In the 1940s, racing promoter Bill France, Sr. was looking for ways to attract more women to the sport. What he needed, he decided, was a female driver who could handle the challenges of the track and hopefully bring more women out to the races.
He found his driver in Greenville, South Carolina, in a woman named Louise Smith. Rumor had it that Smith had been outrunning lawmen for years, and when France took his show to Greenville, he invited her to run in the race. Smith had never been in a race car — in fact, she had never even seen a race — but she jumped at the chance.
Smith climbed inside a modified 1939 Ford coupe, hit the gas, and finished in third place. Since she'd never seen a race before, she didn't know she had finished the race when they waved the checkered flag, so she just kept driving. Finally, someone had to wave a red flag to get her to stop.
"They told me if I saw a red flag to stop," she told the Baltimore Sun in an interview in the late '90s. "They didn't say anything about the checkered flag."
Birth of a Racer
After that first race, Smith was hooked. Her husband, Noah, was a junkyard owner and didn't approve of her career, but that didn't stop her. When she borrowed his new maroon Ford so that she could drive to Florida and watch the 1947 Daytona Beach Road Race, she just couldn't help herself. She signed up to race and entered her husband's brand-new car as her official racing wheels.
The race didn't go as planned. Smith wrecked the car, hopped a bus home, and made up a story about the car breaking down on the side of the road. What she didn't realize was that a photo of her spectacular crash at Daytona had made its way onto the front pages of newspapers across the country, including the one in her hometown. And that's how her husband discovered the fate of his new car. But that didn’t stop her from pursuing the auto racing world.
Smith would continue racing for nine years, claiming an incredible 38 wins across four divisions in that time. Her aggressive, yet impressive, driving style won her both fans and respect, although it came with a price tag; she crashed many of her cars and nearly died on more than one occasion.
In It to Win It
As the first woman driver in racing, Smith had to prove what she was made of, particularly to the skeptical drivers she shared the track with. Over time, she ended up winning the respect of the other drivers, who nicknamed her "the Good Ol' Gal." Smith was a tough competitor who raced for $100 prizes and would sometimes earn extra money for appearances.
Even after she retired from racing in 1956, Smith stayed active in the sport, sponsoring cars and making public appearances. She worked with Darlington Raceway and served as grand patron for the track's Miss Southern 500 Pageant for more than a decade. She retired in 1989.
As the first woman to take the track, it's fitting that she was also the first woman to be inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1999. She died in 2006 at the age of 89, but her legacy lives on through the trails she blazed for female drivers. Smith even served as inspiration for the character Louise "Barnstormer" Nash in the 2017 Disney Pixar film "Cars 3," which gives a nod to the 1950 Nash Ambassador that she was famous for driving.
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