Daring doesn’t even begin to describe these six trailblazing women of motor racing. Decades before Danica Patrick, Ashley Force-Hood and Sarah Fisher decided to get behind the wheel to take on the men, this group of women were paving the way by making headlines and pushing the limits on the track.
Camille du Gast
Camille du Gast was a French woman who clearly believed that regular life was too boring for women at the turn of the century. Born in Paris in 1868, du Gast was already an accomplished parachute jumper, fencer, skier, rifle and pistol shot, horse trainer, concert pianist and singer when she married Jules Crespin, a wealthy department store owner, at age 22.
Crespin died just six years into the marriage, but not before du Gast bore him a daughter. After her husband’s death, the wealthy new widow took up mountaineering, partying with politicians and celebrities, and traveling extensively throughout the world, including crossing Morocco on horseback.
In 1901, du Gast became the first woman to compete in an international auto race after finishing 33rd in the 750-mile Paris-Berlin race — a three-day event that only 47 of the original 100 starters managed to complete.
Du Gast drove a 30-hp De Dietrich in the 1903 Paris-Madrid race after officials in the United States barred her from competing in the 1902 race from New York to San Francisco. When French law banned women from auto racing in 1904, du Gast turned to racing high-speed boats, which for a time eclipsed car racing as the most popular motorsport in France.
The end of du Gast’s adventures came in 1910 when her daughter, hoping to cash in on an inheritance, conspired to have du Gast murdered in the middle of the night. Du Gast managed to drive off her attackers, but the betrayal left her so shaken she soon quit racing to devote the rest of her life to advocacy for women’s rights, disadvantaged children and animal welfare.
When it comes to demonstrating commitment to racing, no other story compares to that of France’s Violette Morris. Morris was an openly gay Olympic discus thrower, champion cyclist, boxer and water polo player who took up the sport of motor racing after driving an ambulance during some of the fiercest fighting of World War I.
In the 1920s, Morris competed in cyclecar endurance races, most notably the annual Bol d’Or where motorcycle and car drivers ran together for 24 hours around a three-mile clay loop. Morris took fourth place in her class and set a lap record in 1922. She later won the Bol d'Or in 1927.
But if Morris is remembered at all by automotive historians, it’s for the double mastectomy she elected to undergo after being denied the chance to participate in the 1928 Olympics. Morris was banned from competing by the French Women's Sporting Federation who cited her masculine dress (Morris was fond of wearing men’s suits) and open homosexuality as good reasons to ban her from the international stage.
Morris later said she elected to have the surgery because it allowed her to better fit behind the wheel in the cramped cyclecar cockpits. After the Olympics slight, she opened an auto parts store but soon lost the business in the Depression. According to biographers, Morris spent most of 1930s working on a three-pack-a-day habit, playing professional soccer and occasionally beating up men in the boxing ring.
When the Germans occupied France in World War II, they recruited Morris, who willingly spied for the Nazis after so many decades of foul treatment by French society and the press. In 1944, at age 51, she was gunned down by the French resistance while driving her Citröen along a country road.
Canadian-born Kay Petre became an English racing sensation shortly after moving across the Atlantic with her aviator husband, Henry, in 1930. Regularly taking off and landing at the now legendary Brooklands airfield and motor-racing track, Kay and her husband were quickly taken by the excitement of the racing scene happening there.
The woman who became known as the “Brooklands Speed Queen” started racing at Brooklands in a red Wolseley Hornet Daytona Special, which was bought for her as a birthday present. She pulled a third- and second-place finish in her first two races before deciding a faster car was in order.
The most famous photo of Petre shows the tiny woman (Petre was only 4’10”) seated in a huge 10.5-liter V-12 Delage, which had wooden blocks attached to the pedals so she could reach them. But her first Brooklands record came behind the wheel of a 2-liter Bugatti that she drove for her first circuit record of 124 mph in 1934.
Although she is always associated with the Delage, Kay also raced an Invicta and a series of Rileys, the latter of which brought her ninth place in the Mountain Grand Prix at Brooklands in 1934. She raced in Le Mans that year with fellow female racer Dorthy Champney and finished 13th driving a Riley Ulster Imp.
In only a couple of seasons, Petre set a number of speed and hillclimb records before her career was cut short. After returning from the 1937 South African Grand Prix, Petre and other racers were back in England preparing for the Brooklands 500 when she was involved in a multi-car crash that left her in a coma with serious face and head injuries. Petre eventually recovered but never raced again.
