Remembering The First Lady Of Racing

Brandon Reed

Brandon Reed

By Brandon Reed
Posted in Columns 4/2/10

In the last few years, the success of Danica Patrick in Indy car racing and Ashley Force in NHRA drag racing has drawn more and more attention to women competing in auto racing.

The phenomenal attention that Patrick gained and continues to garner this year with her stint into the stock car world has continued to fuel the age old question of just when the glass ceiling will be broken in NASCAR.

Many point to Patrick as being the one who could write that new chapter in American auto racing history, and certainly the attention she gets each time she straps into a stock car suggests that day may not be far off.

Regardless, there have been several talented ladies take the wheel in NASCAR racing that were very capable of winning.

Louise Smith was a trailblazing driver in NASCAR's early days.

Barnesville, Georgia native Louise Smith is always the first to jump to my mind. Known as “The First Lady of Racing,” Smith entered her first race at an event promoted by Big Bill France in South Carolina around 1946. France was looking for something to bring the fans in, and felt a lady driver would do the trick.

Smith was the driver chosen, and finished third piloting a 1939 Ford modified. The only problem was, nobody had explained to her what the checkered flag meant. As the other drivers pulled off after the race, Smith continued charging around the track. Finally, an official realized the problem, and waved the red flag.

She didn’t have any problems understanding the flags after that.

Smith raced sportsman and modified cars for several years, picking up wins all across the south.

Smith was also a driver for France’s fledgling NASCAR Grand National series, and France used her to promote events all over the east coast.
But she was no novelty act – she was a real racer.

She raced alongside the best of the best, including Tim Flock, Buck Baker, Curtis Turner and Ralph Earnhardt. She raced at some of the toughest tracks ever to be built, including Daytona Beach, Darlington, the famed mile at Langhorne, and the treacherous Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta.

While she may not have broken into the Grand National (now Sprint Cup) victory lane, she did pick up 38 victories in modified events around the country.

One of the best stories about Smith dates back to 1947, when she borrowed her husband’s car to go on vacation.

In reality, she took the car to Daytona Beach to race it.

The only problem was, she had trouble on the track, and wrecked the car.

Smith took a bus back to her home in Greenville, S.C., and told her husband that the old Ford was a lemon, and had broken down near Augusta.

That was when her husband pulled out a copy of the Greenville newspaper, which showed a picture of her and the wreck on the front page.

Another time she was racing at a NASCAR event at Hillsborough, N.C., when her car went out of control, rolling end over end, and coming to rest in the woods.

Smith smiles for the cameras following a crash at Hillsboro, North Carolina.

Smith escaped injury in that accident. Track workers dragged the heap out of the woods, and she climbed back inside, helmet and goggles on, and posed for photos while flashing a big smile.

Smith quit racing in 1956, but her heart was always close to the sport. I met her for the first time at the Tim Flock Memorial event held at Toccoa Speedway in Toccoa, Georgia, in 2001. We talked for nearly an hour, and she told me proudly about telling famed television personality David Letterman off on his show.

“He wanted to treat me like I was a joke,” Smith said. She would have none of it.

Smith was the first female racer inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame back in 1999. She surely will not be the last.

Smith passed away in April of 2006. The path that she blazed and the people she touched can still be seen today.

But the thing that I remember about Louise Smith stems back to the first meeting in 2001. When the races started that night, she was like a kid in a candy store. She had an absolute ball watching the cars tear around Toccoa’s little dirt track.

Gender had nothing to do with it. She was a racer, through and through.

Editor’s note: Portions of this column were originally published in the May 9, 2008 edition of The Jackson Herald.

Brandon Reed is the editor and webmaster of Georgia Racing

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