About three years ago I was asked to contribute a chapter to a book in progress titled: The History and Politics of Motor Racing: Lives in the Fast Lane. The instructions were simple and somewhat vague; I was to write something/anything about the history and politics of women in motorsport. As the request was quite broad, and my knowledge of the subject nonexistent, I decided to focus on one aspect of women’s experience in motor racing that had not yet been addressed. [As it turned out, not much has been written on women in motorsport in any capacity so the possibilities were, in fact, endless]. At the time, the W Series was just being introduced as a new opportunity for women in the very masculine world of motorsport. As an all-female venue, I thought it would be interesting to trace the chronology of women-only racing as an alternative and perhaps unique opportunity for women interested in getting behind the wheel of a race car.
Earlier this summer, the aforementioned volume in ebook form was released, with the print version to follow later this year. Within this collection I find myself in the company of nearly 40 world renown motorsport historians and scholars in a variety of disciplines from all over the globe. I am honored to have my work included in this impressive and ambitious volume. I thank Katherine Parkin PhD, who recommended me for the project, for providing me with the opportunity to delve into something new – in both discipline and subject matter – to add to my published scholarship on women and cars. And I thank the editors for their advice, encouragement, and constructive criticism along the way. Of course, appreciation also goes to the many daring women who engaged in women-only racing, determinedly challenging gender stereotypes and successfully negotiating their way into the hypermasculine world of motor racing.
Earlier this week I was fortunate to attend the second annual Women in Motorsports event co-hosted by the Automotive Hall of Fame and WIMNA [Women in Motorsports North America]. There was a large group in attendance composed of women and men in the industry, aspiring female racers, sponsor representatives, and folks like me who were curious to hear about the current state of women’s motorsports. The evening was divided into three segments: the first was a screening of a new documentary – Undaunted– that focuses on the career of racer Paula Murphy; the second was a panel composed of women involved in racing in some capacity, including the legendary Lyn St. James; the third included the producers of Undaunted in a question and answer session. The evening was capped by refreshments and the opportunity for those in attendance to network with fellow female motorsports enthusiasts.
Undaunted was produced by the same team that released Boundless – a documentary about racer Betty Skelton – in 2022. As Pam Miller, one of those involved in both films, explained, the goal in these documentary projects is to tell stories of women who had been erased from motorsports history. Paula Murphy’s story, for example, is a fascinating one. Referred to as the ‘Women’s Lib Pioneer’ in the LA Times, the ‘World’s Fastest Woman’ in the west coast motorsports world, and ‘Miss STP’ on the racing circuit, Murphy took every opportunity available to further her racing career. From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, Murphy made important connections which allowed her to drive a variety of cars in multiple motorsports events on all sorts of tracks and racing conditions. Interviewed for the project at 94 years of age, Murphy’s personal observations and eye-opening revelation brought the documentary to life.
The panel composed of automotive and motorsports industry women offered both insight and advice to those interested in a motorsports career. Lisa Boggs, who leads motorsport marketing and sponsorship activities for Firestone Racing, encouraged those with motorsports goals to ‘always raise your hand’ and do what others don’t want to do. Katie Henninger, a 15-year-old racing phenom, advised young racers to take as many opportunities as possible and to be patient in achieving goals. A common theme among the panelists was the importance of building networks as means to contacts, self-promotion, and opportunities as well as to be a good member of that network. Strategies to deal with the dominant male environment of motorsports at every level was also part of the discussion. It was noted that many men in motorsports have a fear of replacement; i.e. their spots will be taken over by women. As Beth Paretta, director of Grace Autosport, succinctly expressed, ‘I don’t want your seat at the table. I want a longer table.’ The female panelists also noted the importance of reclaiming the good ole boys network to women in motorsports; i.e. supporting and promoting each other rather than have a singular focus on oneself. Lyn St James, who developed WIMNA as a means to support opportunities for women in all aspects of motorsports, emphasized the importance of looking for individuals with mentorship mentality to help grow women’s involvement in the motorsports arena.
The Second Annual Women in Motorsports at the Automotive Hall of Fame event endeavored to highlight, celebrate, connect, and inspire the next generation of female motorsports participants. Based on the reaction from the enthusiastic audience, the project is off to a promising start.