Born in Iowa in 1938, Janet Guthrie was an aerospace engineer and former flight instructor who began racing in 1963 on the Sports Car Club of America circuit in a Jaguar XK140. Maintaining and running her own car on the North American sports-racing circuit, Guthrie twice won her class in the famed Sebring 12-Hour Race and by 1972 was racing full-time.
In Guthrie’s career as physicist, she worked on programs that were precursors to the Apollo Project. According to her website, www.janetguthrie.com, she applied for the first scientist-astronaut program in 1964 but was dropped after making it through the first round of eliminations.
Guthrie may not have had the right stuff for space, but 13 years on the SCCA circuit prepared her perfectly for her big break into top-level competition. NASCAR technically allowed women drivers since its start in 1949, but real participation was essentially discouraged (female reporters were not even allowed in the pit area until 1971). But Guthrie eventually got her shot in 1976 when team owner and car builder Rolla Vollstedt invited her to test a car for the Indianapolis 500. The following year, Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for and compete in America’s biggest car race; she was also “Top Rookie” at the Daytona 500 that year.
Guthrie finished as high as ninth during the 1978 running of the Indy 500. Today, her helmet and driver's suit hold a special place in the Smithsonian Institution. Guthrie also penned her autobiography, Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle, in 2005 and was one of the first athletes named to the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Donna Mae Mims
Her penchant for pink helmets, jumpsuits and cars gave her the reputation of an eccentric. Her blond hair, good looks and aggressive driving made her a legend when, in 1963, the “Pink Lady” Donna Mae Mims drove her 1959 Austin-Healey Bugeye Sprite to a place in history as the first woman to ever win a SCCA national championship.
A 1945 graduate of Dormont High School in Dormont, Pennsylvania, Mims worked as an executive secretary at Canonsburg’s Yenko Chevrolet — one of the largest custom muscle-car shops of the late 1960s and early 1970s. She won her first race in 1960 in a pink Fuelie Corvette and, over the next 14 years, would own and race other pink cars, including a Corvair, Triumph TR3 and MGB.
For all her prowess and skill on the track, Mims is best known for her role in one of the most infamous races in American racing history: the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Dash, the cross-country outlaw road race that was made famous by the 1981 movie The Cannonball Run, starring Burt Reynolds and Farrah Fawcett. Mims was portrayed by actress Adrienne Barbeau in the film.
For the 1972 running of the Cannonball, Mims was part of an all-female team sponsored by "The Right Bra." The three women dressed in tight-fitting shirts and pants and drove a 1968 Cadillac limousine fitted with racing tires. They suffered the only serious crash of the race near El Paso, Texas, after one of the other women on the team fell asleep at the wheel and veered off the road. Mims suffered a broken arm.
The iconic Pink Lady retired from racing shortly after but continued volunteering at SCCA events. She died in 2009 of complications from a stroke.
Lyn St. James
Born in Ohio in 1947, Lyn St. James was a newly married, 26-year-old secretary and piano teacher when she made her amateur auto racing debut in 1973. After taking an SCCA driving class, St. James and her husband installed roll bars and belts into her daily driver, a Ford Pinto. That first race, she lost control and drove into a lake.
It was embarrassing and discouraging, she told Car and Driver in 2010. But St. James was hooked. She didn’t just want to race, she wanted to drive Indy cars.
St. James sought advice from Janet Guthrie in 1981, but later recounted in her biography, Ride of Your Life: A Racecar Driver’s Journey, that the “first woman of Indy racing” wasn’t interested in helping. However, Dick Simon, owner of a CART race team, was interested, and so were Al Holbert, Peter Gregg and Brian Redman, whom St. James counts among her greatest mentors.
St. James made her Indy debut in 1992 at age 45. She finished 11th but became the first woman to take home the “Rookie of the Year” title. Over the course of her incredible career, St. James recorded 11 CART and seven Indy Racing League starts (including six consecutive starts from 1992 – 1997). She also has two victories at the 24 Hours of Daytona, one win at the 12 Hours of Sebring, and competed twice at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
St. James retired from racing in 2001 at age 54 and is now a writer, motivational speaker, and promoter of young race car drivers through her nonprofit, Women in the Winner's Circle Foundation, which she established in 1994.