News & Media

Aumann: Patrick follows in the footsteps of pioneers

August 26, 2011, Mark Aumann,

Christian, Mobley, Smith, Guthrie paved way for Patrick's career move

When Danica Patrick makes her Cup Series debut sometime in 2012, she'll become the 16th woman to race at NASCAR's highest level. But despite her name recognition and charisma, Patrick may be challenged to match the guts, grit and determination of early NASCAR pioneers like Sara Christian, Ethel Mobley, Louise Smith and Janet Guthrie.

For Christian, it was for better or worse. For Mobley, it was all in the family. For Smith, it was her rebellious nature. And for Guthrie, it was getting an equal chance.

The history of women in stock car racing goes back to the days before the formation of NASCAR. Two of the best-known tales involve Smith, who was taught to drive at an early age by her father and was known for outracing police cars in her hometown of Greenville, S.C.

Having heard of her need for speed -- and knowing having a female driver might sell a few tickets -- Bill France allowed Smith to make her racing debut at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in 1946.

"They told me if I saw a red flag to stop," Smith said in an interview sometime before her death in 2006. "They didn't say anything about the checkered flag. I wondered where all the cars were and then as I was all alone on the track, I noticed them all in the pits. They finally threw the red flag and I pulled in. I had finished third."

One year later, Smith borrowed her husband's new Ford Coupe under the guise of taking it to Florida for a vacation. In reality, she had entered France's race at the Daytona Beach and Road Course. Unfortunately, she wound up totaling the car in a rollover crash.

She returned to Greenville by bus and when her husband asked why, she told him the car had broken down in Augusta, Ga. He then produced a copy of the local newspaper with a photo of the crash and a headline "Louise Smith Wrecks At Daytona."

Even though her best finish in 11 Cup starts was 16th, Smith was ultimately successful behind the wheel, winning 38 times, including 28 in the modified division. She retired in 1956 but stayed in the sport as a car owner, and was the first woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1999.

Racing was in Mobley's blood, quite literally. Sister to the three racing Flock brothers -- Tim Flock once joked that Ethel was named for the gasoline their father used in his cars -- Mobley was married to Charlie Mobley, who owned Tim's modified.

In addition to two Strictly Stock starts in 1949, Ethel competed in more than 100 modified races before deciding to hang up her helmet for good.

But it was Christian who became the first woman to race in NASCAR's premier series when she competed in the first Strictly Stock race at Charlotte Speedway in 1949. Driving husband Frank's 1947 Ford, she qualified 13th and was in contention when she was called into the pits for a relief driver. Bob Flock, whose car had engine troubles early in the race, replaced her and finished 14th.

Christian was not only joined by two other women at the Daytona beach course three weeks later, but her husband also drove in the race, making it the only Cup race to date featuring a married couple. (Elton Sawyer and Patty Moise matched the feat several times later in what's now known as the Nationwide Series.)

Smith came down from South Carolina with a '47 Ford and finished 20th, while Mobley wound up 11th in her '48 Cadillac, beating siblings Fonty and Bob. All three were again entered at Langhorne, which made the last time a trio of women raced together in Cup until Guthrie, Lella Lombardi and Christine Beckers did it in the 1977 Firecracker 400 at Daytona.

Christian finished sixth at Langhorne and then fifth at Heidelberg Raceway near Pittsburgh, which remains the lone top-five finish by a woman at the Cup level. Patrick eclipsed that mark, at least at the Nationwide level, when she finished fourth at Las Vegas earlier this season.

Christian raced one more time in 1950, then retired. Three other women -- all named Ann -- made starts that same year. New York natives Ann Chester and Ann Bunselmeyer raced in separate races at the Vernon Fairgrounds. And Ann Slaasted of Racine, Wis., finished 22nd at the Dayton half-mile.

In 1954, Eddie Pagan's wife, Marian, made her lone Cup start at Oakland Speedway, finishing 18th in a Plymouth. One year later, FiFi Scott drove her Hudson in a pair of races in Arizona. She finished 23rd at Phoenix and 13th at Tucson. And at what was known as the Moyock Dog Track in extreme northeastern North Carolina, Goldie Parsons drove one of Buck Baker's Oldsmobiles to a 14th-place finish in the 1965 Tidewater 300.

Janet Guthrie

Career Cup stats
Laps Led5
Avg. Start19.9
Avg. Finish19.3
Best FinishSixth (Bristol - '77)

The prevailing thought at the time was that female drivers neither had the stamina nor the strength to wheel heavy stock cars around the track for 500 miles. But in 1976, Guthrie was bound and determined to prove them wrong.

An aerospace engineer who caught the racing bug as an amateur, Guthrie's original plan was to become the first woman to make the field for the 1976 Indianapolis 500. But the car entered for her wasn't fast enough to qualify.

Watching with interest, Charlotte Motor Speedway marketing whiz Humpy Wheeler got a brilliant idea: Why not invite Guthrie to race in the World 600?

Charlotte-area bank vice president Lynda Ferreri, who to that point had never seen a race in person, somehow secured a car, engine and entry fee, and within 48 hours, Guthrie was on her way to Charlotte in a chartered plane owned by track president Bruton Smith.

Questions were immediately raised as whether Guthrie's entry was legit or just a marketing ploy, but Ferreri made it clear that she was spending her own money, more than $27,000, to fund the operation.

"About a week ago, when Janet was still trying to qualify at the Indianapolis 500, a friend of mine said, 'She's a hoax,' " Ferreri said. "Well, I didn't like that and I got on the phone to see what I'd have to do to put her in the [World 600]. The speedway is not behind it. I am personally responsible for it. I bought the car."

Five days before the race, Guthrie filled out the paperwork for a NASCAR license, took a few laps with Cale Yarborough, then climbed behind the wheel and turned a best lap of almost 144 mph. Guthrie made the race, qualifying 27th at 152.797 mph -- just slightly slower than Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott.

"When she made the field, we sold more tickets the next day then we'd ever sold," Wheeler said.

On race day, Guthrie admitted her main goal was to be running at the finish. And despite being 21 laps down to eventual winner David Pearson, she crossed the finish line in 15th place. She climbed from the car, happy but far from exhausted, in her opinion. And she admitted she drove a very conservative race in an effort to stay out of the way.

"At three hours, I knew I could go all the way," Guthrie said. "I was careful to watch the mirrors. I don't think I caused anybody any trouble. I was perhaps a bit more conservative than I would have been if I was a male rookie."

But Yarborough was less than complimentary.

"She should have quit after halfway," Yarborough said. "She was trying to prove a point, there's no doubt about it. Now she ought to go home. She'll never be competitive."

But Yarborough would eventually be proven wrong. Guthrie did stick around for five seasons. During that time, she made 33 starts and scored five top-10 finishes, including a sixth at Bristol in 1977. She ran 19 races that season and finished 23rd in the standings.

Since then, only three other women -- Robin McCall (1982), Moise (1987-89) and Shawna Robinson (2001-02) -- have started at least one Cup race, and none finished inside the top 20.

Sixteen women have also appeared in Nationwide and Truck Series races as well. Moise made 133 Nationwide starts between 1986 and 1998, while Kelly Sutton leads all female truck drivers with 54 starts in five seasons.