10 Best Female Race Car Drivers (And a Few That Shouldn’t Drive)
Which female race car driver is the best of all time?
Published October 20, 2018
There was a time when you wouldn’t see any females in the racing world. For many years, it was entirely male-dominated. Then, some pioneers took the first steps and now, you’ll find female race car drivers all around you. Some of them are exceptional racers that deserve to be recognized, while others frankly shouldn’t drive at all.
We’ve compiled a list of the 10 best female race car drivers and another 10 that should turn over the keys. Some of these are from the early days, while some are still racing. We could’ve included many more, but these are the women who stand out the most. Who do you think will top the charts?
10. Denise McCluggage
When you look at the life of Denise McCluggage, what you find is she was more than one of the famous female race car drivers, she had many talents. Not only was she an established journalist, but her racing career included these accomplishments:
- Drove a Porsche 550 to victory at the 1956 Nassau Ladies Race 1
- Won the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Ladies Race in 1957 with a Porsche 550
- Drove a Porsche 550 to victory at the Nassau Ladies Races 1 and 2 in 1957.
- Drove a Ferrari 250 and took first place in the Sebring 12 Hours GT category in 1961.
- Won the Copa de Damas with a Porsche 550 during the Grand Prix of Venezuela.
- Drove a Ford Falcon to first place in the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally.
- Inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. She’s the only journalist to ever receive this honor.
After all these awards, you can see why we choose her to start off our list of female race car drivers. Aside from racing, Denise’s career kept her busy at the San Francisco Chronicle. Then, she made the acquaintance of Briggs Cunningham, the first American car builder that supplied vehicles for racing during Le Mans.
She uprooted to New York and started racing professionally. To fulfill her journalistic side, she went to work at the New York Herald Tribune covering sports. She quickly earned the respect of her male competitors, even though she wore a white helmet featuring pink dots.
Her racing career ended in the 1960s, but her successes didn’t stop. She won automotive journalistic awards and helped launch AutoWeek, where she remained until her death in 2015. At that time, she was the Senior Contributing Editor.
9. Sabine Schmitz
This German female race car driver is best known as the TV personality on BBC’s Top Gear. She also drives for Porsche and BMW. You might know her as the woman who drove the BMW “ring taxi” on the Nürburgring track.
Sabine comes from the Schmitz family, who are known for owning both restaurants and hotels. She and her older sisters grew up living in the Hotel am Tiergarten. She followed in the footsteps of her family and owns hotels and restaurants.
While all three of the sisters began racing, Sabine is the only one that stuck with it and went on to victory. She’s run several events including:
- 1996 and 1997 24 Hours Nürburgring
- 1998 VLN endurance racing championship
Think about that for a moment. She is fast enough to win at 24 Hours Nürburgring two times! If that’s not enough, in 2004 she also became a helicopter pilot.
8. Hellé Nice
One of the female pioneers to racing was Hellé Nice. Her real name was Mariette Hélène Delangle and she was more than just a driver. She also worked as a dancer and French model. She first became interested in motor racing through driver de Courcelles. Her first performance occurred at the annual fair in Paris.
Prior to that, she had been a dancer and an avid skier, but an accident hurt her knee and ended both passions for her. In 1929, she became the winner of the all-female Grand Prix race at Autodrome de Montlhéry while driving an Oméga-Six.
After a relationship with Philippe de Rothschild, she met Ettore Bugatti who put her on with his male race car drivers. That’s when she started driving a Bugatti Type 35C during five separate French Grand Prix. With that came numerous endorsement deals and she became one of the most famous women in France.
It’s true that she never won a race, but she is still one of the best female race car drivers ever to live. She competed hard and often finished before many of the top male competitors. At times, she was the only woman on the Grand Prix circuit. Then, she branched out and raced rallies and hill climbs as well. She was even in the Monte Carlo Rally.
She was also racing at the 1933 Monza Grand Prix when three of the top race drivers during that time were killed. Then, in 1936, she was involved in an accident during a Grand Prix race. The Aston Martin she drove did somersaults through the air and collided with the grandstand. Over 30 people were injured and six died, but she was thrown from the car where she landed on a soldier who saved her life.
7. Pat Moss
When you talk about the best female auto rally drivers, you are sure to hear the name Pat Moss. She won three times outright and had seven podium finishes during international rallies. Five times she was crowned as the European Ladies’ Rally Champion.
You may also know her as Stirling Moss’s brother. He was a big Formula One Grand Prix star from the 1950s. In addition, she was married to Erik Carlsson, the Swedish rally driver.
Above all her racing achievements and personal connections, she also wrote some books. The Story So Far, written in 1967, was a memoir. The other book she wrote, The Art and Technique of Driving, was written with her husband.
