Wing walkers have a special kind of bravery. It’s one thing to pilot planes or drive a car fast or even do stunts while encased in those machines. It is another thing to walk on top of an airplane while it’s flying around. While Indy may love speed, don’t forget that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a storied history of aviation. A daredevil female driver from Indianapolis Indiana started her career as a wing walker. Elfrieda Mais was born in Indianapolis in 1893. I’d lay money she was in attendance in 1910 during a weeklong celebration of aviation at IMS. Mais started her career in 1910 as a stuntwoman and wing walker. In 1912, when the sport became too saturated and “safe” for her, she began racing cars. As any good speed demon from Indianapolis does.
During the time when all-sanctioning bodies refused to allow women to compete against men, Mais became a stunt driver set speed records. She set the unofficial two-lap record in Kansas in 1916. At the Witchita speedway, she ran the two-lap half-mile track in 1 minute and twenty-four seconds. Four days later, at a fairgrounds in Kansas, she ran another two-lap half-mile track in one minute and twenty seconds. Two years later she lowered her time at the same fairgrounds to one minute and eleven seconds. In an unsanctioned race in Canada in 1924, Mais defeated four-time Indy 500 starter Louis Disbrow. Perhaps empowered by this race or her roots in Indy calling to her, she filled out an entry for the 1929 Indianapolis 500. It was rejected.
Twenty-two years after starting her career as a driver, Mais lost her life during a driving stunt. It was a stunt she had completed numerous times: driving through a board wall that was set on fire. This time though, in the Alabama fairgrounds, the car got away from her and continued through guardrails before being stopped by an embankment.
She’s known as the “First Woman Racing Driver” and in numerous articles has the moniker ‘daredevil’ attached to her. Mais, in her own way, broke barriers by showing women had the strength to compete and to take on risks. She’s buried in Indianapolis’ Crown Hill Cemetery amongst other notable Hoosiers and racing legends. Her headstone bears the simple word “sister” above her name. Fitting, she is quite a part of the sisterhood of speed.