10 Female Racing Pioneers and Icons You Have Probably Never Heard Of


1. Helene (de Rothschild) van Zuylen

Ms. Van Zuylen is a name that many people  probably find unfamiliar. It is a shame because this adventurous French socialite is credited as being the first woman to compete in an international motor race.


Helene’s husband, Baron Etienne van Zuylen, was the president of the Automobile Club of France, and thus responsible for organizing the 1898 Paris-Amsterdam-Paris Trail, a 889-mile city-to-city race.  Helene participated (and finished) The Trail, becoming the first woman to ever compete in an international race.

2. Maria Teresa de Filippis

Ms. de Filippis was the first female to race in Formula 1.  Born in Italy in the late 1920s, de Filippis entered her first race at the age of 22.  She won. Before she entered Formula 1, she participated in several endurance/sports car races and hill climbs.  De Filippis began her F1 career with Maserati in 1958, later transferring to the Behra-Porsche RSK team.  Although she did not have any wins or take home any points, de Filippis was a history-making pioneer for women.  Fifteen years would pass before another woman, Lella Lombardi, would race in Formula 1.


3. Eliška Junková (also known as Elizabeth Junek)

Ms. Junek was born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1900.  She was fond of two things: travel and speed.  Her husband, Vincenc Junek, was also an avid thrill seeker and together they started purchasing cars (mostly Bugattis) and racing as a husband-wife team.  In the beginning, Junek acted as the ride-along mechanic for her husband.  However, after an accident that disallowed Vincenc to properly shift the car, Junek was given the chance to drive.  She never looked back.


Junek raced against several greats of the day: Ernesto Maserati, Rene Dreyfus, and Tazio Nuvolari.  Some of her accomplishments included being runner up in at the Klausenpass hill climb in Switzerland in 1926 and coming in fifth at the 1928 Targa Florio. By winning the two-liter sports car class at the Nurburgring, she became the first woman to ever win a grand prix race.  She has been hailed as one of the greatest female Grand Prix drivers of all time.


4. Lella Lombardi

Ms. Lombardi set a lot of “firsts” for women.  She was the first (and so far the only) woman to secure a top six finish in Formula 1 (1975 Spanish Grand Prix). Lombardi was also the first woman to win Formula 1 championship points and a FIA World Championship event (1979 Enna 6 Hours).


5. Denise McCluggage

Not only was Ms. McCluggage an advocate for female participation in predominantly male careers and sports—but she herself was a pioneer in these areas.

McCluggage was part of the early American wave who came to Europe to race sports cars.  She proved to be an accomplished and adaptable racecar driver, driving everything from Fords to Porsches to Maseratis.  She was also a respected sports journalist—a rare female in a field ruled by testosterone.

McCluggage started racing in a MG TC in the 1950s, later trading up for a Jaguar XK140.  She won the grand touring category at Sebring in 1961, racing a Ferrari 250 GT.  This victory was followed by a class win in a Ford Falcon at the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally.  She retired from racing in the 1960s, but still stayed engaged in her favorite hobby.  Combining her journalistic and automotive interests, she became the “founding editor” of the respected American magazine AutoWeek.



6. Janet Guthrie

Ms. Guthrie is one smart cookie.  The NASCAR and INDY car pioneer worked as an aerospace engineer but quit her job in 1972 to race full time.  She started racing on the SCCA circuit in a Jaguar XK120 but later moved to IndyCar and NASCAR.  She was the first woman to qualify and compete in both the Indy 500 and Daytona 500.  Her participation and finish at the 1976 Charlotte World 600 also made her the first woman to race in a NASCAR Winston Cup superspeedway race.

She was inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1980 and International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006.


7. Shirley Muldowney

Ms. Muldowney has been paving the way for female drag racers since her first debut on the dragstrip in 1958.  She was the first woman to be granted a license by the National Hot Rod Association as well as the first woman to drive a Top Fuel dragster, the fastest sanctioned category of drag racers.  By winning the Winston World points Championship in 1977, 1980, and 1982, Muldowney became the first person ever to win two, and then three, Top Fuel championship titles.  She was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1990 and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2004.


8. Lyn St. James

Like Janet Guthrie, Ms. St. James also belongs to the elite group of seven women to have qualified for the Indy 500. Although she didn’t take home the win at Indy in 1992, she was awarded the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year award—the first woman to ever receive the honor.


In addition to Indy cars, St. James was also an avid sports car endurance racer.  She was the winning GTO Team Driver at the 24 Hours of Daytona in both 1987 and 1990 and at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1990.


9. Michele Mouton

Ms. Mouton is a French top-level rally driver and the most recent woman (so far) to reach such a level in rally driving.

Mouton started out with the intention of becoming a lawyer—but drastically changed course (pun intended) after helping a friend prep for a rally race in 1972.  In her first year of racing, she won the French GT Class Championship and French Ladies Championship.  In 1975, Mouton and her female team took home the win in the two-liter class during the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  During the Pikes Peak Hill Climb of 1985, she set a time record as well as securing the win.  In 2010, Mouton became the first president of the FIA’s Women and Motor Sport Commission, a group created to attract and support women in motor sport.  Mouton still holds the post today.


10. Sabine Schmitz

I think it is safe to say that Ms. Schmitz is the fastest woman in Germany.  She is known as the “Queen of the Nurburgring” because of her familiarly with the infamous track and her ability to drive it like a bat out of hell.

Schmitz grew up in the same neighborhood as the famous Nurburgring.  In fact, all three Schmitz daughters caught the racing bug; however, it was Sabine who was the most devoted and most successful.  She was the overall winner of the 24 Hours Nurburgring in a BMW M3 in 1996—the first woman to ever win a “24 hour” race.  She won again in 1997.  More recently, Schmitz drove a Porsche in the 2008, 2011, and 2012 races, coming in third, ninth, and sixth respectively.


With her spunk and driving skill, she has become a well-known television personality, motorsport commentator, and a role model for little girls everywhere who want to drive fast.  She has appeared numerous times on the British show Top Gear –lapping Jeremy Clarkson.  There are even rumors that she is The Stig…

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