Women Auto Race

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.

SCCA [Sports Car Club of America] Indiana Regional Ladies Autocross

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.

A Short History of Powder Puff

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].

Powder Puff competitor

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.[1]  Small town newspapers, reporting results from the local racetrack, would call upon the term to qualify and single out women’s participation.[2] 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.[3] 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.’ [4] 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. [5] 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). 

Ileen Goodman – first female racing driver to be sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer
Lawrence photo

Women’s passion for racing came from a variety of sources. Some were exposed to cars through male family members.[6] 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.’

Vicki Wood – who went on to set a woman’s record for fastest lap as the first women to drive at race speed at Daytona International Speedway – got her start in Powder Puff.
New York Times photo

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.[7]


[1] 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.

[2] 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!’

[3] 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.’

[4] 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.

[5] 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.’ 

[6] 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.).

[7] 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.

References

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.

Lawrence, B. (n.d.) Women drivers in Kansas auto racing prior to 1960. Bob Lawrence’s Vintage Auto Racing Web RingAccessed July 5, 2020.

McCarthy, T. (2007) Fast women: the legendary ladies of racing. New York: Hyperion.

Standridge, J. (1988) ‘Childbirth is easier than losing a ride’, Open Wheel, 8(10), p. 77.

She’s a Rebelle

Rebelle Rally mother-daughter team @ rebellerally.com

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).

For more information check out RebelleRally.com

Bassett, Abigail. “The Rebelle Rally is the Real Deal.” autoweek.com 12 Nov 2020.

Segura, Eleonor Segura. “Rebelle Rally Founder Emily Miller is a Total Off-Road Warrior.” automobilemag.com 25 Nov 2019.