After a winter in which I worked on other things, I restarted the women and autocross project. I had attended some local autocross events last fall, and was able to speak with and interview a few of the women in attendance. The event leaders were very helpful in explaining the basics to me as well as introducing me to some of the female autocrossers. The women I encountered ranged in age as well as experience. One of the older women I spoke with has 11 SCCA National Championships and was the number one female in 2014. Others were just beginning and looked up to the more senior participants for advice and inspiration. While these local events provided a good introduction to the autocross experience, I felt I needed more input from female autocrossers as well as additional observation at autocross events in order to better understand the sport of autocross, particularly as experienced by women.
After completing a number of projects over the winter and spring, I decided to make another attempt at contacting women about their autocross experiences. I was allowed to post a request for project participants on the SCCA Women on Track Facebook page, and was overwhelmed with responses. I am currently in the process of conducting and transcribing interviews with the goal of presenting preliminary findings at the Argetsinger Symposium on International Motor Racing History this November at Watkins Glen International. I also desired to attend autocross events in which there would be a larger number of female participants. That opportunity came on July 24 at the SCCA ProSolo championship series in Toledo, Ohio.
ProSolo differs from the local events I attended not only in the number of participants but also in the way the series is conducted. As noted on the event page, “The TireRack SCCA® ProSolo® Series is an adrenaline-pumping autocross format where solo isn’t solo. Drivers still run a course by themselves, but start off side-by-side drag racing style and attack mirror-image courses to see who gets back to their respective finish lines first.” Drivers get three sets of runs to put together the best run from each side. Class winners participate in the single-elimination rounds on the last day. There is a special Ladies Challenge for the top performing ladies class drivers. Most of the women that day competed in the Ladies classes, while others chose to participate in open.
I arrived Sunday morning in the middle of the ladies competition which was the first event of the day. The ladies runs were preceded by what has become a traditional ‘ladies’ dance.’ Pumping music on the grid before the event begins, dancing provides the opportunity for the women to relax, get loose, and have some fun before getting down to the serious business of competing. It is also a form of bonding, as it helps to make each participant feel like an important part of the group. While I wasn’t able to get close enough to watch the individual runs, I was able to see the women gathered in what is called the ‘impound’ after they finished. There was a lot of chatting, high-fiving, checking out each others’ cars, discussing results, and general camaraderie. I heard a lot of participants – women and men – offering support, with comments like ‘great job’ or ‘you’ll do better next time; it’s all about learning, right?’ There is a lot of waiting around at autocross events – only six minutes of driving over the entire weekend – so socialization is an important component of the experience. Competitors also take the downtime as an opportunity to work on their cars, commiserate with other autocrossers, have something to eat, take a nap, and develop strategies for the next run.
I was able to speak with a few of the competitors after their runs – which included those who made the final round as well as some who experienced car issues and were eliminated. There was a great sense of fellowship among the women in attendance – it is obvious they provide each other with mutual support, team spirit, and fraternity in an endeavor that is overwhelmingly male [at least 90% by my unofficial estimations].
All are required to work at autocross events, and as the women ran in the morning, the afternoon found them in various positions in the booth or on the track. After observing for a bit longer, I headed home, grateful I was able to attend the event and in the process, gain a little more insight into the world of women and autocross.
On June 1, 2022 I had the pleasure of attending the “Racing at the Automotive Hall of Fame: Barrier Breakers” event. In attendance was a sold out crowd of [mostly] women connected to motorsports or the automotive industry in some capacity. I was particularly impressed with how many young professionals were in the audience, which speaks well to the future of women in automotive in general and motorsports in particular.
After an introduction by AHF CEO Sarah Cook, the main event commenced. The event was divided into two sections; the first was a screening of the new documentary “Boundless: Betty Skelton,” which focuses on the remarkable career of an earlier pioneer of women’s motorsports. The viewing was followed by a panel discussion composed of three involved with the making of the film: Pam Miller – producer of FOX NASCAR Cup races, Cindy Sisson – CEO of GSEvents, and legendary racer and 2022 AHF Inductee Lyn St. James. Because of a COVID outbreak, the panel was unable to attend in person, but participated virtually. Carol Cain, well known to local residents as the host of “Michigan Matters,” moderated the panel from the AHF auditorium.
The second section was an overview of a new organization and website “Women in Motorsports NA,” described as “a community of professionals devoted to supporting opportunities for women across all disciplines of motorsports by creating an inclusive, resourceful environment to foster mentorship, advocacy, education, and growth, thereby ensuring the continued strength and successful future of our sport.” The panel included Beth Paretta – cofounder of WIMNA and CEO of Paretta Autosports, Taylor Ferns – a young up-and-coming race car driver and WSU law student, Laura Wontrop Klauser – Sports Car Racing Program Manager at General Motors, and cofounder of WIMNA Lyn St. James. Amanda Busick – host of the Women Shifting Gears podcast – served as moderator.
