Women Putting the Pedal to the Metal
Source: Ford Foundation
Automotive racing has long been considered a male-dominated enterprise. When you think of racing, such as NASCAR, drag racing, or Indycar, your mind probably doesn’t go to the few women who’ve managed to break down gender barriers and find their place in the sport.
Though racing is still dominated by men, there are women who’ve made their mark in various aspects of motor racing.
In honor of Women’s History Month, let’s take a look at the female race car drivers who have made the biggest impact on gaining equality for women in auto racing.
First woman to ever compete in a NASCAR event, Sara Christian first stepped into the male-dominated sport in 1949. Her seven-race career found some success, as she finished sixth at Langhorne Speedway, and fifth at Heidelberg Raceway. Though her career was short, she was the first female driver to break gender barriers in NASCAR, paving the way for many other women in the sport that would follow in her footsteps.
Janet Guthrie was smashing gender barriers in NASCAR racing in the early 70s, becoming the first woman to compete in a NASCAR race at the 1976 World 600. In that race, she finished 15th, a few spots ahead of legendary champion Dale Earnhardt. The following year, Guthrie raced in the Daytona 500, where she was named ‘Rookie of the Year’ following her twelfth place finish.
She also competed in Indycars, finishing ninth in the 1978 Indy 500, after attempting in both 1976 and 1977 with little success. Her ninth place finish silenced many critics who felt as though women didn’t belong in the sport. Guthrie, along with Danica Patrick, were the only two women to race in both NASCAR and Indycar sanctioned competitions.
“First Lady of Drag Racing,” Shirley Muldowney is considered one of the all-time great female drivers in history. As a teenager, she fell in love with racing, winning the IHRA Southern Nationals in 1971. In 1977 she clinched the IHRA World Championship in 1977, 1980 and 1982.
Considered royalty in the drag racing world, Muldowney was the first woman to ever win a championship in any NHRA drag racing class. Her career paved the way for female drivers’ respect and acknowledgement in drag racing–a sport that had been revered as a man’s game since its inception. Thanks to Muldowney, drag racing in the US is one of the most diverse racing communities, with multiple female drivers.
Currently Danica Patrick is the most well-known female race car driver, and the most successful female driver in both NASCAR and Indycar history. Patrick is an icon, who many young girls with dreams of racing look up to.
Patrick began her career in 2005, when she led 19 laps of the Indy 500, eventually finishing in fourth place. In 2012, she transitioned to a full-time NASCAR career. In 2013, she became the first woman ever to win the Daytona 500 pole. Additionally, she is one of only two women to have competed in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, along with Janet Guthrie.