6. Jutta Kleinschmidt
This German competitor raced during off-road events. You may recognize the name from the Paris Dakar Rally. Originally, she studied at Isny Polytech and majored in physics. Then, she went to work for BMW.
The first time she raced was in 1988 with a BMW motorcycle. She only did that in 1988, 1992, and 1994 before switching to cars. In 1995, she began racing and even had a podium finish in 1997. Then she ended up winning the Paris Dakar Rally in 2001. She was the only woman and the only German to win.
What did she win the race with? A Mitsubishi.
5. Courtney Force-Rahal
Ask anyone who the top female drag racer is and they’ll tell you to watch out for Courtney Force-Rahal. She drives the Advance Auto Parts Chevy Camaro SS Funny Car under John Force Racing. That’s because she is John Force’s daughter. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, it should. He won the NHRA World Funny Car Championship 16 times.
Don’t assume she made our list just because her father is a legend. She won the Top Alcohol Dragster during the 22nd annual NHRA Northwest Nationals in Washington during 2009. Then, in 2013, she became the first woman to qualify in the number one position during the O’Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals.
In fact, in 2014, she took the lead of most wins by a female driver in the NHRA with her 100th win. Do you know who previously held that record? Courtney’s sister. You may also know Courtney from her family’s reality show on A&E, “Driving Force.”
4. Marie-Claude Charmasson
This lesser-known female race car driver deserves more recognition. She was a rally driver from 1965 through 1974. She drove the Opel Kadett, Chevrolet Corvette, Opel Commodore, and Chevrolet Camaro. Then, from 1974 until 1976, she raced circuits.
Her racing career ended in the 1976 production car championship with a BMW 3.5 CSI. By the end of her racing years, she had two class wins to show from her time racing big block Chevys.
But that wasn’t the end of her career. She became a professional photographer for the 24 Hours of LeMans and the Grand Prix. Then, she was hired to work in external relations for Renault Sports from 1977 until 1982.
3. Shirley Muldowney
During the 1970s and 1980s, Shirley Muldowney stood out from all the male race car drivers on the planet. Her accolades speak for her competence.
In 1975, Shirley became the first woman member of the Auto Racing All-American team. Then, in 1976, she became the Drag News Top Fuel Driver of the Year.
During 1977, she won the NHRA Winston world points championship. It was the first time a woman claimed this title. She also earned the “Outstanding Achievement Award” given by the U.S. House of Representatives. That wasn’t all for that year, she also became the Car Craft Magazine Person of the Year and won three NHRA national events consecutively.
Then, in 1980, Shirley won the NHRA Winston world points championship for her second time. Not only did she win the 1981 AHRA world championship, but she was also voted to the Auto Racing All-American team for the fifth time in her career. On top of that, she was voted to the Car Craft Magazine All-Star Team as the Top Fuel Driver of the Year for the second time in a row. Finally, in 1982, she won the NHRA Winston Points Champions for the third time. She was the first person to accomplish this, making her one of the best female race car drivers.
2. Lyn St. James
This former female race car driver was born Evelyn Gene Cornwall, but she legally changed her name to match her racing persona. She was one of the most popular drivers in the IndyCar series. She had eleven CART plus five Indy Racing League starts in her career. In addition, she is one of nine women that have qualified for the Indianapolis 500. If that wasn’t enough, she also became the first woman with an Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award.
Other accomplishments she holds include:
- 2 victories from 24 Hours of Daytona
- A win from the 12 Hours of Sebring
- Competed in some Europe endurance races
- First and second place team finishes in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring
Aside from racing, she is also the founder of the Women in the Women’s Circle Foundation non-profit. Lyn also spends time as a motivational speaker plus she is an appeal panelist for NASCAR on the National Motorsports Appeals Panel.
1. Michele Mouton
Anyone that knows anything about female race car drivers would clearly list Michele Mouton as the best. She is a former rally driver and has competed in the World Rally Championship for the Audi team. In her career, she’s earned four victories plus finished as a runner-up in the drivers’ world championship of 1982.
She started as a co-driver, but it didn’t take long for her to graduate to the driver’s seat. In 1975, she won the two-liter prototype class during the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Then, she signed with Fiat France in 1977. Just a year later, she won the Tour de France Automobile and had consistent results during the WRC home events.
In 1981, Audi Sport signed her and she won the Rallye Sanremo that same year. During her 1982 racing year, she had victories in Brazil, Greece, and Portugal putting her in a close second to Walter Röhrl. Not only did she win the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in 1985, but she set the record fastest time.
Then, in 1986, she went with Peugeot and won the German Rally Championship. She was also the first female driver to win a major rally championship. Once the ban of Group B supercars occurred, she retired from rallying altogether.
