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SPEED QUEENS: A Secret History of Women in Motorsport

By Rachel Harris-Gardiner

2024 review by James Loveridge

To the casual observer it may seem the motorsport is essentially a male activity but, in her book Speed Queens: A Secret History of Women in Motorsport Rachel Harris-Gardiner shows it isn’t and never was. In 1893 Lea Lemoine won a race at Longchamp riding a De Dion-engined Clement tricycle.

Rachel uses the word Secret in the sub-title but it is not a particularly well kept secret. Plenty has been written, such as Sammy Davis’s Atalanta, which is mentioned, Mrs Victor Bruce’s Nine Lives Plus and Joy Rainey’s Fast Lady as examples. However, to be fair, in this interesting book we are given information about a large number of women who have taken part, often very successfully, in various types of motorsport.

Clearly a great deal of research has gone into this 214-page book. Not only are women drivers from the United Kingdom and the USA mentioned but also from many European countries. A common theme, as it is with male drivers, is money, sponsorship. Some women drivers had or have access to private money but most need financial support and usually found it hard to get. Although not stated, this must largely be due to the fact that female motorsport is not that attractive commercially and has limited public appeal, viz the recent demise of the W Series. Added to the difficulty is the competition from male drivers for the same pool. However there are plenty of examples of women drivers being able to beat the men, particularly in the field of rallying, as shown by Michele Mouton and Pat Moss as well as the likes of Danica Patrick on the race tracks in the USA.

The book is divided into 12 chapters, each focusing on a particular era or type of motorsport in which women participated, and several individuals are given detailed attention. One chapter titled Bad Girls is not very relevant to the driving side of those mentioned but, as Rachel says, “some of the women …… have held some objectionable views and sometimes acted on them in deplorable ways” – which is an interesting sidelight.

One unpleasant but not unexpected aspect of the attempts by women to get established in motorsport is male chauvinism. Happily this seems to have been more prevalent in the US than in Europe where female drivers seem to have got the respect they deserved. Richard Petty is recorded as saying that Janet Guthrie, aspiring to an Indy 500 entry in 1976, was not a lady and ought to stay at home and when Al Unser expressed his unhappiness that Michelle Mouton won the 1985 Pike’s Peak Hillclimb she put him in his place by retorting “if you had any balls you’d race me back down as well.”

Without denying the quality and quantity of the research that has gone into this book it should be said that, to the motoring historian, there are a few niggles. On page 71 it was Noel Macklin who owned Invicta, Lance was his racing driver son. On page 110 Climax is written as though it was a make of racing car. It wasn’t; according to Georgano there was a car called a Climax but it turned up its toes in 1907. Coventry Climax was the make of engine used by several teams. No doubt had it been higher priced there might have been more than 8 pages of photographs.

This book is a valuable contribution to the history of motorsport with its very full index naming a host of women drivers. It can be thoroughly recommended at its cover price o£ £22 – but, even better, it is discounted as at 14 March 2024 by the publisher, Pen & Sword Books Limited, 47 Church Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, S70 2AS. on its website by 30%, to a price of £15.40.

Publisher: Pen & Sword Books Limited (pen-and-sword.co.uk)

Price: £22.00 plus postage (discounted in March 2024 on the publisher’s website to £15.40).

Description:   224 pages, hardback with dust jacket. 16 black & white illustrations.

ISBN: 9781399065214


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