For many years, automotive racing was an entirely male-dominated sport. There was a time when you wouldn’t find any female professional drivers in the racing world. But it wasn’t long before some women driving pioneers took the first steps, and now, you can see the best female race car drivers competing alongside men in all motorsports arenas.
To commemorate the women who made this progress possible, we’ve compiled a list of the 10 best female race car drivers. Some of these women are from the early days of racing, while others are still competing. 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, you find that she was more than just an accomplished race car driver — she had many talents and was also an established journalist. Her racing career highlights 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.
- Took first place in a Ferrari 250 at 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.
Aside from racing, McCluggage’s career kept her busy at the San Francisco Chronicle. In the early 1950s, she made the acquaintance of Briggs Cunningham, the first American car builder who supplied vehicles for racing during Le Mans. With her first sports car, an MG-TC, she began dabbling in amateur racing, clearly catching the automotive bug.
In 1954, 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. And on the racing circuit, she quickly earned the respect of her male competitors, becoming known for her white helmet with pink polka dots.
Her racing career ended in the 1960s, but her passion for the automotive world didn’t stop. In 2001, McCluggage was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame and is the only journalist to ever receive this honor. She won numerous other automotive journalism awards and helped launch AutoWeek, where she remained until her death in 2015. With all these awards, it’s not hard to see why she starts off our list of the best female race car drivers.
9. Sabine Schmitz
This German female race car driver is perhaps best known for her recurring role on BBC’s Top Gear. She also drives for Porsche and BMW. You might also know her as the woman who drove the BMW “ring taxi” on the Nürburgring track.
Sabine and her older sisters grew up around the Schmitz family business, as her family owned both restaurants and hotels. Though all three of the sisters began driving race cars, Sabine is the only one who stuck with it and went on to victory. She’s won 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, not once but two times! If that’s not enough, in 2004 she also became a helicopter pilot. Today, Schmitz is one of the most recognizable female racing drivers in the world.
8. Hellé Nice
One of the original female racing driver pioneers was Hellé Nice. Her real name was Mariette Hélène Delangle, and she was more than just one of the best female race car drivers of her time. She also worked as a dancer and French model. She was introduced to motor racing through French driver Henry de Courcelles.
Before taking up automotive racing, Nice had been a dancer and an avid skier, but after she injured her knee in an accident, she had to move on from both of these passions. Luckily, she found driving. 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 the track 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 quickly became one of the most famous women in France.
Indeed, she never won a race, but she is still one of the best female drivers ever to live. She competed hard and often finished before many of her top male competitors. At times, she was the only woman on the Grand Prix circuit. From there, 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. 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 and survived. She continued racing for the next two years until in 1939 the onset of World War II brought much of European motor racing at that time to an end.
7. Pat Moss
When you talk about the best female rally drivers, you can’t overlook Pat Moss. A highly successful rally driver, she racked up three wins and seven podium finishes on the international rally stage. And she was crowned as the European Ladies’ Rally Champion five times.
You may also know her as Stirling Moss’s sister. Stirling was a big Formula One Grand Prix star in the 1950s. Also, she was married to Erik Carlsson, the Swedish rally driver.
In addition to all her racing achievements, she also wrote several books. The Story So Far, written in 1967, is a memoir. The other book she wrote, The Art and Technique of Driving, was written with her husband.
6. Jutta Kleinschmidt
This German competitor is best known for her success in off-road events. You may recognize her name from the Paris Dakar Rally. Originally, she studied at Isny Polytech and majored in physics. Then, she went on to work for BMW.
The first time she raced was in 1988 with a BMW motorcycle. She raced motorcycles briefly in 1988, 1992, and 1994 before switching to cars. In 1995, she began racing and even had a podium finish in 1997.
Then she won the Paris Dakar Rally in 2001, a feat that definitely earns her a spot on any list of the best female race car drivers. She was the only woman and the only German to win this prestigious rally. And what did she drive to win the race? A Mitsubishi.
5. Courtney Force-Rahal
Ask anyone who should rank at the top for female drag racers, and Courtney Force-Rahal is sure to come up. Force-Rahal retired from racing before the 2019 race season and currently holds the title of the winningest female Funny Car driver in NHRA history.
During her career, she drove the Advance Auto Parts Chevy Camaro SS Funny Car under John Force Racing. And racing runs in the family, as her father, John Force, and sister, Ashley Force Hood, are both outstanding drivers in their own right — John won the NHRA World Funny Car Racing Championship 16 times.
And don’t assume that Force-Rahal made our list just because her father is a legend. In 2009, she also won the Top Alcohol Dragster during the 22nd annual NHRA Northwest Nationals in Washington. 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. And who previously held that record? Her sister. You may also know Force-Rahal from her family’s reality show on A&E, “Driving Force.” The Force family is a drag racing dynasty, and a force to be reckoned with.
4. Marie-Claude Charmasson
Marie-Claude Charmasson is a lesser-known female race car driver who we think deserves more recognition. She was a rally driver from 1965 through 1974. During her rally career, she drove the Opel Kadett, Chevrolet Corvette, Opel Commodore, and Chevrolet Camaro. Then, from 1974 until 1976, she transitioned over to circuit racing.
Her racing career ended in the 1976 production car championship where she took her final lap driving a BMW 3.5 CSI. By the end of her racing years, she had two class wins from her time racing big-block Chevys.
But that wasn’t the end of her career in the motorsport world. She became a professional photographer for the 24 Hours of LeMans and the Grand Prix and was later was hired to work in external relations for Renault Sports from 1977 until 1982.
3. Shirley Muldowney
During the 1970s and 1980s, Shirley Muldowney held her own against all the male race car drivers on the planet. Her accolades speak for her skill as a driver and definitely earn her a spot among the best female race car drivers.
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.
In 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. And 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.
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 of all time.
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. During her career, 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. Also, she is one of nine women who have qualified for the Indianapolis 500. If that wasn’t enough, she also became the first woman to win an Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award.
Other accomplishments she holds include:
- Two victories from 24 Hours of Daytona
- A win from the 12 Hours of Sebring
- First and second-place team finishes in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring
Aside from racing, she is also the founder of the non-profit Women in the Women’s Circle Foundation. St. James also spends time as a motivational speaker and serves as an appeal panelist for NASCAR on the National Motorsports Appeals Panel.
1. Michele Mouton
Anyone who knows anything about race car drivers would list Michele Mouton as one of the best female race car drivers, if not 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 racked up 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 also set the record fastest time.
In 1986, she drove for Peugeot and won the German Rally Championship. She was also the first female driver to win a major rally championship. Once the Group B supercars ban 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.
As you can see from this list, there are plenty of women who have worked to achieve a top spot among the best drivers in history. They focused hard on earning their reputations, demonstrating outstanding driving skills, and paving the way for future female race car drivers in motorsports.