Auto racing has been a male dominated sport ever since the invention of the automobile. Men have dominated racing series around the world and this shows no signs of changing. Although men more or less own the racing world, there have always been women trying to blaze their own trail in motorsport. It can be tough for a female driver to get traction in motorsport, as unfortunately many have been unfairly branded as gimmicks or a marketing ploy.
Even though they are few and far between, there have been several very successful and barrier-breaking female drivers in various forms of motor racing. Although they’ve each raced in different forms of motorsports (some in NASCAR, Indycar, or Drag Racing) each of the 12 women listed below has been a part of helping to gain equality for women in auto racing. The example they’ve set will surely help to show girls everywhere that they too can grow up to achieve what any male driver can.
12. Sara Christian
Sara Christian is NASCAR’s original female trailblazer. She was the first woman to ever compete in a NASCAR sanctioned event when she raced at Charlotte Speedway in 1949. Christian would race in an additional five races in 1949 which would include a sixth place finish Langhorne speedway and a fifth place finish at Heidelberg raceway. Christian would only compete in one more NASCAR race in her career, bringing her career total to just seven races.
Her career may have been short, but Christian’s short stint in racing broke barriers for women in NASCAR. Christian made way for countless other women to attempt NASCAR races by showing that female drivers can have success on the track. In fact, Christian’s fifth place finish in 1949 is still the best finish by a female driver at NASCAR’s top level. Although her career lasted just seven short races, Sara Christian makes this list solely for her contribution to breaking gender barriers in auto racing.
11. Sarah Fisher
For over 10 years, Sarah Fisher was a staple in the Indycar Series. From 1999 to her retirement in 2010, Fisher competed against the best male drivers in American open-wheel racing, week in and week out. Her breakout season came in 2001 when she would finish second in the IRL Indycar Series’ inaugural event at Homestead-Miami Speedway. This finish would stand for seven years as the best finish by a female driver until Danica Patrick would win her first race in 2008. Unfortunately, this second place finish would be Fisher’s only podium finish of the year and she would end the season 19th in championship points.
Although Fisher did not win any races in her career, she is best known for her attrition and perseverance at the Indianapolis 500. Fisher would qualify for the Indy 500 nine times in her career with a best finish of 17th in 2009. This may not seem like much success, but it should be noted that for the latter part of her career, Fisher was driving for her own under-funded team without the same resources as the rest of Indycar’s powerhouse teams. Sure, Fisher never dominated the race track, but her accomplishments in the Indycar Series helped pave the way for other female drivers like Danica Patrick and Simona De Silvestro, who would go on to have much more success in the series.
10. Janet Guthrie
When you think about women in NASCAR, you’d usually jump to straight to a mental image Danica Patrick racing around high-banked superspeedways. But a lesser-known female driver was breaking down gender barriers long before Patrick was even born. Janet Guthrie was the first woman to ever race in a NASCAR-sanctioned superspeedway race when she entered the 1976 World 600. Guthrie would go on to finish 15th in the race and even finished ahead of legendary seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt. Guthrie would go on to compete in the 1977 Daytona 500 where she would be named the ‘Rookie of the Race’ with a 12th place finish.
Guthrie also competed in Indycars at the Indy 500. Her first attempt would be in 1976 and unfortunately she would not qualify. Naturally, this drew criticism from several male drivers who stated he failure was due to her gender. Guthrie would return to the Indy 500 in 1977 where she would qualify for the race but was forced to retire early with engine issues. In the 1978 Indy 500, Guthrie would finish ninth, silencing her critics. Guthrie’s racing career came to an early end in the late 1970s as she was never able to secure enough sponsorship to pay for her racing endeavors, an issue she believed was primarily linked to her gender. Although her career ended early, Guthrie cemented her place in auto racing history and showed that Daytona and Indy aren’t just a boy’s club.
9. Katherine Legge
Britain’s Katherine Legge began racing at a young age and immediately made a name for herself. Her pro career began driving Formula Renault and Formula Ford cars and in 2005 she was named RACER Magazine’s “Most Promising Road Racer of the Year.” Legge then moved to the Toyota Atlantic Championship, where she would win the first race of year and go on to finish third in championship points with three wins and five podium finishes.
Legge spent the next few season driving in the Champ Car World Series and in the Indycar Series with limited success, although she added her name to the short list of women that have raced in the Indy 500. Following her career in Indycars, Legge transitioned to sports car racing in IMSA’s United Sportscar Series. 2017 was her most successful career to date. Teamed with co-driver Andy Lally, Legge’s Michael Shank Racing team took two wins and four podium finishes on route to a sixth place finish in series points. Legge has already accomplished many different feats in her career, but her future looks even brighter.
