For many years after its inception, automotive racing was an entirely male-dominated sport. There was once a time when you couldn’t find any female professional drivers in the racing world. But it wasn’t long before that changed. Early on, women driving pioneers took the first steps, and now it’s not uncommon for the best female race car drivers to be competing alongside men in all motorsports arenas.
To commemorate the women who made this progress possible, we’ve highlighted a few of the best female race car drivers in the early history of women in automotive racing. These women paved the way for future female race car drivers to come. Though we could have included many more, these are a few of the women from the early history of automotive racing who stand out the most.
One of the original female racing driver pioneers was Hellé Nice. Born Mariette Hélène Delangle, Nice 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 those 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.
Though she never won a race, Nice is still one of the best female drivers ever to live and was one of the first women to race competitively against the top men drivers of her day. She competed hard and often finished ahead of 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 somersaulted 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 2-years until 1939 when the onset of World War II brought much of European motor racing at that time to an end.
Louise Smith, who was affectionately known as the “first lady of racing,” was one of the pioneers of early stock car racing. From Greenville, South Carolina, Smith had an unconventional start to racing when she attended a NASCAR stock car race in Daytona in 1947. She entered her family’s Ford coupe in the race, and despite a less than stellar outcome (she rolled the car), Smith was hooked.
From there, she went on to race Modifieds from thru 1956 and helped Bill France, Sr. promote early NASCAR races from Daytona to Canada. Though at the time she was a novelty as a female driver, she quickly became known for her fearless driving style which won her fans wherever she raced.
During her 11-year career, Smith won 38 Modified races at tracks all around the U.S. holding her own against her male competitors. Known for her aggressive driving style, Smith had some spectacular crashes during her career which often included broken bones and trips to the hospital. When she retired from racing in 1956, she had broken almost every bone in her body. In 1999, Smith had the honor of being the first woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Italian driver Maria Grazia “Lella” Lombardi was one of the first women to break into the world of Formula One, debuting on the F1 scene in 1974. During her career, she drove in 17 Formula One World Championship Grands Prix and finished her career with half a point.
She is the only female Formula One driver in history to have a top-six finish in a World Championship race, which she claimed at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix. Lombardi became the first woman, since Maria Teresa de Filippis in 1958, to successfully qualify for a Grand Prix. In 1974 Lombardi was the first female racing driver to qualify and compete at the Race of Champions in Brands Hatch. She finished 14th driving a Lola-Chevrolet.
Lombardi later had some success racing sports cars, in 1979 winning the 6 Hours of Pergusa and the 6 Hours of Vallelunga. She also competed four times at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with her top finish coming in 1976 when she finished 9th driving a Porsche Carrera. She also competed in NASCAR driving in the Firecracker 400 at the Daytona International Speedway in 1977. Lombardi retired from racing in 1988 though she remained active in the motorsport world through her own racing team, Lombardi Autosport.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Shirley Muldowney held her own against all the male race car drivers on the track. Her accolades speak for her skill as a driver and definitely earn her a spot among the best female race car drivers in early motorsports history.
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. She also became the Car Craft Magazine Person of the Year and won three consecutive NHRA national events.
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. In 2004, she was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Moss’s love affair with rally driving started in 1953. At the age of 18, she started driving in club rallies. In 1954, Moss bought a Triumph TR2 and dove headfirst into the sport. In 1955, she was invited to drive an MG TF on the RAC rally in Great Britain. Over the next couple of years, she competed in a variety of cars, including an Austin A90 on the 1956 Monte Carlo rally and a Minor 1000 on the grueling Liège-Sofia-Liège epic. In 1958, she took fourth place in the Liège rally marking the first time that a woman had finished in the top 10 at this endurance rally. She continued to race various makes and models until she retired in 1974.
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 her memoir.
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 are lengthy, but some of her top honors include wins at the 1956 Nassau Ladies Race 1, the 1957 Watkins Glen Grand Prix Ladies Race, the 1957 Nassau Ladies Races 1 and 2, the 1961 Sebring 12 Hours GT category, the Copa de Damas during the Grand Prix of Venezuela, and 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, quickly catching the automotive bug. In 1954, she uprooted to New York and started racing professionally. During this time, she worked at the New York Herald Tribune covering sports. 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 there. In 2001, McCluggage was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, the only journalist to ever receive this honor. She won numerous other automotive journalism awards and helped launch AutoWeek, where she remained until she died in 2015.
Marie-Claude Charmasson is a lesser-known female race car driver who we think deserves more recognition. She was a competitive 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.
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. A former rally driver, Mouton also competed in the World Rally Championship for Audi. In her career, she earned four victories plus finished as a runner-up in the drivers’ world championship of 1982.
Mouton 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. But that didn’t stop her from staying involved in motorsport. 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. Just a year after that, she took on the role of FIA’s manager in the World Rally Championship.
When it comes to breaking barriers and achieving historic firsts, Janet Guthrie was no stranger to either. In 1977, Guthrie became the first woman professional race car driver to qualify and compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. In 1978, she finished 9th at the Indianapolis 50 with a race team that she owned and managed. Until 2005, this was the highest finish by a woman in the Indy 500.
During her Indy-car career, she competed in 11 races finishing 5th in Milwaukee in 1979 and qualifying 4th at the 1979 Pocono 500 Triple Crown. In the NASCAR Winston Cup stock car racing, Guthrie claimed Top Rookie in the Daytona 500 and in four other Winston Cup races in 1977.
In addition to racing cars, Guthrie was a pilot and flight instructor and an aerospace engineer. A charter member of the Women’s Sports Foundation International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame, she was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006. In 2005, she authored Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle detailing her driving adventures.
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 wracked up eleven CART plus five Indy Racing League starts in her career. Also, she is one of nine women who have competed in the Indianapolis 500. She also became the first woman to win an Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award in 1992.
St. James also holds two victories from 24 Hours of Daytona, a win from the 12 Hours of Sebring, and first and second-place team finishes in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring. During her 20-year career, she held 31 international and national closed-circuit speed records, including an astonishing 225 mph record during qualifying for the 1995 Indy 500
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. In 2010, she was named on Automotive News’ “Top 100 Women in the Automotive Industry” list.
These Women Race Car Drivers Paved The Way For Future Generations
These ten women are just a few of the women in motorsports history who have demonstrated outstanding driving skills and a dedication to the sport. These women pioneers paved the way for future female race car drivers from rally to NASCAR to Le Mans showing that women could not only compete with the men but also take home top honors behind the wheel.