Arlene Hiss: It’s Not Easy

In the 2019 INDYCAR schedule, there is no oval race prior to the Indianapolis 500. The Rookies of the series can either have their first experience at an April test session or arrange for private tests at another facility. Arlene Hiss, a dance teacher from California, underwent numerous tests and was required to drive in ovals during the regular season prior to attempting to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.

Hiss started racing in 1965 within the Sports Car Club of America Showroom Stock racing in California. She won two championships in California and was named the “Most Outstanding Woman Driver” in 1974. It was two years later she started on her path towards the Indianapolis 500.

Pagoda at Night

Hiss was the very first woman to be granted a competition level license by the United States Auto Club (USAC). She declared her intent to enter the 1976 Indianapolis 500. That same year, Janet Guthrie had entered her application. USAC saw Gutherie’s sport-car driving experience as sufficient. For Hiss, they required her to compete in the first two races of the 1976 season. The first race was on the Phoenix oval track. Prior to the official USAC races, Hiss completed two different test sessions. She completed a test at the Ontario Motor Speedway, reaching speeds of 176 mph (fast enough for Ontario but not Indy). Her second test was at Phoenix where she reached speeds of 126 mph (fast enough for Phoenix but not Indy). Her tests and practice leading up to the first race of the season reached one-thousand miles.

On March 14, 1976, Arlene Hiss started the Jimmy Bryan 150 USAC National Championship race at the FastTrack International Raceway in Phoenix. She started 21st out of 22nd and became the very first woman to start in a USAC race. She ultimately finished the race in 14th. There were some issues during the race. Sensing she was slower than the other cars, Hiss took the higher line to let faster cars pass underneath her. Race officials black-flagged her and brought her back into the pits, after some discussion, she allowed to re-enter the race. There was a lot of crankiness surrounding her debut. Drivers felt it was unsafe or she had been held to a lesser standard because she was a woman. Both may be the case. It was also a time when there was unbearable ire from a lot of male drivers against any woman who attempted to race.

She never raced in the Indianapolis 500. Hiss backed out from her idea to enter the race. She moved over to stock car racing for a few years before ultimately retiring in 1978. Women haven’t had a quick and easy entry into the Indianapolis 500, or even racing in general. Hiss is an example that, women just didn’t get an automatic entry or win every challenge in front of them.

If you want to receive emails only on Monday letting you know what blogs have been posted – sign up to the mailing list: 
Our podcast strives to feature cool women in racing history and present on our episodes. You can subscribe by visiting our subscribe page: