Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The FIA World Rally Championship Ladies' Cup

Twice winner Isolde Holderied, with her Toyota Corolla WRC

In 1990, the FIA created a Coupe des Dames for the World Rally Championship. To be eligible for the prize, drivers had to enter seven rounds of the WRC, including at least one outside Europe. Points were then awarded for finishing positions within each rally. This prevented local specialists from winning the Cup with a single good performance, and was meant to reward consistency. In practice, however, it meant that some entrants only made an effort with rallies that suited them, as eligibility was based on starting, rather than finishing, rallies. The phenomenon of a driver retiring from a rally early on, for no obvious reason, did draw criticism from some quarters, although the FIA Group N championship of the time ran in a similar manner, and attracted some of the same gamesmanship.

The Ladies’ championship attracted some good drivers, a couple of whom went on to challenge at the highest level of the sport. There were never great numbers of female competitors, and this seems to have been one of the factors in the decision to shelve the award after 1995.

1995 - Isolde Holderied

(Image from http://www.autozeitung.de/faszination-auto/isolde-holderied-im-toyota-corolla-wrc/Bild/n257057/5)

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Anita Taylor (Matthews)

Anita Taylor was a popular British racer in the 1960s, born in Yorkshire. She was the sister of Formula One driver, Trevor Taylor, and the pair sometimes raced together. They were both very well-connected in the motorsport world, which gave Anita access to some very competitive machinery during her short career.

Although she usually drove saloon cars, it was stage rallying in which she started her career, as a teenager. Among the cars she rallied was a Standard. She began racing shortly afterwards, and used various Ford Anglias predominantly. The Anglia was the car she would be most associated with, during her time on the circuits. She made her first major appearance in 1962, driving an Anglia at the Silverstone International Trophy meeting, in the British Saloon Car race. She did not finish.

Her first major result was a win in the BMRC Trophy at Charterhall, driving a Lotus Elan previously raced by Jim Clark, her brother’s team-mate. This was the last meeting held at the Charterhall circuit before its closure. The same year, she entered the Brands Hatch 6 Hours, in a John Willment Ford Anglia. She was 21st overall, assisted by rally driver Anne Hall. In another Anglia, owned by her brother, she tackled the later rounds of the British Saloon championship, her best  finishes being tenth at Crystal Palace and fourteenth at Brands Hatch. In the mid-1960s, this series was incredibly competitive, with current and past Formula One drivers, as well as specialists, taking part. As well as the established stars, there were a few regular female competitors, including Christabel Carlisle, Elizabeth Jones and Michaelle Burns-Grieg, who all drove Minis.

Trevor and Anita founded their own team, Aurora Gears Racing, in 1964. Aurora Gears was a company owned by Trevor. They both drove Mini Coopers in the British Saloon Car Championship. Anita made her debut in the second round, at Goodwood, and was last. Her best finish was ninth, at Crystal Palace, and she also managed to beat her brother in the last round, the Oulton Park Gold Cup. Trevor had also not made much of an impact on the top-ten, and the quality of drivers in the BSCC was still very high, including Jim Clark, Jack Sears and Denny Hulme. Anita and Trevor shared one of the Aurora Gears Minis in the Brands Hatch 6 Hour race, but they did not finish due to a broken timing chain. An Aurora Gears sports prototype existed also, which Anita may have driven, but no actual race results for it are forthcoming.

Away from the family team, Anita also drove with Valerie Pirie in the Tour de France. They were representing Stirling Moss’s SMART team, in a Triumph Spitfire, but did not finish after an engine failure.

Anita continued to race a Mini in the 1965 BSCC, but normally under the banner of the Automobile Racing Drivers’ School. She was not overly competitive, and had a best finish of 19th, at Brands Hatch and Goodwood. Aurora Gears was involved that year in Formula Two, with Trevor driving.
In 1966, she remained the BSCC, having followed Trevor to the Broadspeed team. Her usual team-mate was John Fitzpatrick. They both drove Ford Anglias. At the Silverstone International Trophy meeting, Anita won the under-1 litre class by quite a long way, and was ninth overall, beating her team-mate. Her best outright finish was sixth, at Crystal Palace. Towards the end of the season, she had some reliability troubles with the Anglia, and during the last race of the season, at Brands Hatch, she rolled the car, embarrassingly, right in front of a TV camera. Nevertheless, she helped Broadspeed to the team title.

