Variety film critic McCarthy (Howard Hawks, 1997) highlights women’s roles in the annals of automobile racing.
Formula 1 fans and NASCAR aficionados, as well as those for whom Danica Patrick opened up the world of auto racing, might be shocked to learn that a number of women figured prominently in the sport from its late-19th-century infancy. The heyday for women racers in the U.S., notes the author, came during the 1950s, that notoriously celebrated decade of domesticity. Particularly the years 1953 through 1958 marked what McCarthy calls “a privileged moment in the grand sweep of American automobile racing, a small window of time when the sport was accessible to virtually anyone with a desire to pursue it; if you had a car and were good enough, you could drive it to a track and race. Women included.” While McCarthy spotlights the gossip column–like lives and impressive achievements of Evelyn Mull, Denise McCluggage, Ruth Levy and Mary Davis—all gifted racers of the period—he also frames their triumphs within the broader context of other groundbreaking or just sensational events for women and the car in general. One such moment occurred in June 1909, when Alice Ramsey, a 22-year-old mother from Hackensack, departed New York City in her $1,500 windowless, gas gauge–less, four-cylinder, 30-horsepower Maxwell DA and became the first woman to drive across the continent, arriving in San Francisco almost two months later. Another took place in 1934, when Elfreida Mais decided to attempt a different sort of record by driving her car through a burning wall packed with dynamite; needless to say, this automotive first proved to be her last act. Though somewhat disjointed, McCarthy’s vividly episodic account runs the gamut from behind-the-scenes partying to the fascinating variety of records women attempted, representing not only the obvious tests of speed and distance, but also those of physical endurance.
An entertaining and important look at an often unexamined page in sports history.