While I am not a motorsports enthusiast nor expert, the event was remarkable not only for the knowledge and enthusiasm on display from the participants, but by the general atmosphere of encouragement, support, and empowerment that filled the auditorium. Lyn St James is a marvel; she is whip smart, courageous, truthful, unpretentious, and inspirational. Her dedication to the future of women in motorsports is undeniable and infectious. Her fellow panel members each brought something new to the conversation so that one could not help but leave with a renewed sense of hope for women in the sport.
The two sessions were followed by an afterglow with food and drinks. I found myself at a table with a GM mechanical engineer/motorcycle racer, the CEO of IWMA [International Women’s Motorsports Association], and a producer of women’s flame retardant underwear. It was a fun follow up to a memorable afternoon. I left the AHF with a “Boundless” poster and a copy of Lyn St. James’s book An Incredible Journey.“Barrier Breakers” is an event I won’t soon forget.
I was recently asked to submit a chapter on women and motorsports to include in an upcoming collection of essays on motorsports history. As the subject is quite broad, I chose to focus on women-only racing. What follows is an excerpt from the upcoming ‘From Powder Puff to W Series: the Evolution of Women’s Only Racing’ from Life in the Fast Lane: Essays on the History and Politics of Motor Racing. This particular extract addresses the W Series, the most recent, prominent, and perhaps most promising women-only racing series.
In the early 2000s, the women’s racing series emerged as an alternative all-female racing concept, created to address the lack of women in the higher echelons of motorsport by providing more openings for more women to develop the skills and experience necessary to move on to the next level. While earlier attempts at the women’s racing series met with varying degrees of success, the most recent and most promising format is the W Series, which just completed its second successful season.
The W Series was introduced in October 2018 as “a unique ground-breaking free-to-enter single-seater motor racing series for women drivers only” (W Series). The all-female Formula 3 championship series was conceived to promote female drivers into Formula One. The W Series objective, notes organizer Catherine Bond Muir, is not only to provide top notch racing for spectators and viewers on a global scale, but also to “equip its drivers with the experience and expertise with which they may progress their careers.”
In its inaugural season, 18 drivers representing 13 countries – chosen from nearly 100 of the top female drivers across the globe – participated in six races at some of Europe’s premier Formula 1 racing venues. Prior to taking the wheel, the women were required to participate in rigorous training programs centered on driving techniques, simulator exposure, technical engineering approaches, fitness, and media, conducted by instructors with Formula 1 experience. Efforts were taken to address the inequalities that plague many of the world’s premier racing series. Drivers were not expected to attain sponsorships in order to participate nor to shoulder any of the financial responsibilities; rather, all expenses were covered by the series organization. The women competed in identical series-owned Tatuus T-318 Formula 3 cars rotated after each race to remove any hardware advantage from the competition. Not only was the series free to enter for all its drivers, but awarded significant prize money [total of $1,500,000 US] all the way through to 18th place in the final standings.
The 2019 series was a modest success; it experienced an increase in viewer interest and ratings after each race. By the end of the first season, the W Series was being broadcast in over 50 countries reaching up to 350 million households. The first W Series champion – Britain’s Jamie Chadwick – took home a $500,000 prize and was subsequently named as a development driver for the Williams Formula 1 Team. At the end of the season it was announced that in 2020, the top eight drivers in the championship would collect points toward an FIA Super License, an important entryway into Formula 1.
The COVID pandemic cancelled the 2020 W Series. However, it was announced that as part of a new partnership with Formula 1, the W Series would be on the support bill for eight Grands Prix in 2021. The partnership not only lends legitimacy to the all-female series, but further underscores the W Series’ role in the preparation and promotion of female racers into the upper tiers of motorsport.
The 2021 season came to a close in October, with Jamie Chadwick once again finishing at the top of a very impressive group of drivers. However, despite the growing success of the racing series, there remains a bit of controversy not over the W Series itself, but the role it plays – or not – in the development and promotion of female drivers. W Series entered the racing arena under a cloud of controversy with much to prove. Not everyone – the media, racing organizations, race promoters, and the women themselves – was convinced a woman-only series was a step forward for female racers. W Series opponents argued that since motorsports is one of the few competitions in which women can compete directly with men, female racers should take every opportunity to do so. As male accomplishment is the barometer by which success in any field is most often measured, choosing to compete against women may be considered a sign of weakness, cowardice, or ineptitude. Other objections focused on the prize money offered to female competitors, arguing that the considerable monetary awards could be better distributed. When the W Series was announced, veteran driver Pippa Mann asserted, “I strongly believe, in the firmest possible terms, that this money should be spent helping field those same racers in real cars, in real series, in non-segregated competition” (qtd in Hall).