At the end of the 1966 season, Anita travelled to the Bahamas for Nassau Speed Week. Ostensibly, she was on her honeymoon, having married Dave Matthews. She drove a Shelby GT350 in two of the big races, the Governor’s Trophy and the Nassau Trophy, and was 24th and 15th respectively. She was supported by the Ring Free Oil team, who were putting together a ladies’ team at the time.

At the beginning of 1967, she was part of the “Ring Free Oil Motor Maids”, and raced in the Daytona 24 Hours with Smokey Drolet and Janet Guthrie. They finished 20th overall, in a Ford Mustang. A little later, Anita and Smokey Drolet were 35th in the Sebring 12 Hours. This time, they were in an Alpine Renault A110, run by Baker Racing in conjunction with Ring Free.

During this time, Anita was sponsored by the Ford motor company. She carried on as a Broadspeed driver in the BSCC, and had a best finish of seventh, at the Oulton Park Gold Cup. In the rest of the races, she seemed to place well in class, but did not trouble the main classification too much. John Fitzpatrick also had a quieter year. As well as racing, Anita had another go at rallying, in the marathon Shell 4000 Rally in Canada. She was driving an official Lotus Ford Cortina with a local navigator, Terry Gillies. Unfortunately, a navigational error got them stuck in wet ground, and they had to retire. As well as rallying, Anita participated in economy runs and driving stunts, such as speed records for towing caravans. As time went on, she became increasingly annoyed that Ford were exploiting her novelty value and considerable beauty with modelling assignments and stunts, rather than racing.

Anita retired from motorsport at the end of 1967, in order to concentrate on family life. Her marriage to Dave Matthews did not last, but she remained close to her family and her brother, Trevor, until his death in 2010. She never did return to active competition, but she and Trevor were a fixture at various race meetings over the years.

Anita is remembered by many for her striking looks, and her quirky habits, which included carrying her handbag with her in her racing car, stowed under the seat. In addition to this, she was a very competent driver with some decent results, achieved against top-class opposition. She gives her name to the saloon racing trophy presented each year by the British Women Racing Drivers’ Club.

(Image from http://www.wickersleyweb.co.uk/hist/taylor.htm)

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Speederettes

Helen Summersby at Ascot Park

The Speederettes was the name given to a group of women who took part in a high-profile all-female dirt-track event in California in 2918

During the First World War, motorsports ceased almost entirely in Europe. This was not the case in the USA. Although racing was quite limited, the dirt speedways and board tracks, many of them in fairgrounds, continued to operate.

Women had been banned from official, wheel-to-wheel motorsport competition since 1909. They were allowed to run in speed trials, during which they were the only car on the track, but not in actual races. However, in 1918, promoters had the idea of putting on women-only races, which circumvented the prospective scandal of women racing against men. The group of drivers hired to take part in these events became known as “The Speederettes”.

“Speederettes” itself sounds like the title of a B-movie, and the story of these drivers would go some way to creating a plot for a film.

The first all-female race of this period took place in February, 1918, at Ascot Park, a dirt track in California. It was not a single event, but a series of speed trials and qualification sessions on Saturday, in support of a “big race” on Sunday. It was promoted as an exciting spectacle, and billed as a “Carnival of Femininity”. Newspaper reports claim that all the race officials and marshals were female as well as the drivers, with only a few male mechanics and spectators permitted to join in. The starter for the meeting was Mrs Barney Oldfield.

Following official practice sessions the previous week, the first race was a match race for cyclecars held over five miles, between Ruth Weightman, Rose Harmon (possibly Marmon) and Nina Vitagliano. Ruth Weightman was the winner, having led from the start. Nina Vitagliano was second and Mrs Harmon did not finish, skidding off during the fourth lap and crashing through a fence. She was not seriously injured but did not figure in any of the other races.

Two heats were held for the five-mile feature race, of two miles each. Mrs CH Wolfelt, in a Stutz, defeated Nina Vitaglioni's Roamer in the first. Bertie Priest was the winner of the second, from Mrs Cecil George in another Stutz.

