Danica Patrick will make her Sprint Cup debut this Sunday at Daytona. Patrick will be driving for Tommy Baldwin Racing, which has a guaranteed spot in the Daytona 500 through owner’s points.
By any measures, Patrick is the most successful female driver in history.
- She is the only woman to win a race, the 2008 Indy Japan 300, in a top-tier American racing circuit.
- She is the only woman to have led a lap of the Indy 500, and she twice finished in the top 5 in Indianapolis.
- Last March, Patrick placed fourth in the Sam’s Town 300 Nationwide Race in Las Vegas, the best ever finish for a woman in one of NASCAR’s top series.
After seven seasons in the Indy Racing League (IRL), Patrick is moving to NASCAR full-time. She’ll race a full schedule in the Nationwide Cup Series and a limited schedule in the Sprint Cup Series. She will be the first woman to race in NASCAR’s top circuit since Shawna Robinson drove in seven Winston Cup Races in 2002.
Over the past several decades women drivers have demonstrated over and over again that auto racing is truly a coed sport.
Recent History of Women in Auto Racing
In 1977 Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the Daytona 500 and the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.
She was the Top Rookie at Daytona, and she finished ninth in Indianapolis in 1978. Guthrie drove in 33 Winston Cup races, finishing as high as sixth, and 11 IndyCar/USAC/CART races, finishing as high as fifth.
Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher
Lyn St. James, at the age of 45, was the Rookie of the Year at the 1992 Indianapolis 500. At the Brickyard in 2000 St. James raced alongside Sarah Fisher. It was the first time two women had qualified for the Indy 500.
Fisher finished second in the 2001 IRL race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The following year she became the first woman to qualify in the pole position for a major American open-wheel race. Fisher, whose nine starts at Indianapolis are the most for any woman, also has the distinction of being the youngest car owner in IndyCar racing.
In 2010 and 2011 a record four women qualified for the Indianapolis 500. (Keep an eye on Simona de Silvestro. She could be a star.)
But the history of women in racing goes back much further than Sarah Fisher and Lyn St. James and Janet Guthrie to the very beginnings of NASCAR.
The First Women of NASCAR
Stock car racing was a product of prohibition.
Moonshine runners in the 1920s modified their cars so that they would be fast enough to escape the authorities. By the time prohibition ended in 1933, the bootleggers had taken to racing one another and organizing events. In 1948 Bill France, Sr. founded NASCAR to govern and regulate stock car racing in the United States.
Ethel Flock Mobley and Sara Christian
Like many early NASCAR drivers, Ethel Flock Mobley and Sara Christian were born into families of bootleggers.
Mobley was the youngest of four children, all of whom are regarded as NASCAR pioneers. (Her brother Tim Flock won 40 races and two cups; Fonty Flock won 19 races; Bob Flock won 4 races and was a successful race promoter.) Mobley drove in more than one hundred races during stock-car racing’s prehistory.
Sara Christian had the fortune of being married to car owner Frank Christian, and she drove one of her husband’s cars in NASCAR’s inaugural race on June 19, 1949 at Charlotte Speedway. During her career Christian drove in seven Cup Series races, twice finishing in the top ten. Her fifth-place finish in Pittsburgh in 1949 was the best finish for a woman in a major NASCAR race before Patrick finished fourth last year in Las Vegas.
While Guthrie was the first woman to compete in the Daytona 500, the field at the first NASCAR Cup Series race in Daytona featured three women: Mobley, Christian, and Louise Smith.
All four Flock siblings were in the race, as was Sara’s husband Frank Christian. That race on the beach was the only NASCAR event to feature four siblings and the only event to feature a husband and wife. Mobley finished eleventh in that race, ahead of her brothers Bob and Fonty and several stock car legends.
Mobley competed in only two NASCAR races and Christian drove in her last race in 1950. Louise Smith ran in 11 Cup Series races between 1949 and 1952. She continued racing until 1956 and won 38 races in lower circuits.
Smith had a reputation for racing anything with wheels and driving even after she’d seen the checkered flag. A promoter booked her for a race as the Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina because he heard that she’d “outrun every highway patrol and lawman in Greenville.”
Her tenacity and success on the track earned her the nickname “The First Lady of Racing.”
While Danica Patrick and other women drivers continue breaking ground and making history in auto racing; and while they inspire a new generation of girls to take up the sport (if those girls aren’t turned off by the GoDaddy.com commercials); we would do well to remember that there is nothing new or novel about women on the track.
In NASCAR they’ve been there since the beginning.