That didn’t stop her from making a difference in the racing field. She went on to co-found the Race of Champions in honor of Henri Toivonen (her former rival). In 2010, she became the first president of the FIA’s Women & Motor Sport Commission. Then, just a year after that, she took on the role of FIA’s manager in the World Rally Championship.
Not the Best Female Race Car Drivers
It seems only fitting that we countdown the worst female race car drivers to show you the other end of the spectrum.
10. Paige Decker
As you see from the best female race car drivers we told you about above, there are plenty of women that earned their spot in motorsports, but that isn’t the case with all of them. In fact, the only reason most people even know about Paige Decker is because of her family who earned a lot of attention for racing snowmobiles.
That’s how she got her start racing, but racing snowmobiles is quite different than a race car. The reality is, most people probably wouldn’t know who she was if she was a man; her driving just isn’t that great.
9. Tatiana Calderon
Tatiana believes in determination, hard work, and discipline and we applaud her for her effort. She wants to succeed in this sport, and you can tell she gives it her all. While she has set some milestones for other women, we don’t think she competes against the top dogs.
To be good at this sport, you need to be more than just a good female driver; you need to be the best race car driver, period. As of now, Tatiana is a test driver for the Alfa Romeo Sauber Formula One team, so she still has a foot in the racing department.
8. Claire Decker
We are back to the Decker family again. Obviously, this is Paige’s sister and also part of the snowmobile family. Still, no one would really know who she was if it wasn’t for her family. We aren’t trying to hurt anyone’s feelings; we are just being honest with you.
Her best finish in the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series races was 126th. In her NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races, her best finish was 105th. Enough said.
7. Tina Gordon
Tina isn’t a terrible driver. In fact, she does have one top ten finish under her belt. She just wasn’t one of the best female race car drivers. In her lifetime, she’s been a NASCAR driver, spokesperson for Sticks N’ Stuff furniture chain, and also involved with rodeos plus barrel racing.
Nowadays, she spends her time owning Tina’s Dream Ranch. This therapeutic camp helps disabled adults and children.
6. Mara Reyes
This stock car driver has had some success and is an inspiration to young girls in Mexico. We’re impressed by her ability to race in her forties and we think it’s a great example of accomplishing dreams. With that said, she’s isn’t one of the best female race car drivers, and hasn’t earned any fame for her racing ability.
5. Chrissy Wallace
You probably know Chrissy because of her famous racing family. After all, her father is Mike Wallace, her uncles are Rusty and Kenny, plus she’s the cousin of Steve Wallace. With all this racing blood, you would think she would be good at it. In fact, we wonder if conversation around the family dinner table discusses why she can’t be as great as they were.
Don’t get us wrong; she’s done okay. But, when you compare her to her family, her work isn’t that impressive. If you want to be one of the best female race car drivers, you need to be able to hold your own, aside from who your family is or isn’t.
4. Mackena Bell
Mackena came from Nevada and began racing go-karts when she was just five. That’s impressive enough, but not a reason to be one of the best female race car drivers. She’s crashed a good amount in her professional career, with only a few finishes landing her in the top ten. Of course, she’s a better driver than most, but that’s not good enough. To make our list, you need to rank with the top racers.
3. Rahel Frey
Despite being Swiss and racing for many years, Rahel doesn’t earn a spot on the best female race car drivers list. She’s never truly accomplished anything on the track, which is sad. What she has done is bring attention to the ability of women to break through barriers, and that’s a plus.
2. Natacha Gachnang
If you want to make an impression about women’s role in motorsports, it might be best if you try to work with men and show you’re part of the team. During the 24 Hours of Le Mans, she drove on an all-female team. While we understand what was happening, we don’t think it’s the way to become the best female race car driver. If you want to compete with men, then do that by working on your driving, not just making a point.
1. Deborah Renshaw
We couldn’t possibly tell you about the worst female race car drivers without mentioning Renshaw. She’s probably best known for killing another driver. When Eric Martin’s car became disabled on the track, Deborah Renshaw came around a turn going 160 mph and plowed right into his driver’s side. Not only didn’t she see him, but there was no way for her to avoid him once she was aware.
This event created a lot of controversy in racing and earned her the top spot as the worst female race car drivers.
As you can see from our best female race car drivers list, there are plenty of women that have worked to achieve a spot among the best. They focused hard on earning their reputations and they deserve all the respect in the world. On the other hand, there have been plenty of women that weren’t good but merely got their spot because of family or just the fact that they were a girl. That’s not how to make a name for yourself in motorsports.
Can you think of anyone else that should have been on our best female race car drivers list? Let us know who we missed.
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