The “big race” was won by Mrs. Wolfeld, from Mrs George and Bertie Priest. She was awarded the Katharine Stinson Trophy, named after the pioneering young aviatrix. Katharine herself provided extra excitement by landing her plane at the racetrack. As well as these races, there was a handicap billed as a “Women’s International Championship”, which was won by Mrs Wolfeld again. All five women raced, including Ruth Weightman who had been barred from her heat due to her Mercer being a racing model rather than a touring car. 

Helen Summersby apparently won a time trial during the weekend, driving a Roamer. Other women who attempted to qualify included Bebe Daniels, Mrs Willie Hoppe and the actress Anita King.

Not much is known about most of the first batch of Speederettes. Ruth Weightman, as mentioned previously, was a pilot. She was only 18 years old at the time, but had connections in the racing world through her cousin, Bill Weightman. Pictures show them together with his cars. Bertie Priest was apparently a pilot too. Nina Vitagliano was an Italian-American, married to a shipping company boss, with ambitions of more racing, becoming a pilot and driving an ambulance in Europe. If the “Marmon” spelling of her name is correct, it is conceivable that Mrs. Harmon/Marmon was part of the Marmon family, which owned the car manufacturer of the same name, but she may well have been someone completely different. The others are more obscure: Mrs. Wolfeld was married to a shoe shop owner.

The first Speederettes event was a great success, bringing in 10,000 or more spectators. Omar Toft, a sometime racer himself, quickly set about organising a second meeting. It was held in March, at Stockton Park, a mile-long dirt track. The meeting was billed as a “World Championship” for women drivers. At least four women took part. Among them were Ruth Weightman and Nina Vitagliano, who were building up something of a rivalry between them.

The Ascot Park race had utilised lightly-tuned stock cars and some very small cyclecars, but this next instalment of Speederette action was set to involve far more horsepower. Nina and Ruth had the use of what appeared to be some genuine racing cars: Nina had a well-known Stutz (“No. 8”) belonging to Earl Cooper, and Ruth was to drive a Mercer owned by Eddie Pullen. There is now some debate as to whether one or both of these cars were the genuine article, and it is fair to say that a fair amount of downtuning had happened before the event, to allow amateur drivers to get these temperamental machines around the track. Promoter Omar Toft himself is said to have told the Speederettes to be careful, especially when overtaking on turns.

Nina Vitagliano

The first race on the programme was a single-lap sprint, which was won by Nina Vitagliano in the Stutz. The second race was run over five laps, and Ruth Weightman took the lead. Nina tried to overtake her on a bend, lost control of the car, and crashed through a fence and over the bank and ditch surrounding that part of the circuit. It was quite a similar crash to the one she experienced at Ascot Park, but far more serious. She was killed instantly. Her riding mechanic, Bob Currie, and three spectators also died as a result of the accident. The cause of the crash was never fully established, but a tyre blowout may have been the catalyst.

The meeting was not halted, although according to the Oregon Daily Journal, which reported the event quite thoroughly, most of the spectators left. Ruth Weightman won an Australian pursuit race from another driver called Eleanor Baumbauer and was also the victor in the final two-lap "free for all for the woman's championship."

This ended the Speederettes. Newspapers report that the promoters of the Stockton event placed a ban on women drivers in their competitions, but this may have been short-lived. Ruth Weightman went back to aviation, and the other women who had participated seem to disappear back into their own lives. The events of March 1918 did not help the cause of female drivers with the AAA, the motorsport sanctioning body in the USA, as there was considerable media reporting of the accident, and the accompanying disapproval.

Nevertheless, the Speederettes did manage to inspire some other women to race; in the 1920s, there were other events for female drivers organised, and even some international drivers attended them. However, women would remain prohibited from major competitions in the States for many years, and barred from top-line open-wheel racing until the 1970s.

Nina Vitagliano was apparently much mourned by the California Italian-American community. Interest in her, and the Speederettes, has increased since the publication of some articles about them by Patricia Yongue, Harold Osmer and others. These articles have formed the basis of the research for this post.

Patricia Yongue in Veloce Today: http://www.velocetoday.com/people/people_39.php

(Images from www.coastal181.com and www.velocetoday.com/Stockton Library)