Ten Women Racing Drivers Prior to 1960

When you think of professional racing how many of you think immediately of female drivers? Now, be honest. Formula 1, GT and rallying is almost exclusively a male province. True, there are some notable exceptions in the rallying world but they are still only a minority. If you think that it’s rare now, it was almost unheard of prior to 1960. Then it was a case of women typically racing their husband’s racing cars in competitions known as the ‘Powder Puff Derbies’.

You don’t see this happening to the average city car very often. It’s altogether safer in the urban environment. Source

Aside from the Powder Puff Derby there have been a few races solely the purview of women. Men and women, however, have raced since motor vehicles  were invented. It was back in 1898 when a lady known as ‘Madame Laumaille’ became the first recorded female racing driver. She was 27th in the Marseille-Nice two day trial. She rode a De Dion motor tricycle similar to the one in this picture. It didn’t have the Dunlop pneumatic tyres like this one of course.


In much of America, men and women were not allowed to race professionally against each other until the conclusion of World War 2. Two popular locations in Kansas: Cejay Stadium, Wichita and Jayhawk Amusement Park Speedway, Newton were some of the few places that women and men could compete against each other.

Jennie Pauline Talbert

From: Ulysses, Kansas
Born: 30th November 1920.
Jennie Talbert finished third out of eight cars in a Powder Puff Derby at the Grant County Fairgrounds at Ulysses, Kansas on 8th August 1958.  Her vehicle was the Ford jalopy numbered ‘40’ that she owned with her husband, Scott Talbert.


Ionamae Rebenstorf

From: Wichita, Kansas
Born: 11th July 1915
Ionamae married Bert Rebenstorf and raced jalopies competitively together in Cee Jay Stadium throughout 1949. Her life wasn’t all devoted to racing. In 1961, the couple moved to Branson, Missouri and she taught millinery to would be hatters.


Ileen Merle Dessie Goodman

From: Argonia, Kansas
Born: 31st January 1916
During her first year Ileen won the Women’s Championship at the Cejay Stadium. From there she progressed to racing against men and at Cee Jay and Jawhawk. Ileen was the first women to carry professional sponsorship in the form of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer.


Racing was in the her family’s blood; her brothers Harold, Carroll, Will and her nephew Bill Mears were all noted Kansas drivers.


Shirley Hamilton Messenger

From: Kansas
Born: 1939
Shirley’s pink and white car carried her over the finishing line for her first ever win at the tender age of 17 at the McCarthy Speedway in Dodge City. Her second race wasn’t quite as fruitful when she skidded off the track during an attempt to snatch first place. Her third, and last, race saw her victorious once more. She was driving the same car that a male driver was going to race later that day. Her brief racing career ended with Shirley graduating and opening her own accountancy service.


Elfrieda (Hellman) Mais

From: 19th June 1892
Born: Indianapolis, Indiana
Elfrieda started as an aeroplane woman and wing walker before she changed to racing cars when she turned 20. She had success in stunt driving exhibitions and speed trials but her lefe tragically ended in 1934 following a failed stunt at the Alabama State Fair.


Roberta Johnson

From: Larned, Kansas
Born: 1936?
Roberta Johnson was another driver who shared a jalopy with a male racing driver; in this case, Jimmy Selfridge. She competed at the Cee Jay Speedway on 29th July 1956, third place on the grid. The race could have turned out better for Roberta as, unfortunately, she rolled her car three times and it needed hoisted off the track as the photo below will attest.


Leola Sylvia ‘Lee’ (Clary) Cornish

From: Bedford, Iowa
Born: 1st October 1916
At the age of 33 she began jalopy racing at the Cee Jay Stadium, Wichita. She won by default when her competitors dropped out but it was all she needed to get the serious racing bug; so much so that we competed against the men in a Plymouth stock car the following week. It was never all plain sailing for Lee though; she was just about to start a race in the newly opened Robbins Speedway, Wichita in 1955 when an official came to her pit and told her that she wouldn’t be allowed to compete because she was a woman.


Aside from the Powder Puff Derbies there have been distinguished female NASCAR drivers, a situation that is still true today. While this is great for equality it’s a bit of a shame that the current drivers are regarded as sex objects, often being promoted or referred to in a less than professional manner

Sara Christian

From Atlanta, Georgia
Born 1918
Sara’s most celebrated race was the 1949 NASCAR meet where came fifth (behind four men) – a record finish that wasn’t surpassed until this year when Danica Patrick seized fourth place. Let’s hope it’s not another 62 years before the record falls again.


And finally…

The male dominated world of Formula 1 has only had five female drivers in its history. The first of these was Maria Teresa de Filippis of Naples, Italy. On 18th May 1958 she started her brief career and finished tenth in the Belgian Grand Prix. By the next year she left the sport to start a family. Read more.


Read more from Bob Lawrence’s excellent source of Women Drivers in Kansas Car Racing prior to 1960. If you’re a female driver who fancies her chances on the race track then why not check out Jalopy Days in the UK or join the British Women Racing Drivers Club?

Guest blogger, Greg Coltman, writes prolifically about the automotive industry and motor racing. He longs for Formula 1 to ditch the ever burgeoning increase in technology that takes more of the driving away from the driver.