The debate surrounding the W Series echoes that which has accompanied most configurations of female motorsport since Powder Puffs first entered the racing arena. For much of its existence, women’s racing has been constructed as a frivolous and inconsequential sideshow, a trivial endeavor, a catwalk of second-rate drivers in pink racing suits. Although women’s racing has come into its own in the twenty-first century, it cannot completely escape such long-standing and disparaging associations. It is not surprising, therefore, that many choose to dismiss all-female racing as way to distance themselves from these pervasive and sexist stereotypical representations. Secondly, throughout automotive history, women have been portrayed as inferior drivers. In the early auto age, writes automotive scholar Virginia Scharff, “critics of women drivers […] cited three presumed sources of women’s inferiority at the wheel: emotional instability, physical weakness, and intellectual deficiencies” (26). These assumed biological, gender-induced character deficits have carried over into motorsports, where women are considered less able to perform in a competitive field, or, as Pflugfelder writes, are thought of as “something less than a driver” (417). To be female in segregated racing such as the W Series, therefore, carries the stigma of inferior and ‘less than.’ To prove oneself as legitimate, some contend, it is imperative to compete against men. As Straus asserts, “I didn’t become a race car driver to be the ‘best woman out there’” (qtd in Gilboy).
W Series organizers and promotors have countered criticism by focusing on the increased possibilities such a series offers for female racers. W Series leaders argue this can be accomplished through the reduction of obstacles that hamper women throughout the tiered racing system, the elimination of individual financial responsibility, and the establishment of programs that encourage women’s motorsports involvement at a young age.
Throughout motorsports history, the lack of opportunities for women has greatly limited their participation. A series without men opens up significantly more racing possibilities for female racers. More women racing in high-profile, high-performance events will lead to the normalization of women’s motorsport participation. More women on the track will lead to increased media coverage and publicity, bringing the world of motorsports to new, younger, and female audiences. If women’s racing becomes normalized, young girls are more likely to develop an interest, and more parents may consider karting – the predominately male entryway into motorsports – for their racing-obsessed daughters.
In a recent interview, Chadwick addresses the criticism often directed at women’s racing in general and the W Series in particular. Her repeated success in the W Series has led the media to position Chadwick as a model of women in motorsports, a weight she does not take lightly. As she explained, ‘What [the W Series] does is give massive visibility and exposure to women in motorsport, giving us the opportunity to be racing at such a high level. […] Without W Series, there’s a handful of drivers that wouldn’t have that opportunity. […] And to be completely honest, I think I would have struggled to see my career progress […] without W Series because I think the season’s racing helps for sure” (Southwell).
W Series organizer Catherine Bond Muir notes, “Women in motorsport are something of a rarity today, but with W Series as a catalyst, we hope to transform the diversity of the sport—and perhaps even encourage more girls into professions they had not previously considered. That will mean as much to us as helping develop a female Formula 1 world champion” (qtd in Gilboy).
Gilboy, J. (2018a) ‘W Series: Everything to Know About the Women-Only Racing Championship’, The Drive. 13 Oct.
Hall, S. (2019) ‘3 reasons we should be paying attention to the W Series’, Autoweek, 3 Jul.
Pflugfelder, E. (2009) ‘Something less than a driver: toward an understanding of gendered bodies in motorsport’, Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 33(4) pp. 411-426.
Scharff, V. (1991). Taking the wheel: women and the coming of the motor age. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Southwell, H. (2021). ‘Jamie Chadwick Feels the Weight of Representing Women in Motorsport.’ The Drive, 23 Oct.
W Series (2020) ‘W Series: a game changer.’ 6, Feb.
