Women Know Cars

Happy International Women’s Day! Let’s celebrate together by learning more about a few amazing female race car drivers.

Denise McCluggage

McCluggage was born in 1927 in Kansas and went to college in California. She joined the San Francisco Chronicle as a reporter and eventually started covering “extreme sports” like racing, skiing, and skydiving. Through her work, she became interested in cars and eventually found her way to the track. She ended up covering the races from the track as a race participant since female reporters weren’t welcome. By the mid-50s she was living in New York, working for the New York Herald Tribune and competing as a professional race driver. Her trademark was a white helmet with pink dots. In 1959, she became the first woman to win at Thompson Raceway in Connecticut, in a Porsche RS. Driving a Ferrari 250, she won the GT class at Sebring in Florida in 1961 and became the only female driver inducted into the Sebring International Raceway Hall of Fame. She took fifth place at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix in 1960 in upstate New York and raced in several other U.S.-based races, as well as in Nürburgring, Germany, before ending her professional racing career in the late 1960s. She helped launch the automotive magazine “Competition Press” which is still around today under the name “AutoWeek.” McCluggage was inducted in the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2011. She was the first women ever to be honored with this award. She died at age 88, in 2015 but her legacy prevails. She was a pioneer of equality for women in American in journalism and motorsports.

Elise Mary Wisdom 

Wisdom was born in 1904 in London. She was the youngest child and only girl in her family. Her six brothers decided to call her “Bill” whenever she played with them. The name stuck and she became known as “Bill Wisdom” in the racing world. Wisdom learned to drive motorcycles and cars when she was still very young. She was one of the first women to win races both in the women and male divisions at Brooklands, the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit. She set women’s time records in 1931 at Shelley Walsh (one of the oldest motor sporting events) and in 1932 at Brooklands. In 1933, she was the only female member of the six-person Aston Martin team at Le Mans. After World War II, when European automobile racing events resumed, Bill Wisdom was on a three-woman team for a Monte Carlo Rally race in 1948. Her last race was in 1955. She married a racing journalist had a daughter.

Fun fact #1: Her husband entered her, without her knowledge, into the 1931 Brooklands race.

Fun Fact #2: Husband and wife raced against each other in the 1932 race at Brooklands and she defeated him.

Fun Fact #3: Their daughter was a female rally driver as well, but is better known as Pat Moss’s navigator.

Liane Engeman 

Engeman’s racing career started by chance. She was waiting for her bus to Zandvoot when rally driver Rob Slotmaker offered her a lift. Zandvoot is a small coastal town west of Amsterdam with a motorsport race track. Engeman competed here in Formula Vee in the 1200c class but eventually moved to England, since racing wasn’t that popular in Holland. Once in the UK, she joined Alan Mann Racing and competed in the British Saloon Car Championship. Her racing career officially began in 1965. She primarily raced Minis and Hillman Imps. She soon moved on and started competing in Formula 3 races and was even invited to take part in the 12 Hour of Sebring in 1967. Engeman often wasn’t able to finish races due to car trouble, but when she did, her performances were consistently landing her within or just outside of the top five of her class. Jalopnik called her a “driver who burst onto the racing scene with all the brilliance of a supernova, dazzling everyone they come across only to fade off into the distance just afterward with no traces left in the history books of their brilliant presence.” She retired from racing once she became a mother of twins and moved to Spain in 1980. She’s still alive today but hasn’t spoken to the public in years.

Sabine Schmitz

Schmitz is known as “The Queen of the Nurburgring” and her go-to race car makers are BMW and Porsche. She’s won the 24 Hours of Nurburgring twice and claims to have run over 20,000 laps at the 15.5-mile-long German race course. Her racing career has been based entirely around the Nurburgring. She’s won countless races at the track in the CHC (BMW Driving Experience Challenge) and the VLN series (Veranstaltergemeinschaft Langstreckenpokal Nürburgring), even claiming the VLN series championship in 1998. She’s perhaps best known for her appearances on the hit TV show Top Gear where she competed and beat against host Jeremy Clarkson in a lap time battle around the Nurburgring in 2002. She’s been a Top Gear presenter since May 2016. Schmitz currently races very sparingly and spends her time operating a driving school, called Sabine Schmitz Motorsport at the Nurburgring, offering advanced driving training.

Michele Mouton

Mouton competed in the World Rally Championship 1974-1986 and is one of the only women to have ever raced in the series. She began her career as a co-driver, navigating and supporting the actual driver. Eventually, she transitioned to the driver’s seat and competed on a limited basis for the first eight years of her career. The breakout season came in 1981, when she switched to the Audi Sports team and won her first event. In 1982, Mouton finished on the podium four times, with three victories. In the final years of her career, she finished on the podium four more times before her retirement following the 1986 season. To this day, Mouton is still the last woman to compete in any top-level rallying series. She credits her career to her father’s support and encouragement. She stated “He loved driving. He loved fast cars. And I think he would have loved to do what I did. He was a prisoner of war for five years and when he came back he never had the opportunity to compete. But he came to all the rallies I did. And my mother came, too.”(Daily Telegraph, 2011). Formula One legend Nikki Lauda refers to Mouton as “superwoman.”

Danica Patrick

Patrick is the most successful woman in the history of American open-wheel racing. She’s the driver that girls who watch racing want to be. She’s also the most successful female driver in both Indycar and NASCAR history and is one of only two women to have ever driven in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. Patrick’s career started in 2005 with an impressive run at the Indy 500, leading 19 laps. She ultimately finished fourth in the race which garnered her national attention. Over seven seasons of her Indycar career, she’s enjoyed ups and downs, culminated by a victory at the Japan Indy 300 in 2008, the first-ever win by a woman in Indycar. She jumped to NASCAR fulltime in 2012 and made history by winning the pole for the 2013 Daytona 500, being the first woman to ever do so. She started her career as a racer in 1992 via go-karting and retired in 2018 after competing in the Daltons 500 and Indianapolis 500 race.

Bonus info:

  • Windshield wipers were invented by Mary Anderson from Alabama in the early 1900. She came up with the idea that wipers were needed while riding a trolley in N.Y.
  • Florence Laurence is credited with designing the first “auto signaling arm,” a predecessor to the modern turn signal, along with the first mechanical break signal. She didn’t patent these inventions, and as a result, she received no credit/profit from either invention.
  • Helen Rother was GM’s first female automotive design. Her focus was on upholstery, lighting, door hardware and the shape of the seats.
  • The first ever auto magazine by and for women was created by Courtney Caldwell. Road & Travel Magazine was viewed as a resource center for drivers, discussing all topics from buying a car to leasing, selling and driving. It was founded in 1989, is still around today (online) and Caldwell is still the editor in chief.
  • Margret Wilcox, a mechanical engineer, invented the first car heater in 1893. The design wasn’t fancy, and it’s not the one we use today, but if she hadn’t designed it, we’d be freezing our butts in our cars in the winter. So thank you, Margret.
  • Other inventions by women that helped move the auto industry forward are GPS, Wi-Fi, non-reflective glass, brake pads, and more.


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