15 Incredible Women in Motorsport History
The United States recognizes every March as National Woman’s History Month – a celebration of the incredible women who have made a difference in the country. Additionally, today is International Women’s Day when women are recognized for their achievements, regardless of nationality.
We wanted to honor this special day and month by celebrating the legendary women drivers (and engineer) who have graced the world of motorsport – many of whom have started their careers by racing go-karts. What follows is by no means a complete list, but a mere selection from the long list of women who have made a difference in auto racing.
Perhaps the most popular woman driver in recent memory, Danica Patrick is the only female driver to win in IndyCar, and to take pole in NASCAR (at the Daytona 500, no less). She also has the most starts, laps led, and top-ten finishes of any woman in NASCAR Cup history. Though she’ll be leaving the cockpit for good after this year’s Indy 500, she’ll have inspired a whole generation of young women racers.
Nine Indy 500 starts (most of any woman). First and only female team owner in IndyCar Series history, and also the youngest team owner in IndyCar Series history. First female team owner to win an Indycar Series race. Youngest woman to compete at Indy 500 at age 19 in 2000. Yeah, you can say Sarah Fisher is a big deal.
In 2016, Christina Nielsen became the first woman to win a major professional sports car championship in North America by winning the GT Daytona Championship in the IMSA SportsCar Championship. She successfully defended her title in 2017 and won back-to-back championships with Scuderia Corsa Ferrari. This year, she is racing with Patrick Long for Wright Motorsports in a Porsche 911 GT3 R and was even immortalized by LEGO with 2018’s Ferrari 488 GT3 Scuderia Corsa set.
Simona de Silvestro became the first full-time female driver in Formula E, and the only female driver to score points in the next-gen series. She was also a full-time IndyCar driver for four seasons and tested in F1 – nearly making the Sauber F1 team as a championship driver in 2015. She currently competes full-time with Nissan in the highly-competitive Australian Supercars Championship.
Brittany, Courtney, and Ashley Force are the daughters of the most winning driver in NHRA history – John Force – and they appear to have the same winning DNA. Brittany Force became the second woman in history to win a Top Fuel Championship (after previously mentioned Muldowney) just last year, and also is the first woman to win the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals. Ashley Force Hood was NHRA’s Funny Car Rookie of the Year in 2007 and became the first woman to earn a win in Top Fuel and Funny Cars in 2008. Courtney Force-Rahal is the third woman to win in Funny Car history, and the only woman to qualify in first and win at the Winternationals.
Tatiana Calderon made racing news this month when Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 promoted her from development driver to test driver for the 2018 season. It’s yet to be seen if she’ll get one more promotion to put her in a race seat, but our fingers are crossed to see the return of a woman driver full-time in F1.
Okay, so Leena Gade isn’t a racing driver, but she is the first woman engineer to win overall victory at Le Mans – and that’s certainly reason enough to include her in our list. She can now be found as James Hinchcliffe’s engineer at Schmidt Petersen Racing for the 2018 IndyCar Series season.
Italian racer Maria Teresa de Filippis was the first female driver in Formula One history. She competed as a Maserati factory driver in F1 from ’58 to ’59 and participated in five championship F1 races with a best finish of 10th at the 1958 Belgian GP at Spa-Francorchamps. She also finished runner-up in an Italian sports car championship in 1954.
Sara Christian became the first woman driver in NASCAR history when she drove in NASCAR’s very first Strictly Stock (what is now the Cup Series) race on June 19, 1949 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. In a total of seven NASCAR races, Christian claimed two top-ten finishes.
Denise McCluggage fought for equality in motorsports and automotive journalism alike. Sporting her iconic polka-dot helmet, McCluggage won her class at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1961, driving a Ferrari 250 GT SWB. McCluggage also scored another class win at the Monte Carlo Rally in a Ford Falcon in 1964 with another remarkable woman – English rally driver, Anne Hall. McCluggage also helped launch Autoweek and won the Ken W. Purdy Award for excellence in automotive journalism, among other journalism awards.
Fifteen years after Maria Teresa de Filippis, another Italian became the only female racer to score F1 championship points with a sixth-place finish at the 1975 Spanish GP. Lella Lombardi is the only other woman besides de Filippis to qualify for a F1 race, and was the first woman to qualify and compete at the Race of Champions.
Hard to know where to start with a legendary driver such as Michèle Mouton. She competed with the factory Audi team in the World Rally Championship and finished second to Walter Röhrl in the driver’s championship in 1982. She has four WRC victories to her name. She’s also a class-winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and finished runner-up in the European Rally Championship with Fiat in 1977. She remains the last woman to compete in the pinnacle of rallying.
History was made in 1977 when Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify and compete in both the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500, earning Top Rookie honors in the latter. The year before, she made history as the first woman to compete in a NASCAR Cup superspeedway race. She was also the first woman to lead a lap in the NASCAR Cup Series. Unfortunately, due to gender, she was unable to secure corporate sponsorship and was forced to retire prematurely.
Shirley Muldowney became the first woman to receive a NHRA license to drive a Top Fuel dragster. Muldowney then won NHRA Top Fuel Championships in ’77, ’80, and ’82 – becoming the first person to win two and three Top Fuel titles. By the time she retired in 2003, the “First Lady of Drag Racing” had won a total of 18 NHRA events.
Lyn St James became the first woman to take Indy 500 Rookie of the Year honors in 1992 when she finished 11th, and competed in the legendary race seven times. Other notable accomplishments include two victories at the 24 Hours of Daytona, one win at 12 Hours of Sebring, and second in class at 24 Hours of the Nurburgring. A documentary on St. James is currently being produced by Adam Carolla’s Chassy Media – we cannot wait to get a look at it!
Again, this list is only a small glimpse at the phenomenal women that have contributed to motorsport history. Who are some of your favorites that we didn’t have time to mention? Comment below!