Louise Smith: Racing pioneers weren't always men

Louise Smith, NASCAR's " First Lady in Racing"

Louise Smith, NASCAR's " First Lady in Racing" stands in her room of memorabilia in Greenville, S.C. (Credit: AP (1998))

Racing has always been chock-full of "good ol' boys."

But what about the "good ol' girls?"

What about the wild woman from Barnesville, Ga., who used to show her passion for driving fast by outrunning the police in her hometown? What about the woman who loved hanging it out there so much that she nearly broke every bone in her body . . . and was darn proud of it?

There are pioneers who break new ground, and then there's Louise Smith, a woman who took dynamite to conventional thinking.

"I was just born to be wild," Smith told the Baltimore Sun daily newspaper more than a decade ago. "I tried to be a nurse, a pilot and a beautician and couldn't make it in any of them. But from the moment I hit the race track, it was exactly what I wanted."

And how.

It was the early 1940s. Racing promoter Bill France Sr., the eventual founder of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), was looking for a woman driver who might attract more women to his local track in South Carolina.

Someone knew someone else who also knew Smith, a woman who had become legendary for outrunning the law.

Even though she had never seen a race - much less driven in one - Smith finished third in a modified 1939 Ford. Not realizing that the checkered flag meant the end of a race, she kept driving around the track until someone threw out a red flag, forcing her to stop.

"They told me if I saw a red flag to stop. They didn't say anything about the checkered flag," she said.

Smith was bitten by the bug.

A year later, she borrowed her husband's new maroon Ford and said she was going on vacation. Instead, she drove to Daytona Beach, Fla., entered a race and wrecked the car.

On the bus ride back home, she created a story she would tell about the car breaking down on her trip.

"Where's the car, Louise?" her husband, Noah, asked when she returned.

"That ol' trap broke down in Augusta (Ga.)," she said.

Noah then showed her the front of the Greenville, S.C., newspaper that carried a picture of her wreck in Daytona.

"That's the greatest story of all," said the late Benny Parsons, a former NASCAR star and a TV analyst, in an interview in 2006 after Smith's death.

From that point on, despite her husband's objections, Smith became a regular on France's new NASCAR circuit. Using Smith as a bit of a novelty act, France would send her to Canada and the U.S. northeast in hopes of drawing more attention.

"We didn't think (NASCAR) was going anywhere," Smith said in an interview with the Associated Press in 1998. "So if we got the chance to go out of the state, it was like we went to heaven."

In a decade of racing, Smith made a name for herself, by winning races - 38 events in all - and producing spectacular crashes with her aggressive style. In one race her car overturned, a crash that gave her 48 stitches and four pins in her left knee.

On the circuit, driving against some of NASCAR's early legends, she was dubbed the "Good Ol' Gal" by the other drivers.

"We traveled in a gang," she told the Associated Press. "If one of us had a hot dog, we'd all get a bite."

But it was hardly easy being the first woman driver.

"Then men didn't like it to start with and they wouldn't give you an inch," she said.

Smith was a true barnstormer, running for $100 prizes and some extra appearance money.

After retiring in 1956, she remained active with the racing community, helping at tracks and sponsoring cars.

"I enjoyed every minute of it," she said. "Didn't make a whole lot of money, but if I could do it again today, I'd do it. And I think I'd make it."

Smith would be remembered as "the first lady of racing," and was the first woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1999.

She died at age 89, but not before leaving an indelible legacy.

Perhaps the late Benny Parsons said it best.

"If we could find a Louise Smith here in 2006 to get in there and finish fourth in the Daytona 500, imagine what that would do for NASCAR racing."

Just imagine.

Jason Stein is a writer with Wheelbase Media. He can be reached on the Web at www.shiftweekly.com by using the contact link. 

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