Motorsports is an overwhelmingly male dominated activity. While verifiable statistics on participation of men vs women do not exist, it is estimated that less than 4% of motorsports participants – at all levels and throughout all types of motorsports events – are female. This can be attributed to a number of factors. Historically and culturally, young girls have been discouraged from developing an interest in motorsports or cars. Those who do so are often branded as odd, deviant, or unfeminine. Women who pursue racing as either an avocation or vocation often find themselves at a distinct disadvantage. Not only are they subject to discrimination and sexual harassment on and off the track, but as a group are generalized as being too timid, unskilled, inexperienced, and utterly unqualified to share the track with men. Although motorsports – as a competition where men and women are able to race against each other – is often heralded as the ‘great equalizer,’ this notion presumes men and women come up through the racing ranks with the same opportunities, support, and driving experiences. In the current professional climate, the road to racing success begins at an early age most often through karting. The gender ratio entering racing in junior categories is hugely skewed in one direction; estimates list the ratio as 98-to-2 in favor of men. Unless they come from a family of racing enthusiasts, young girls are much less likely than boys to take an interest in driving at the age of eight or so, when future motorsport champions start competing in carts. Without early motorsport opportunities, women who enter the racing arena do so severely behind in experience, training, and support compared to male peers.
However, in my recent research into the history of all-women racing in motorsports, I spoke with a number of women without extensive automotive or racing histories who discovered an entryway into motorsports that is safe, relatively inexpensive, accessible, challenging, and a whole lot of fun. Autocross – a timed competition in which drivers navigate a unique course defined by cones or pylons – has become increasingly popular with women of varying racing levels who want to experience the thrill of driving competitively without a significant financial investment. Unlike wheel to wheel racing, in which drivers compete directly with one another, autocross is a timed event in which the goal is to drive around the track and get the lowest time possible without hitting any cones or going off the track. The only requirements are a driver’s license, approved helmet, car [just about any type is acceptable], and the desire to test oneself in a race type setting.
The women I conversed with came to autocross from many directions and for a variety of reasons. Some had boyfriends who participated in the sport so decided autocross might be a good way to spend time together. Others heard about autocross from friends and were encouraged to give it a try. A few of the women were looking for a new pastime that was challenging, exciting, and out of the ordinary – autocross filled the bill. Although the road to autocross differed among female racers, the reasons for engaging and sticking with autocross were shared by many of them.
One of the draws of autocross is that other than an approved helmet, there is no additional equipment necessary. Consequently, it is less expensive than other types of racing. This is important if it is an activity you are testing – if you find it isn’t for you, the only expense you have incurred is the entry fee. Starting out, women often use their daily drivers; once hooked, they may modify their cars or upgrade to something faster and more nimble. There are a number of car categories in which to compete, so drivers are competing against individuals in similar vehicles. Women cited autocross as safer than other motorsports – since you are on the track alone, damage to the car [or yourself] is unlikely.
The challenge of autocross – engaging in an activity that is both familiar [driving] and unfamiliar [racing on a marked course] – was considered a benefit by many of the women who participate. Autocross provides the opportunity to drive fast while learning the skills of controlling a car at speed – it is educational and exhilarating at the same time. Women found that the skills they acquired through autocross – mental, physical, and automotive – carried over into other aspects of their driving and non-driving lives. The female racers also mentioned the ‘adrenaline high’ experienced while behind the wheel, and also noted how mastering the car and the course gave them renewed confidence in themselves and their abilities. Many felt empowered participating in an activity so strongly identified with masculinity and the male driver, and noted how their participation awarded them a fair amount of respect as drivers and individuals knowledgeable about cars. While some sexism exists within the autocross community, it is most often verbal rather than experiential – since women are alone on the course, they cannot be threatened or bullied by a male driver. Many autocross events have separate ladies classes, which provide a safe space for women to gain skills and confidence without the fear of male intimidation.
Autocross was also cited as a form of therapy – as an all-consuming activity requiring singular focus, it keeps one’s mind off of other issues. Participating in autocross burns off steam, diverts one’s attention, and builds confidence. Although racers participate individually, they are expected to help at the track in various capacities throughout the day – whether working on someone’s car, taking entries, or setting up the track. Thus the social aspect of autocross was important to many of the female participants, as it provided the opportunity to create new friendships and engage in community and support.
While autocross addresses the racing bug in a great number of women, others view it as a stepping stone to more advanced, complicated, and competitive activities. Many women go on to participate in rally cross, road racing, time trials, and SCCA Pro Racing. Yet as I discovered, no matter what the level of involvement or experience level, autocross has the ability to provide women with an important and empowering entryway into the male dominated world of motorsports.
For more information on autocross and other women’s racing programs, check out SCCA Women on Track.
I was recently asked to submit a chapter on women and motorsports to include in an upcoming collection of essays on motorsports history. As the subject is quite broad, I chose to focus on women-only racing. What follows is an excerpt from ‘From Powder Puff to W Series: the Evolution of Women’s Only Racing’ from Life in the Fast Lane: Essays on the History and Politics of Motor Racing [manuscript in press].
