A history of women racers

Before there was Danica Patrick and Ashley Force Hood, there was Liane Engeman and Shirley ‘Cha Cha’ Muldowney. THE RAKE pays tribute to the women who blazed a trail in motorsport, burning off gallons of sexism and abuse as they did so…
Liane Engeman, the Dutch driver who competed in Formula Three and the British saloon car championship in the 1960s. Photo by ANL/Shutterstock

The world of motorsport is as curious as it is contradictory. On the one (Castrol-stained) hand, it is characterised by the most advanced technologies generating a few more revs per minute in an arena whose metrics are measured in milliseconds. Commentators speak of rigs lumped with “last year’s engine”, as if this were a terminal diagnosis. On the other hand, many of its traditions seem ironically lacking the pace of modern mores. To all intents and purposes, for example, it’s a sport as white as the grid markings beside the pit lane. That it took until 2008 for a person of colour — in the once-in-a-generation magnificence of Lewis Hamilton — to win the Formula One championship is remarkable. And not in a good way. Add to this the fact it was only two years ago, and under some duress, that the powers that be in F1 decided Lycra-clad grid girls were perhaps not the best look in the 21st century.

Run a montage of favourite motorsport moments through your hippocampus and then scan for women. You’ll find them being doused in champagne, glamorously biting their nails as they watch their hooning partners, or emblazoned with advertising livery like so many pretty adornments.

Things are undoubtedly changing for the better. And while the likes of Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher and Ashley Force Hood have challenged the turbo-fuelled orthodoxy in recent times, they are nevertheless following in the slipstream of others.

The most honourable of mentions must go to proto-racing WAG Nina Rindt. The daughter of Finnish driver Curt Lincoln, she grew up trackside with octane in her veins. She married the Austrian F1 driver Jochen Rindt in 1967, and for three years shifted focus away from the track with her California-girl ensembles of white tees and high-waisted faded denim, slouchy lime hats and a collection of timepieces so stellar that Watchonista branded her the “original watch influencer”.

Two things have cemented her place in the sport’s folklore. The first is that her chronographs were not merely for show. Come race time, most of her photos have Rindt carefully and tactically plotting lap times. The second factor is more tragic. Killed during practice for the Italian Grand Prix in 1970, Jochen became the first driver to win the F1 championship posthumously, and it was Nina who collected his trophy looking gaunt yet dignified and unbowed — the Jackie Kennedy of Monza.


David Smiedt


October 2020


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