Hi, this is Brendan. While motorsport is one sport where men and women compete together, it’s often thought of as a “man’s sport.” As a fan of motorsports, I was glad to see Christy’s post (Part 1), which highlighted the fact that women can compete against, and even beat, the men. The four drivers she highlighted—Pat Moss, Michele Mouton, Danica Patrick, and Keiko Ihara—demonstrate that. Being the motorsport history geek that I am, I mentioned four other female motor racing legends in my comments. Christy encouraged me to talk about them in a post, so here we go!
1. Janet Guthrie
Janet Guthrie may be the most famous female racing driver ever in the United States.
In 1976, she became the first person to attempt to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, America’s premier open-wheel race. However, when she failed to qualify, critics attributed her failure to her being a woman. In response, A.J. Foyt, arguably the greatest American open-wheel racer of all time, gave Guthrie an opportunity to practice in his backup car, and she set a time that would’ve been fast enough to make the field.
Thankfully, Janet Guthrie was persistent. She became the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 the following year successfully. Then, in 1978, she became the first person to finish in the top ten at the Indianapolis 500. In 1979, she qualified for one more Indianapolis 500.
Guthrie also had success in stock car racing. Among her firsts for women was qualifying and racing in the Daytona 500. She also led a lap in the top level of NASCAR (the Winston Cup series, now called the Monster Energy Cup Series).
Unfortunately, sponsorship issues hampered Janet Guthrie’s career in the automotive industry and ultimately cut it short. It would’ve been interesting to see how she would’ve done with better funding because she had the speed and talent to keep up with the top drivers of her day.
2. Lella Lombardi
For all of the talented women in open-wheel racing, it may surprise some people that only two women ever qualified for a Formula One race. Lella Lombardi was one of these motor racing legends.
Even before she qualified for a Formula One race, Lella Lombardi had already accomplished a lot, by anyone’s standards. She won championships in Formula Italia and Formula Ford, and finished second in the Italian Formula Three Championship, before even starting a Formula One race.
In spite of all this, she will be most remembered for her accomplishments in Formula One. She was one of two women ever to start a Formula One race, and is the only woman to get a points-scoring finish at a Grand Prix race—she finished 6th at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix.
Her Formula One career ended the next year, but she would remain involved in motorsports. She raced in sports cars for years with some success, including in the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans; she became the first woman to compete in Formula One and Le Mans. Lella Lombardi formed a racing team of her own only a few years before cancer cut her life short.
3. Shirley Muldowney
When someone’s nickname includes the title “First Lady,” you know she’s a big deal. So I’d be remiss not to mention Shirley Muldowney as one of the female motor racing legends here.
Indeed, Muldowney is known as the First Lady of Drag Racing. It’s a fitting nickname given that she became the first woman to be licensed by the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), the flagship organization for drag racing in the United States—in spite of significant opposition to her receiving a license. All of this helps explain why she deserves to be on this list of female motor racing legends.
After she received her NHRA license, Shirley Muldowney won several major events with NHRA and the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA). That culminated with three NHRA Top Fuel division championships in 1977, 1980, and 1982. She also won an IHRA championship in her drag racing career.
In 1984, she had a major injury. However, the same persistence that allowed her to start in drag racing despite the odds also allowed her to continue racing after her injury.
Ultimately, Shirley Muldowney is not just one of the great female drag racers, but one of the all-time great drag racers, period.
4. Lyn St. James
Along with the Janet Guthrie above, Lyn St. James is known as one of the all-time great women open-wheel drivers. So she absolutely makes this list of women racing legends!
Lyn St. James made history in 1992 when she became the first female to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 on her first attempt, as well as the first woman to win the title Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year. She regularly competed in open-wheel races throughout the 1990s.
In spite of her open-wheel success, her greatest accomplishments were arguably in sports cars. She won in her category for multiple major sports car events, notably the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Daytona (twice). She’s most known for open-wheel racing, but racing fans shouldn’t forget that she’s one of the most successful female sports car drivers of all time.
Additional Words on Female Motor Racing Legends
Some people still question whether men and women have equal abilities in motorsport. However, now you have read about many female motor racing legends. So hopefully it’s clear without a doubt that yes women and men have equal motorsport abilities.
Are there other female motor racing legends that we didn’t mention? If so, feel free to comment below! As I said, I am a motorsport history geek so I always want to learn more.
About the Writer
Brendan Birth is a New Yorker who is pursuing a career in advocacy. While much of his advocacy is in ageism, he is also passionate about other forms of discrimination and injustice. In his spare time, he likes to serve his home church, track major snowstorms and hurricanes, closely follow multiple sports, and make lots of puns. Find him writing at Blind Injustice.