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115 Louise Smith The First Lady of Racing Suzanne Wise • • • In its early days, stock car racing was a disorganized and poorly funded sport featuring hard-drinking, hard-driving men who came from the ranks of moonshine runners, farmers, mechanics, and factory workers. In December 1947 Bill France Sr., a race promoter and sometime driver from Daytona Beach, Florida, spearheaded the founding of nascar. France ruled the new organization. He brought some order to the chaos by establishing rules and guaranteeing purses, and he controlled the fiery, independent drivers by outlawing those who competed in races not sanctioned by nascar. France was also a savvy promoter. One of his strategies to draw bigger crowds was using women drivers, both in women-only “powderpuff” races and in open racing against men. France’s idea of female drivers was not new. Women have participated in auto racing since the sport’s earliest days. Their presence has been marginal, however , as they have found it difficult to break through the pervasive cultural perception of women as passive, physically weak, emotionally fragile, and intellectually lacking. They have been denied opportunities in sport for all of these reasons. Post–World War II American society’s emphasis on returning to normalcy —which featured marriage and family life in the burgeoning suburbs— did not promote women’s participation in athletics. Professional opportunities in sports for women were limited, a notable exception being the Ladies’ Professional Golf Association, founded in 1948. Moreover, the opposition to female athletes has been strongest when they have dared to invade the sports that celebrate the traditionally male characteristics of power, strength, and aggression, such as bullfighting and auto racing. Despite the obstacles, a surprising number of women have persevered and competed successfully in auto racing. Early role models include Englishwoman Louise Smith From Suzanne Wise’s personal collection. Courtesy of Louise Smith. Louise Smith 117 Dorothy Levitt, who drove for the De Dion Company in open races against men in the first decade of the twentieth century; the legendary Camille du Gast, whose exploits included an eighth-place finish against 274 men in the 1903 Paris-Madrid race; and Kay Petre, whose excellent racing skills at Brooklands in England in the years before World War II convinced many that women were capable of handling large, fast cars.1 In the United States, women racers have been tolerated on occasion as gimmicks to sell tickets but, as in Europe, they have never been fully accepted by the male racing establishment. Their reception in stock car racing was no exception . A few women withstood the hostility to make their mark in the sport. Georgians Sara Christian and Ethel Flock Mobley were successful drivers in the 1940s, but the most notable woman racer of the era was Louise Smith (1916– 2006).2 Smith had by far the longest career of her female peers, competing regularly from 1946 to 1956 and winning thirty-eight times. She was a strong, fiercely independent woman who rose from a conventional Southern upbringing to become one of racing’s most celebrated female drivers. Motorsports journalist Jason Stein has said of Smith, “There are pioneers who break new ground, and then there’s Louise Smith, a woman who took dynamite to conventional thinking.”3 In 1946 Bill France was looking for a way to boost attendance at a race he was promoting at the newly reopened Greenville-Pickens Speedway near Greenville , South Carolina. He thought that a woman driver might attract attention. Greenville-Pickens track promoter Hickey Nichols suggested Louise Smith, telling France that the crazy lady was the fastest thing on four wheels and had outrun every lawman in the area. Even though she had never even seen a race, twenty-nine-year-old Smith agreed to compete in a ladies’ race before the main event. Without a single practice lap and only a five-minute lesson on track rules, she drove a 1939 modified Ford Coupe owned by Nichols around the dirt track, finishing third.4 “It was supposed to be the fastest thing in the Carolinas,” she recalled. “Well, I flipped it on the Pickens side, turned it on its side, and it flipped back on its wheels. Back then you could keep on racing.”5 No one had thought to tell her that a checkered flag signaled the end of the race, so when it waved Smith kept doing laps. “I wondered where all the cars went and I’m out there just flyin’ around that half...


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