Women are good at driving – just watch any mom make a trip to school, the grocery store, home, back to school, to the sports field and everywhere else where she’s needed in record time. Believe it or not, women have been involved in professional motorsports from as early as the 1890s.
Whether on motorcycles or in automobiles, female drivers have been pioneers in motorsports and continue to pave the way for gender equality in a male-dominated sport. A look back at the history of motorsports and how it has changed throughout the 1900s allows us to fully appreciate the commitment, strength, bravery and success of the notable women who came before us. Here’s everything you need to know about the victories of some phenomenal female drivers.
Way back when
In June of 1987, the first ever female race took place at the Longchamps Racecourse in Paris, France. The race involved mainly women of high standing who were celebrities, actors and theatrical performers. The ladies competed on motorised tricycles and showed women both at home and abroad just how much fun it was to race. French costume designer LéaLemoine took first place and won the esteemed title of first female motorsport racing champion. She proudly accepted a bracelet for her efforts and encouraged other women to try racing as well.
Her enthusiasm was contagious and by 1898, French women had even begun to participate in male-dominated races. The sole female entrant in the Marseille-Nice trial, Madame Laumaillé gave it her all and finished 27th overall. Performances such as this sparked a trend of female drivers across Europe and further overseas in the United States. In 1901, Camille du Gast from France made waves as the first female racer to participate internationally.
Over the following years, racers from all over the world began racing and by the 1920s, a group of notable women in motorsports began to stand out. One of these special ladies was Baroness Maria Antoinetta D’Avanzo from Italy. She demonstrated not only skill but bravery through a quick decision to drive into the water when her car set ablaze during a race along a Danish beach.
In 1929, Hellé Nice was the first female to set a new world land speed record. Her career highlights include racing for the Bugatti team and participating in five Grand Prix events – an achievement that many male racers fall short of! By 1931, more land speed records for both automobiles and motorcycles had been broken by racer Gwenda Stewart.
Canadian motorsport star Kay Petreshowed us that women are resourceful and innovative. Despite a serious accident in 1937 that left her unable to continue her racing career, Petre continued to contribute positively to motorsports by acting as a navigator for rallies and acting as a co-driver to other racers.
As World War II set in, enthusiasm around motorsports waned and circuits were quiet. The economic and political conflicts worldwide meant a break from the competition and fun of racing.
Motorsports were seen to revive in the post-WWII economic boom. Along with the sudden surge in motorsport racing came a growing interest in specialty circuits: Vespa racing in Italy was the new trend. In 1947, Ada Pace donned her leathers and playful smile to participate in several Vespa circuits as one of the only female competitors.
Denise McCluggage brought something special along with her racing skills: her sense of fashion. In 1954, she took to the Monte Carlo circuit and Sebring Rally in a fun polka dot helmet. Much to the male-dominated racing world’s despair, Denise was a fierce motorsport journalist and battled constantly for equality of women drivers in the sport.
Anne Hall from the United Kingdom was another innovative racer who went on to start an advanced driving school upon retirement from her professional career. She won multiple titles for her achievements worldwide and competed in rallies throughout the 1950s and 1960s. She even returned to motorsports one last time at age 68 and went on to win the title!
You might have heard of Sir Stirling Moss, the star of many a Grand Prix. His sister, Pat Moss, shined just as bright – the racing spirit must have been in their genes. 1956, Pat had won first place at the European Ladies Rally not once but five times! She is still one of the most notable female figures in rally racing today.
1973 saw ground-breaking advancements in motorsport racing when Shirley ‘ChaCha’ Muldowney was granted a license to race Top Fuel dragsters. Her male counterparts were loudly upset but quieted down as she went on to win three titles in the sport.
British racer Louise Aitken-Walker is another notable pioneer who was inducted into the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 for her success in motorsports. She became popular following her rise to stardom in the Ford ‘Find a Lady Rally Driver’ Competition. She was chosen from among 2000 entrants and went on to win the title of first ever Ladies World Champion in 1990.
Worldwide rally events saw increased participation by professional female drivers. Michèle Mouton set the course record for the world’s most extreme hillclimb at Pike’s Peak, an inspiring effort that championed the ability of women racers to participate in any challenge or circuit regardless of difficulty.
The 1990s saw more notable women drivers. Giovanna Amati was the first female to take part in an F1 race and is still the most recent female driver to have participated in a F1 race (there’s a record for us to break, ladies!). Sabine Schmitz showed how persistent a woman can be by totalling more than 20,000 laps around the Nurburgring track.
Notable women in motorsport have demonstrated not only amazing racing skills but also determination, innovation, perseverance, bravery and even style! It’s a history worth celebrating and as female drivers continue to break records and claim titles, it’s time for us ladies – young professionals, moms, students, teenagers, little girls and anyone else – to lead by example and encourage success on and off the track. Vrooom!