We Can Do It! (1940s Women Make Things Happen)
When discussing the achievement of female racecar drivers in the 1940s, a discussion about global issues has to take place first. The 1940s began with the world entering into another global wide conflict. Late in 1939, Nazi German invaded Poland, the accepted beginning of World War II. The ramifications of World War II on women are far reaching, and some of the ramifications even linger on today. Rationing happened across all major countries, effectively cutting back on the usage of cloth, metal, food, and gasoline and oil. Women had to not only “keep the household” while using less, as there was an active draft with this war, women stepped into roles at factories, relaxing that notion that women could not work outside the home.
Looking at racing as a whole, in this time period the Paris-St. Raphaël wasn’t held between 1939 and 1951. Formula 1 held less then fifteen races in the war years. The Indianapolis 500 was not held between 1942 and 1945, in fact the US Federal Government banned racing in 1942. Women were still eager to gain footing in the arena of racing, but they were facing shortages in gasoline and oil, governments banning racing, and having to step into the workplace. Don’t worry, some amazing women still made things happen.
One such amazing woman is Sybil Lupp who is dubbed New Zealand’s First Female Racecar Driver, she also holds the distinction of being one of New Zealand’s first female mechanics. Sybil, I’m sure to the chagrin of her family, grew up wanting to work on cars. Reportedly she was angry at receiving a doll tea set that she smashed the set to bits! However by age eleven her family gave into the mechanical inclinations of their daughter and her father taught her to drive and let her help him tool around in the family garage. She was driving a M-type MG by the age fourteen.
Sybil’s motorsport career starts off first in the mechanical side of things. Though not a roundly accepted career, she completed a correspondence course in car mechanics and worked on family cars for years before taking a job as a mechanical engineer at a nearby canning plant as well as car saleswoman at a garage.
World War II happened(1). Sybil spent the war years as a driver and diesel mechanic for the New Zealand Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.
It wasn’t until Sybil’s second marriage (to her dead husband’s brother) where her career as a race car driver started. With her second husband, they formed the Otago Sports Car Club. Her position in the club bestowed another distinction on Sybil she was the first female executive member of the Association of New Zealand Car Club. It was also a her participation in this club which led to her capturing numerous trophies for driving including in various races including the South-Island Hill Climb (1949) and third-fastest at the New Zealand Hill Climb in 1950.
In the 1949 Sybil competed in New Zealand’s inaugural Racing Championship, and was the only female competing. That year she came in fifth that year. That next year, she came in second overall.
In the 50s, Sybil transitioned back to an auto-mechanic and spent the rest of her life working on cars, primarily Jaguars.
As a final note, Sybil wore coveralls when she raced, but wore a dress underneath.
Crossing over into the world of NASCAR for this one. Some fun history regarding Sara and NASCAR! Sara started her driving career at the in Atlanta; one requirement of the city’s speedway was that anyone who raced couldn’t have a criminal record. If you know anything about the roots of NASCAR racing you know that’s a pretty high hurdle when the sport was just starting(2). A nonaffiliated track was built, with Sara’s brother-in-law playing a role in that track’s inception.
1949 was the first official year of NASCAR as a sanctioned sporting event, and the first year Sara competed as a driver. At the first race in Charlotte, Sara came in thirteenth out of thirty-three drivers. Later that season in Pennsylvania Sara finished fifth and held the record for highest placing woman in a NASCAR event. At another Pennsylvania race that season, Sara raced against two other female racers (Ethel Mobley and Louise Smith). This would be the only time three women would race in a NASCAR race together until 1977.
Sara continued to race the following season of NASCAR but retired after one race in 1950. In her short career she received two top-ten finishes. She was inducted into the Georgia Automobile Racing Hall of Fame in 2004, and was named the 1949 United States Drivers Association Woman Driver of the Year.
As excited as I was to write about some pioneering women, knowing the 1950s and beyond are closer means there will be more women to write about. Sure, women are not yet on equal footing with men in motorsports, but in the upcoming decades the amount of women in motorsports and their notoriety will increase. Perhaps soon we’ll start to see the demographics of motorsports reflect the demographics of the day.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the role that Courtney Force is on, she’s received her forth win this season in NHRA, and I think she has no sign of stopping her.
1) That’s the shortest sentence ever written about World War II.
*Wikipedia shaming- this is her page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sybil_Audrey_Marie_Lupp
2) Moonshine, running moonshine during the prohibition