Over the past 70 years, ‘powder puff’ has served as an umbrella term to describe women-only competitions in sports – football the most notable example – traditionally associated with male athletes. In motorsports, the phrase most often refers to contests performed in a variety of venues and vehicles in which women compete separately from men. The use of powder puff to describe ladies-only auto races appears to have its origins in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Small town newspapers, reporting results from the local racetrack, would call upon the term to qualify and single out women’s participation.The special ladies races were created to address a number of concerns. Women who accompanied boyfriends or husbands to the track often had little to do once arriving but watch and wait. In the masculine world of motorsports, women served primarily as uniform washers, picnic lunch makers, and cheerleaders to their male companions. Or they might be assigned to [unpaid] duties as ticket takers, award presenters, or disc jockeys who changed music between races. Given that race officials often treated women as ‘less important than the cars in attendance,’ it is not surprising that female interest in the race experience soon began to wane (Cabatingan, 2013).
Race promotors – fearful women’s lack of enthusiasm would keep boyfriends and husbands from bringing cars to the track – saw an opportunity to keep the women occupied and in the process, increase the gate. Girlfriends and wives were encouraged to ‘borrow’ cars from male companions and race against each other as a special attraction. On most tracks, the races were often more spectacle than serious competition. Auto writer Standbridge (1988, p. 77) recalls, ‘the women also had to participate in a “Gong Show” type agenda. […] they might have to run so many laps, stop to eat a piece of watermelon, run up into the stands and kiss the man of their choice, then resume the race. Or stop after so many laps to wrestle with a greased pig.’ Powder Puff, notes Cabatingan (2013), ‘were the type of events in which women were treated as less significant and where the men would kindly lend their race cars to women for just a few laps around the track. Clearly, women competitors were not taken very seriously.’
Powder Puff events also served to appease male egos under a pretense of gender equality. While many women desired to test their skills by competing against male drivers, procedures in place often made it impossible to do so. Of women’s SCCA races, contest board representative Ignazio Lozana Jr (qtd in Hull, 1958, p. 104) explained, ‘very few of our women drivers have a car to drive during the men’s races, since they are usually being driven by a man in those events. Should we discontinue the ladies’ races, it would mean we would have at the most two or three women drivers in our program, whereas in the ladies’ races we have had as many as 25 starters.’ While the explanation suggests ladies races were implemented to increase female participation, retaining men’s interest and involvement in racing was no doubt a greater concern.
Powder Puff participants often had very little driving experience, but were encouraged to get behind the wheel to show support for a male companion’s motorsports hobby.  While some men were reluctant to hand over the keys to unschooled wives or girlfriends, most viewed women’s participation as a way to gain approval – if not rationalization – for their own racing addiction. To the majority of 1950s women, taking part in a racing event was a somewhat intimidating prospect. Thus some participated hesitantly, more interested in displaying support than winning trophies. At the Reading Fairgrounds, driver Nancy Delp was loaned a car from a male participant for the Powder Puff competition. As she reminisced, ‘I had to use a sofa cushion so I could see out the window and once the race began, it was easy to realize that racing looks easier from the grandstand. It was fun, but once and done’ (qtd. in Kline, n.d.).
While the majority of Powder Puff competitors were introduced to racing by husbands and boyfriends, a few came to the track with a fervent desire to become competitive and legitimate race drivers. Notes stock car aficionado Ladabouche (n.d.), ‘I can clearly recall the intense interest and pride with which the Catamount Stadium powder puff competitors armed themselves when they would enter one of that track’s somewhat regular female races.’ However, because most tracks prohibited women from racing against men, Powder Puff competitions became the primary way to develop confidence behind the wheel, gain track experience, hone racing skills and strategies, and ‘show the guys that they could do it, too’ (McCarthy, 2007, p. 210).
Women’s passion for racing came from a variety of sources. Some were exposed to cars through male family members. Women connected to men in the sport had a distinct advantage over those who did not, particularly when it came to acceptance within the motorsports community. Explains Kreitzer (2017, p. 210), ‘female racers relied heavily on male relatives who were already accepted as racing insiders to help jump start their racing careers.’ Others, while growing up with a love of cars, did not consider racing until the opportunity presented itself. Vicki Wood – after watching an all-woman’s race at the Motor City Speedway – was convinced she could drive better; she subsequently entered a race on her husband’s dare. Auto journalist Denise McCluggage, writes Roberts (2015), ‘persuaded her editors that she could better report on auto racing from behind the wheel than in the press box.’ Yet due to track restrictions, McCluggage began her racing career in Powder Puff derbies, which, as she remarked, ‘seemed to me rather like mud wrestling, staged as a spectacle for men to chuckle over rather than serious competition. But it was a chance to drive, so I put up with the hair-pull aspects’ (qtd in McCarthy, 2007, p. 147). In the minds of many female racers, ladies races provided the opportunity to ‘earn the respect of the men so they could eventually drive in any race’ (McCarthy, 2007, p. 210).
