Get inspired by some of the coolest women to ever race cars (and motorcycles).
Women have been racing cars and bikes since cars and bikes first became available to the general public, and they’ve been totally unstoppable since. But history can occasionally forget these headstrong women who forged their own paths where none existed before—and that’s why it takes a book or two to bring them back into car culture’s consciousness.
Today, April 23, is World Book Day. So check out one of these incredible stories that highlight the incredible achievements of women in the racing world.
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A Life at Full Throttle by Janet Guthrie
Janet Guthrie is one of the coolest women to ever race a car. Born into a family of pilots, she received her own pilot’s license at a young age, was one of the few women to earn an engineering degree at the University of Michigan in the 1960s, and went on to live out of the back of her car as she trailered a race car to local tracks. But she really found her stride in the 1970s, when she became the first woman to ever qualify for the Indianapolis 500, one of the most prestigious races in the world in an era where women were barred from the garage area. She then went on to earn what is still one of the highest finishes in both the Indy 500 and in NASCAR overall.
Guthrie’s book is one of my favorites. She’s incredibly articulate and tells a beautiful story, and if you’ve ever wondered about what it took to be a female driver in the 1960s and 70s.
Lone Rider: The First British Woman to Motorcycle Around the World by Elspeth Beard
When Elspeth Beard decided she wanted to ride around the world on her motorcycle, she knew it would be difficult, but her biography clues you in on just how hard. On her journey, she suffered a miscarriage, broke several bones, ran out of money, lost her passport, fell in and out of love, made roadside repairs with makeshift tools, and ate a dog that she ran over. Her trip is exhausting to read about—but it’s a beautiful look at what it took for a woman to make a solo worldwide journey several decades ago.
The Bugatti Queen: In Search of a Motor Racing Legend by Miranda Seymour
Hellé Nice was a cabaret dancer turned race car driver who raced Bugattis around the world in the 1920s and 1930s. Her life story is an exceptional one; she was born to a relatively poor family in the middle of nowhere, then moved to Paris as a teenager to begin forging a life on her own. She danced until she injured her knee in a skiing accident, then moved on to racing cars to gain her next thrill. And she put the male drivers of her era on notice with her consistently impressive performances.
Her story, though, isn’t a happy one. After World War II, Nice was accused of collaborating with the Nazis during their occupation of France. There’s no hard evidence either way, but Nice lived out the rest of her life on the meager funds she had left, ultimately dying in obscurity. Seymour’s story has essentially brought this jazz age legend back from the dead.
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Driven: A pioneer for women in motorsport – an autobiography by Rosemary Smith
Rosemary Smith is one of the world’s most successful female rally drivers, and her autobiography is exceptional. She goes into detail about how difficult a time she had making her way as a woman in the sport in the 1960s, and she touches on one of the facets many racers ignore in their books: her personal life. She details the impact of divorce and how it also tarnished her racing career, and she also gives her perspective on the revitalization of her memory in recent years, which resulted in her having a shot at driving a modern-day Formula One car. It’s a glorious story for anyone wondering how a woman who studied fashion could become an exceptional rally racer.
Faster: How a Jewish Driver, an American Heiress, and a Legendary Car Beat Hitler’s Best by Neal Bascomb
While Faster involves several different drivers, one of the prominent movers in the book is Lucy Schell, the American heiress in the book’s title. She and her husband moved to France to help him pursue his racing career, but she also partook in the sport and also used her funds to build her own racing team. She hired René Dreyfus as her driver, a Jewish driver who had been effectively excommunicated from the racing world ahead of World War II—and together, the two won a race against the dominant German teams. This is one of the best books about cars you’ll ever read.
Related: What Drives Her: How Charlie Martin Is Racing Toward a More Inclusive Future for Motorsport
Breaking the Limit: One Woman’s Motorcycle Journey Through North America by Karen Larsen
Karen Larsen is another woman who decided her life needed a change and did so by climbing on her motorcycle and riding across North America. Along the way, she meets her biological family, makes friends with other bikers who are impressed at her audacity, attends the iconic Sturgis motorcycle meetup, and ultimately makes it to the wide open roads of Alaska. If this book doesn’t make you want to buy a vehicle, abandon your responsibilities, and take off on the adventure of a lifetime, I don’t know what to tell you!
Williams: A Different Kind of Life by Virginia Williams
Williams is a bit of a heartbreaking book. Sir Frank Williams was a former racing driver who developed his own iconic Formula One team that still runs today, aptly named Williams. But Frank suffered a debilitating car accident that left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. His wife Virginia was then left to not only care for her husband and daughter but also take up control of the team. This book serves as her memoir of an incredibly difficult period of her life, but it’s an important book to really understand the various facets that come into play regarding running a racing team.
Linda Vaughn: The First Lady of Motorsports by Rob Kinnan and Linda Vaughn
Linda Vaughn is something else. While not a racer herself, she loved the sport and became one of its first promotional girls for Hearst shifters. That said, she was a hugely respected member of the community because she essentially created a career for herself where there wasn’t one before. Her photo-heavy autobiography is full of tales about racing’s golden age, and it’s an amazingly fun read.
Gloria – A Lifetime Motorcyclist: 75 Years on Two Wheels and Still Riding by Gloria Struck
When Gloria Tramontin Struck climbed on a motorcycle for the first time, it was in 1941, and women simply didn’t do that. It was unheard of. But that didn’t stop Gloria, who spent the next 75 years of her life on two wheels. Her autobiography celebrates the freedom of the open road as well as the prejudices she had to overcome to get there. When you wrap up this book, you’ll be so inspired to take on your own seemingly unattainable goals that nothing will be able to stop you.
Girls Auto Clinic Glove Box Guide by Patrice Banks
We’ve talked about Patrice Banks a few times before on A Girls Guide to Cars, but she continues to be our muse. In this handy book, Banks outlines the things women need to know about automotive maintenance. That doesn’t have to mean changing your own oil, but it’s all about being informed and making empowered decisions at the mechanic’s shop. It’s a must-have for every woman who owns or drives a car.