Friday, 18 April 2014

Women's Races in the USA in the mid-20th century

Members of the WSCC with a Porsche 550

Women’s races have long been a part of American club and national-level motorsport, on both oval and road courses. This is in spite of some quite open prohibition on women’s participation in motor racing. For example, the American Automobile Association, the main motorsport body of its time, explicitly barred women from its sanctioned competitions in 1909. This was after the efforts of Joan Newton Cuneo to compete in its events, from 1905 onwards. Although Joan was not banned from entering, she was prevented from completing certain parts of race routes, for spurious safety reasons, thus disqualifying her from various awards, and was never invited to join the club itself, despite being an active and skilled driver.

The AAA’s influence over motorsport continued until 1955. Its rules about women were relaxed somewhat, but they were still prohibited from major competitions. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the most prominent US racing venue, did not even routinely allow women into the pit lane until the mid-1970s, let alone take part in races. Denise McCluggage, working as a journalist, did much to challenge that.

So, it is quite surprising to learn, that despite a backdrop of sometimes open hostility, women’s races were regularly organised in the 1950s and 1960s. Many of them were part of SCCA meetings, and they ran in various parts of the country, but mainly on the East and West coasts.
The women’s races at the Nassau Trophy, although not part of the SCCA, were entered by the same group of drivers.

At first, these races were very short, run as multi-class events and did not always have their entry lists published. They followed on from a longer tradition on short-track ovals, where such races were disparagingly referred to as “Powder Puff Derbies”. That name itself came from the unofficial title given to the 1929 Women’s Air Derby air race.

The drivers in these early-1950s events were normally the wives, partners or occasionally, daughters of male drivers taking part in the same meeting. For example, of the competitors in the Ladies’ Race at Elkhart Lake in July 1950, only one, Sally Chapin, the winner, was not driving her husband’s car. (It was a Healey Silverstone belonging to Jim Kimberly, who helped to start the circuit that year). This meant that the women drivers did not usually get the chance to run in the main events, as their cars were in use.

The cars themselves were usually small sportscars or saloons, with Porsches and Jaguars being quite common. The Porsche 356 and 550 were particularly popular. There were no single-seater (open wheel) races held for women, or not on any major circuits.

As time went on, a number of Ladies’ race entrants did so in their own cars. Margaret (Peggy) Wyllie sometimes competed in her husband’s Jaguar C-Type or XK140 in the early and middle 1950s, but at least as often, drove her own MG TC or XK120 in both Ladies’ and other events. Later on, she shared a Lotus IX with her husband, and eventually, they competed together in races such as the Sebring 12 Hours in 1956, in the Lotus.

In 1956, Betty Shutes appears on the scene. From the beginning, she owned her own Porsche 356, and raced it in Ladies’ races, and also SCCA Stock and Production races. In 1957, she upgraded the 356 to a 550, after trying one out belonging to Stan Sugarman. The following year, she started winning regularly in Ladies’ races, and she was almost unbeatable in them in 1959. She continued to win Ladies’ races until 1961, by then in a Porsche 718. If there had been an organised Ladies’ championship, she would have won at least two.

Betty Shutes was one of the early members of the WSCC - the Women’s Sports Car Club, which existed from at least 1958, and sought to promote female participation, both in actual competition, and through marshalling, timekeeping and other active support roles. It also provided a social network for women drivers, who were not always included in mainstream motor clubs.

For some, the ladies’ races put on by the SCCA were enough to keep them going. However, some drivers were far more ambitious, and set their sights on not only mixed SCCA competition, but higher levels, too. From her first season, Ruth Levy competed in both Ladies’ and mixed races, and qualified for the SCCA Nationals in 1955, in her own Porsche 356. By 1957, she was driving for John Edgar’s Porsche team alongside Carroll Shelby and entering endurance races at Road America and as far afield as Venezuela. In 1958, she drove a Fiat Abarth 750 Zagato in the Sebring 12 Hours.

Josie von Neumann, who raced alongside her father, John, was another driver who began in ladies’ races, but branched out. In 1959, she raced a Ferrari 250 TR in the main events of the Nassau Trophy, and at the 200 Mile endurance race at Riverside.

Evelyn Mull, Donna Mae Mims and Suzy Dietrich all started their careers in SCCA ladies’ races.

Suzy Dietrich

A recurring team-mate of Ruth Levy’s was Denise McCluggage. Denise’s motorsport achievements eclipsed Ruth’s fairly quickly, as her career was much longer. In her early days, she was a frequent competitor in ladies’ races, driving a Porsche 550, and won several. However, she admitted to not enjoying competing in them much, and claimed that she drove at her worst in them. Not all female drivers were enthusiastic advocates of single-sex racing.

As well as those who used ladies’ races as track practice, and those who were content to remain in them, a few other interesting drivers cropped up in the entry lists. One such was Louise Cano, who drove a Lancia Spyder and other cars in 1956 and 1957. She was never among the front-runners. She becomes much more prominent in motorsport a few years later, when, as Louise Bryden-Brown, she helped to get Dan Gurney started in international single-seater racing in her Lotus 18.

Also worth noting is LaRuth Bostic, who drove an Austin-Healey in a few races in 1957. LaRuth was the first African-American female racing driver.

Women-only races declined in popularity during the 1960s, perhaps due to the fact that many of their regular participants had branched out into mixed events. They remained a feature at short tracks, but slipped back into their “powder puff derby” afterthought stereotype. It was not until the Women’s Global GT championship in 1999 that a “serious” motorsport series for women drivers existed in the United States.

(Images from 

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