Powder Puff women had to navigate significant obstacles. Although racing during this period was an amateur sport, it could be expensive. The price of entry fees, sponsorships, equipment, maintenance, and upkeep could add up quickly. Women rarely had cars or equipment of their own, so had to beg or borrow cars, helmets, and any necessary racing gear from husbands, brothers, or complete strangers. Auto maintenance was an issue, as husbands or significant others wouldn’t always be available or willing to help with car repairs or upkeep. Although Powder Puff events varied from state to state, and track to track, they were all regulated by men, who, as Forsyth (2016, p. 174) asserts, kept a tight hold on races and ‘steadfastly refused to let the women have more time or more races.’
Yet despite the barriers women encountered, racing often had a positive and powerful effect on their lives. Interviews conducted by Hull (1958) with fellow SCCA members suggest that women raced not only to support male companions, but also to expand social networks, gain confidence, and escape from everyday lives. Powder Puff provided women with the opportunity to develop advanced driving skills, make important contacts, gain a little notoriety, and prove themselves as serious racers. Many female racers of this era who went on to achieve a number of ‘firsts’ in women’s motorsports – Louise Smith, Vicki Wood, Denise McCluggage, Josie von Newmann, and Sara Christian – began racing careers in Powder Puff.
Other than premier events such as the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR championship, American postwar racing was primarily an amateur pastime. Races were run for trophies; cash prizes were banned, as were donations from sponsors, car makers, owners, or local businesses. It was up to each driver to finance his or her racing habit. While the conditions under which men and women raced were not the same – women received less track time and had fewer and shorter races than male counterparts – all racers were held to the same restrictions in terms of sponsorships and financial remuneration.
As the decade concluded, top drivers from the sports car circuit were being lured by the considerable cash prizes of Formula 1 and international competition. US racing organizations fought back by creating racing events with comparable financial awards. Smaller venues – losing top drivers and paying crowds – sought sponsors in order to stay in business. While the move toward the commercialization of motorsports affected all amateur racers regardless of gender, it was ultimately responsible for the decline of all-female racing. Powder Puff events – and the women who participated in them – were not regarded as legitimate and as such, were unable to attract commercial support. Without amateur ladies races, women lost an important platform from which to gain experience and exposure.
 In 1882, Ellene Alice Bailey was granted a patent for the powder puff, a soft, cosmetic pad used to apply powder to the skin from which the women’s race drew its name.
 In his collection of stock racing memorabilia from the 1950s, Easton (2014, p. 27) includes a ticket admission stub from the Big Flats Airport Speedway in which ‘Ladies Powder-Puff Race’ is listed as a special event alongside the ‘rollover of a stock automobile off a ramp!’
 Women’s race result documents from pre-1960 auto racing in Kansas from collector Bob Lawrence (n.d.) make note of vehicles shared by husbands and wives. As an example, ‘Harriett M. (Knauf) Lewis of Dighton, Kansas placed in fifth place in a Powder Puff Derby at McCarty Speedway in Dodge City on June 2, 1956 driving car #97 normally driven by her husband, Lyle E. Lewis.’ Powder Puff racing could also lead to romance, as indicated in this notice: ‘Betty Ann (Gibson) Trahern of Sublette, Kansas drove in a Powder Puff Derby run at McCarty Speedway in Dodge City, Kansas on June 2, 1956. She also finished fourth of eight cars that competed in a 10-lap Powder Puff Derby at the Grant County Fairgrounds at Ulysses, Kansas on August 8, 1958. In both of these races, she was driving a #80 jalopy normally driven Stanley Trahern whom she married between those two race dates.’
The Gong Show was an amateur talent contest which aired for 13 years on American television. Three celebrities auditioned a series of acts – many of them outrageous – and unceremoniously dismissed the ‘losers’ by striking a large gong.
