Monday, 26 May 2014

Joan Newton Cuneo

Joan in the Knox Giantess, in 1911

Joan was born in 1876, to an industrial family who seemed to have both interest in technology, and a rather progressive attitude towards women’s involvement in it. Before she learned to drive a car, she apparently learned to drive a train; her family operated their own narrow-gauge line. She only got behind the wheel of a car after her marriage to Andrew Cuneo, and probably owned her first car, a Locomobile, in 1902. At first, she was driven around by a chauffeur, but she soon started to drive herself.  This story was recounted by Joan herself to the press, although she sometimes claimed that she had been driving for five years, making the date of her first car 1900.
Her competition career definitely did begin in 1905, almost certainly making her the earliest female motorsport competitor in the USA. The Frenchwoman, Camille du Gast, had tried to enter the New York-San Francisco road race in 1902, but her entry was not accepted. Joan chose the Glidden Cup Tour, a multi-surface, long-distance reliability trial over a thousand miles long, to make her debut. Her car was a White Steam Tourer, the most up-to-date 1905 model with 15 hp. Her team included her husband, and Lou Disbrow, her erstwhile chauffeur, as riding mechanic. She was the only female entrant, and attracted a lot of attention, particularly when she swerved into a stream, in order to avoid another driver reversing out of a dangerous spot. No-one was injured, and Joan carried on, apparently re-lighting the boiler herself, but there were photographers present, and it made the news. Later, despite running well, she was prevented from completing a hill-climbing section of the Tour by the organisers, who decided it was too dangerous for a woman driver. She eventually did the climb, but was not allowed to have her time recognised officially by the organising body, the American Automobile Association. This meant that she was not part of the official, “first class” classification for the Tour.
Later that year, she took part in her first circuit races. The biggest of these was at Atlantic City. This was meant to have been a thrilling match between Joan and another female racer, Mrs. Clarence C. Fitler, who had won races at Cape May. However, Mrs. Fitler pulled out. Joan was third in the one race she entered. Shortly afterwards, she was invited to try dirt track racing at Poughkeepsie, mainly doing demonstration runs.  After her Glidden Cup exploits, she was invited to various tracks and beach courses, and performed quite well. She secured her first win at the Point Breeze dirt oval, in the three-mile race, and was second in a one-mile race for light cars at Ventnor Beach.
Early in 1906, she bought a new car, a Maxwell Speedster. Her first competitive outing was the beach racing meet at Atlantic City, in March. This time, a female opponent was found for her, a Mrs. Ernest Rogers. Joan defeated her in their mile-long match race. She then went on to finish second in a mixed race, then set another ladies' speed record in an exhibition run, in the White. In April , back in the Maxwell, she drove in the Ventnor Beach races, winning the one-mile Trial for petrol-powered cars, and coming second in the one-mile race for that category. She was pleased with the Maxwell, and wanted to enter a second Glidden Tour, but instead, she spent much of the year accompanying her husband on business trips to Europe. There is no concrete evidence that she did any competitive motoring whilst there, although at least one contemporary source claims that she had a match race against the British driver, Dorothy Levitt (named as “Dorothy Revell”). Dorothy was big news in the UK at this time, so it is odd that no British media mention this race happening.
She returned to the States in September, in time do some auto gymkhanas, modelled after equestrian gymkhanas, and some more exhibition races. These included a run at a fairground short-track in Nyack.
For 1907, she acquired another new car, a Rainier touring model. Her first event was a 100-mile dirt track race at Bennings, a horse racing course. The Rainier proved highly unsuited to the short circuit’s corners, and was not quick enough. Joan finished, but in sixth and second-to-last place. The papers still published stories about her nevertheless, some of which were becoming more and more outlandish. The number of speeding tickets she received in the course of her adventures seemed to increase exponentially with every retelling of the story.
The Rainier was a poor choice for dirt-track racing, but its more generous suspension made it a more promising Glidden Tour car. Joan entered again in 1907, and encountered further opposition from the organisers. This time, a rule was made that to be eligible to win, drivers must be a member of an AAA-affiliated club. None of the appropriate clubs permitted female membership, which again excluded Joan from the full classification. She was undeterred by this and carried on anyway, going on to finish the Tour, now 1500 miles long. This was in spite of a series of car problems, including broken suspension, a bent rear axle and various punctures, at least one a full-on blowout. Later, sponsored by the Rainier motor company, she wrote a little book about her experiences during this event.
The Rainier was updated to the most recent spec for the 1908 Glidden Tour. The Tour was now almost 2000 miles long, and Joan was still one of its most newsworthy entrants. She was in the papers yet again after a near miss at a level crossing, where she only just skidded the car out of the way of a passing train. She and her crew were uninjured, and the car was not seriously damaged, unlike the level crossing’s fence. As she was now part of the Chicago Motor Club’s team, she was eligible for points and awards, and achieved a perfect score of 1000, as well as a gold medal from the AAA, and a silver cup for good sportsmanship. The Rainier was subsequently put on display in a showroom for some time, complete with Tour dirt and damage. It was called into action again in September, when Joan entered a two-day “Mechanical Efficiency Contest” around Long Island. Her five passengers were all women, something she often did. Her riding mechanic, Lou Disbrow, also competed, in another Rainier.
1909 saw the start of a partnership with Knox cars. Joan’s newest vehicle was a Knox Giant, with 50hp, a similar power output to the Rainier. She entered the inaugural Mardi Gras races in New Orleans, held in February. Initially, a match race was set up with another lady driver, Alice Byrd Potter, but she never showed up. Joan put her name down for every race for which she was eligible, and travelled to New Orleans with Andrew, Lou Disbrow and her two children. Her first event was a one-mile time trial, in which she was fourth. Later, in a ten-mile trial, she broke her own womens’ speed record. The first of her actual races seems to have been the 50-mile handicap, in which she was a strong second, behind Ralph de Palma. She then went on to win two races the next day: the Amateur Championship and the Klaxon Signal 10 Mile race.
On the third day, she started off with an exhibition speed run, breaking the women’s record again. She was third in the TC Campbell Trophy, then won an amateur five-mile race. The biggest event of the day was a 50-miler, in which Joan struggled, and she was only tenth. However, this did not dent her confidence, and she was second in a ten-mile handicap later in the day.
Despite her triumphs in New Orleans, the AAA were not impressed with Joan, the attention she was getting, or the idea of female racing drivers in general. Within a few weeks, women drivers were banned from all of their sanctioned competitions. She attempted to enter a race meeting in Massachusetts in August, but they held firm. This was the end of her active competition career.
Despite the prohibition on women in organised circuit races, Joan continued to drive the Giant. She did exhibition runs and speed trials throughout 1909 and 1910, continuing to better her own ladies’ speed records. Despite official disapproval, she was still a popular figure and a draw for spectators. She continued to use Knox cars, but not exclusively, and in 1910, she set a record of 112mph in a Pope Hummer, on Long Island. Some of her other cars included a Darracq Bluebird and a Lancia Lampo. Later in 1910, she beat her own record, in the Knox Giant.
In 1911, the Knox factory built her a new Giant, which was christened the “Giantess” in her honour. It was used in demonstrations and record runs, and was also raced by Lou Disbrow.
Joan continued to make appearances and attempt to break records until 1915, by which time, her marriage was failing. She moved to Vermont in 1918 and lived the rest of her life in rural obscurity, close to her son and his family. She died in 1934, aged 56.
For more information about Joan and her life, Elsa Nystrom's book, Mad For Speed: The Racing Life of Joan Newton Cuneo is the most comprehensive source.
(Image from

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