The 1960s starts the increase of amazing women in auto racing. My research yielded a long list of names, unlike the prior decades. I struggled with how to approach this decade. Write a small blurb on all of them (because they all had amazing stories) or pick a smaller list and go deep. I picked the latter because Denise McCluggage and Betsy Skelton I think embody not only the growing representation of women in motorsports during the 1960s, but they also embody that thought of awakening women were having in this time. Both had extensive careers both in and out of racing. Both strove to break through the barriers holding them back.
While in today’s society we take a lot of things for granted, we forget that back in the 1960s there were a lot of things that women were not able to do. Just as a few examples: women were unable to get a credit card, serve on a jury, or get an education at most of the Ivy League schools. When looking at the careers of Denise McCluggage and Betsy Skelton, keep those restrictions in mind.
Denise McCluggage lived the life many of us wish we could. Not only was she an active participant in many automobile races, but she also covered the events as a journalist. Denise was a pioneer for omen in motorsports, and general sports, journalism. In fact it was because she was a journalist that helped her enter the races. Denise convinced her editors that the best way for her to cover races was to enter them as a participant. In the 60s, women were still not openly welcomed in pits or paddock areas. In fact, even the Indianapolis Motor Speedway denied her credentials to cover the race. Undeterred Denise indicated “Its stupid, but that was the edict…never mind that I had credentials; never mind that I was covering for the Tribune. To them, I was a woman, not a reporter, so I just did what I could do, reported from wherever I could.”
Report she did. She is the first journalist to ever be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, and a regularly contributor for AutoWeek. In fact, at the time of her death a few years back she was listed as the Senior Contributing Editor at AutoWeek. A selection of her works was published under the title “By Brooks too Broad for Leaping”.
Denise participatory journalism in motorsports wasn’t just to cover the story. She drove in all types of races, mostly rally and endurance races. Notable in in a while helmet with pink polka dots. She first entered the 12-Hours of Sebring in 1960 driving with another female, Wheatley “Pinkie” Rollo. The two women were forced to retire after thirty-four laps due to engine damage following a crash. In 1961 Denise returned to Sebring to win the Grand Touring class. In 1967 she and Pinkie teamed back up and finished seventeenth overall that year. In addition to the 12 Hours of Sebring, some other notable races for Denise was a 5th place at the 1960 Watkins Glen Grand Prix, and a 1964 class win at the Monte Carlo Rally.
She is called the ‘Fastest Woman on Earth’ a moniker that Betty Skelton earned through death defying feats both on the ground and in the air. Her initial love for speed came from growing up watching the airplanes from a nearby naval base. She received her private pilot’s license at age 16 and her commercial pilot license at 18. When competing as an aerobatic pilot, Ms. Skelton had to stay within the female-only bracket as the aviation community had not integrated the championship on the basis of sex. She was however the international women’s aerobatic championship and twice flew her plane to altitude records, including 29,050 feet (higher then Mt. Everest).
From all the websites I’ve scoured, it’s reported that Ms. Skelton is the first woman to drive an INDYCAR. I cannot find any specifics regarding to a race, and it’s my opinion that it was in a not-so-private test where Ms. Skelton sat in the cockpit of an INDYCAR and went fast. Going fast is the biggest theme of Ms. Skelton’s life. Both on the ground and in the air she shattered all types of records. In 1956 she beat the women’s speed record near Daytona Beach by going 145.044 mph, three miles per hour slower then the current men’s land speed record. That particular record was set due to Ms. Skelton previously flying Bill France Sr. (the founder of NASCAR) as a private aviator. This also led to her being the first woman to drive a pace car at the Daytona 500.
Beyond the land speed record, Ms. Skelton also set the transcontinental speed record (for both men and women) in 1956 by driving from New York City to Los Angeles in fifty-six hours and fifty-eight minutes. Approximately eleven years later on the Bonneville Salt Flats, she drove the jet car the Green Monster Cyclops to a speed of 315.74 m.p.h.
She was also the first woman to be hired as a test driver in the United States Auto Industry and was a spokeswoman for Chevrolet.
In 1961 seven women underwent and passed the same physical and mental tests that the men who would later become the Mercury 7 pilots. None of the women were picked. Betsy Skelton was featured on a news magazine with the rhetorical question if she’d become an astronaut – she didn’t. The first woman to go into space did not happen until 1983 when Sally Ride went up into space on the Challenger STS-7.
I find both women fascinating for widely different reasons. Denise let her passion shape her professional life, and Betsy just loved speed.