Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Speederettes

Helen Summersby at Ascot Park

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”. There were three main races and a series of support events, for large cars and cyclecars. Seven women are described as having taken part, but only five are regularly named: Mrs. PH Harmon (possibly Marmon), Mrs. CH Wolfeld, Ruth Weightman (also credited as Wightman), Helen Summersby, Mrs. Cecil George, Mrs. Bertie Priest and Nina Vitagliano. Ruth Weightman posted the best times in the speed trials. Nina Vitagliano was driving a Roamer, and suffered a crash before the main event, going through a fence and losing a wheel, despite being very quick. She drove a Mercer cyclecar in an earlier race, and was second to Ruth Weightman. Mrs. Harmon was also racing, and was injured in a crash. The “big race” was won by Mrs. Wolfeld, in a Stutz, who 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.

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. 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. 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.

This ended the Speederettes. 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)

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