to solely own a race team licensed by NASCAR.

Beginning her career in the entertainment industry as an intern at Sony Music, in 2005, she launched her own music label while working for New York City’s Department of Correction office. Nearly a decade later, she suffered from a severe asthma attack that forced her into early retirement and inspired her to take the risk of launching a multifaceted entertainment company, W.M. Stone Enterprises Inc.

So, how did this lead to racing, you ask? Harville-Lebron says her journey into auto racing began unexpectedly when she took her sons to a NASCAR experience event at Charlotte Super Speedway in hopes of deterring them from taking up such a dangerous hobby. Instead, the experience only piqued her sons’ interests and eventually led to her investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop her own team. After doing some research and discovering the lack of diversity in the sport, including the lack of any current African American team owners, she was motivated to fill the gap. This motivation led to the birth of E2 Northeast Motorsports. The first multicultural team to race competitively in NASCAR, with four black and Latino drivers, Harville-Lebron’s sons Eric and Enico are now competing in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series and NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series.


Brehanna Daniels

Celebrating Women’s History Month with Ten Women Who Made Racing History

Our final history maker is an impressive woman who never expected to become an over-the-wall tire-changer on a NASCAR team. As recently as two years ago, the 24-year-old Virginia Beach, VA native knew next to nothing – and cared even less – about stock car racing. There were some weekly short tracks within 75 miles of her home, but they held no attraction. Instead, she was something of a gym rat, a 5-foot-5 shooting guard for Salem High School who went on to play four years at nearby Norfolk State.

When a professional basketball career didn’t work out, Norfolk State’s athletic administrator set up an audition for Daniels with NASCAR’s Drive-4-Diversity team. Always the athlete, Daniels excelled in this program and quickly worked her way up the ladder to first become a tire changer for ARCA. She is now the first female African-American pit crew member in the ARCA, NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, XFINITY Series and NASCAR Cup Series.

About Ellen Richardson 491 Articles
Ellen Richardson is the author of Behind The Wheel for RacingJunk.com. This automotive sports junkie has a passion for telling an athlete's story while also covering various racing activities. Find out more about her at ellennrichardson.wordpress.com or follow Ellen on Twitter at @ellennrich or Instagram at elnrich33.

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