 SCCA racer Mull (1958, p. 11) writes, ‘there is no use denying the fact that most women who go in for racing do so because their husbands or someone they are fond of is interested in the sport and, rather than have another woman snap up their men or be a sports-car widow, they go along.’
 As an example, Ileen Merle Dessie (Forrest) Goodman, grew up in a family – 3 brothers and an uncle – of prominent auto racers. She started competing in Powder Puff races in 1949 at Cejay Stadium in Wichita, Kansas, becoming the woman’s champion that year. (Lawrence, n.d.).
 While Powder Puff events are still held today, the majority are fundraisers for charities such as Races Toward a Cure [breast cancer] and the American Cancer Society.
Cabatingan, M. (2013, April 23). Race to equality: history of women in racing. Sports Car Digest. Accessed September 9, 2020 .
Easton, F. (2014) Stock car racing in the ‘50s: pictures and memories from Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania. Kiernen, J. (ed.) Ford Easton.
Forsyth, D. (2016) Denver’s Lakeside Amusement Park: from the white city beautiful to a century of fun. Boulder: University Press of Chicago.
Hull, E. (1958) Women in Sports Car Competition. New York: Sports Car Press.
Kline, B. (n.d.) Mountain folklore: Remembering the Powder Puff races at Reading Fairgrounds. Reading Eagle Accessed June 4, 2020.
Kreitzer, A. (2017) Masculinity, whiteness, and technological play in dirt track automobile racing, 1924-1960, Dissertation, University of Delaware.
Ladabouche, B. (n.d.) Powder Puff races were a sign of past times in local car racing. Bill’s Back in Time. Accessed June 4, 2020.
One of my current research projects came to me as a request to examine the history and politics of women in motorsports. Because this is a rather broad and unwieldy topic, I decided to focus specifically on women-only racing, from its early introduction as a media stunt to its current incarnation as a proving ground for serious female open wheel racers. I am looking at how and why these women-only events and/or ladies categories were formed; who participates in these activities; what kind of competitions does the women-only category encompass; as well as the reception such races have received from drivers and the racing community. As I knew very little about motorsports in general and women-only racing in particular when embarking on this project, it has been interesting to learn about the various events and how they have attracted a female following.
One of the annual all-female events that came to my attention is the Rebelle Rally, now in its fifth year. It is the longest competitive off-road rally in the United States, and entries are limited to women. Rather than a race for speed, Rebelle Rally is a test of driving precision and navigation skills, “a unique and demanding precision event based the elements of time, distance, headings, and hidden checkpoints using maps, compass, and roadbook” (Segura). It is a combination of geocaching and off-roading that covers more than 1200 miles in the California and Nevada deserts over eight days; cell phones, GPS tracking devices, and outside assistance are prohibited. The goal is to complete the rally with the most points; checkpoints range in difficulty based on location, how large the geofenced area is, and how difficult it is to get close to it (Bassett). The rally has grown each year with many repeat competitors; the 2020 Rebelle Rally included 36 two-women driver-navigator teams as well as a large support staff.
What I found most interesting about the Rebelle Rally is the way in which it is unabashedly women centered. In an interview for Automobile, founder Emily Miller frames the rally as an empowering event for women. As she explains, “Rebelle Rally is important because it gives women a platform to showcase their driving skills. [My hope is that] through doing the Rebelle, women will become more competent, skilled, and have the confidence to use their voice” (Segura). While certainly the objective of any competition is to win, the Rebelle Rally offers more to its female competitors. The event’s Facebook page promotes it as a source of female competence, confidence, and community. Rebelle Rally is extremely challenging; as such, notes the founder, it provides the means for women to acquire a belief in themselves. While all racing events have the potential to hone and develop driving skills and build confidence behind the wheel, there is something about all-female events such as Rebelle Rally especially beneficial to women.
Motorsports is one of the few competitive venues in which men and women are allowed to compete on a level playing field. Yet the participation of women in mixed-racing events remains remarkably low. Certainly the costs and lack of sponsorship deters women from racing at a high level. And although detractors label women-only racing as demeaning, patronizing, and unnecessary, there are qualities that appeal to a large number of female auto enthusiasts. Perhaps it is because of the camaraderie and community that forms when women tackle a challenge together. Perhaps it is because all-female events allow women to develop skills, knowledge, and confidence without the criticism, intimidation, and yes, sexism, of male competitors. Rebelle Rally provides a way for women to succeed – not only on the road, the course, and on the track – but also in many other aspects of their lives. As founder Miller exclaims, “When these women finish this rally they’ll walk away knowing they can go anywhere” (Bassett).