8. Sabine Schmitz
In the racing world, Sabine Schmitz is known simply as “The Queen of the Nurburgring.” Why you ask? Well, she’s won the 24 Hours of Nurburgring twice and claims to have run over 20,000 laps at the 15.5-mile-long German race course. Schmitz’s racing career has been more or less based entirely around the Nurburgring. She’s won countless races at the track in the CHC and VLN series, even claiming the VLN series championship in 1998.
Schmitz is perhaps best known for her appearances on hit television show Top Gear, where she competed against host Jeremy Clarkson (and thoroughly beating him) in a lap time battle around the Nurburgring. Schmitz currently races very sparingly and spends her time operating a driving school at the Nurburgring.
7. Michele Mouton
In North America, Rally Racing has never reached the levels of national popularity that NASCAR, Indycar, and the NHRA have, so you’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of Michele Mouton. Mouton competed in the World Rally Championship from 1974 to 1986 and is one of the only women to have ever raced in the series. She began her career as a co-driver, navigating and supporting the actual driver. Eventually she would transition to the driver’s seat and competed on a limited basis for the first eight years of her career.
Her breakout season came in 1981, when she would switch to the Audi Sport team and win her first event. In 1982, Mouton would finish on the podium four times, with three victories. In the final years of her career, Mouton would finish on the podium four more times before her retirement following the 1986 season. To this day, Mouton is still the last woman to compete in any top-level Rallying series.
6. Christina Nielsen
Christina Nielsen is the youngest driver to make this list, at just 26-years-old. She got her start in racing during her teen years when she began karting. She would begin working her way up the sports car ranks shortly afterward, driving in Germany’s Porsche Carrera Cup. Nielsen would then head States-side to race in the United Sports Car Series driving for NGT motorsport in 2014. For 2015, Nielsen would drive an Aston Martin for TRG-AMR North America and would achieve five podium finishes.
In 2016 she’d drive Ferraris for Scuderia Corsa and would go on to win the GT Daytona Class championship including wins in the legendary 12 Hours of Sebring and Six Hours of the Glen. Nielsen would return in 2017 with seven podium finishes, including a victory at Laguna Seca and would ultimately win her second straight championship. Nielsen is one of few drivers on this list to have achieved multiple championships in their racing series. Considering she’s not even 30 yet, Nielsen has just scratched the surface of her racing potential.
5. Lyn St. James
Like several other drivers on this list, Lyn St. James is part of the small group of just nine women who have qualified for the Indianapolis 500. In 1996, St. James would win the Indy 500’s ‘Rookie of the Year Award’ for her 11th place finish. She would return to the Indy 500 six more times in her career but would unfortunately never match her rookie performance.
Although she raced at Indianapolis, St. James’ true calling was in endurance sports car racing. St. James owns two victories in the 24 Hours of Daytona and three podium finish at the 12 Hours of Sebring, including a win in the 1990 race, driving for legendary car owner Jack Roush. St. James has also raced in the 24 Hours of Le Mans on two separate occasions, including racing for as part of an all-female team in 1991.
4. Milka Duno
Most fan opinions of Milka Duno are unfortunately ruined by recency bias. The Brazilian driver is best known for her late-career (and ultimately failed) attempts at Indycar racing and NASCAR. But what many fans don’t know is that Duno enjoyed a myriad of success in sports car racing before spending her time putt-putting around in NASCAR and Indycar. Milka Duno is actually one of the most success female drivers in the history of American sports car racing.
In just 20 career American Le Mans series races, Duno has five class victories, including two victories in the prestigious ‘Petite Le Mans’ at Barber Motorsports Park. Duno has also spent time racing in the Grand-Am Road Racing series where she owns three victories. Although Duno’s motorsports career is best remembered for flaming out in Indycar and NASCAR, her achievements in sports car racing should be held in higher regard than they are.
3. Erica Enders-Stevens
Like several other drivers on this list, Erica Enders-Stevens has made a name for herself on the NHRA drag racing circuit. In fact, she hasn’t just made a name for herself — she’s been putting the competition to shame. Enders-Stevens began racing in the NHRA’s Pro Stock series in 2005 and quickly became the first woman to reach a final round in the series and collected multiple round wins.
In 2012, Enders-Stevens made history by winning the finals at Route 66 Raceway, this would be the first ever win by a woman in the Pro Stock series. In 2014, She would once again write a new chapter in drag racing history by becoming the first woman to win a Pro Stock World Championship… a feat she would repeat in 2015.
2. Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick is the driver that nearly every young girl watching racing wants to become. She is the most successful female driver in both Indycar and NASCAR history. Patrick joins Janet Guthrie as the only two women to have ever driven in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. Patrick burst on to the racing scene in 2005 with her impressive run at the Indy 500, leading 19 laps. She would go on to finish fourth in the race which would garner her national attention. Over seven seasons, Patrick would enjoy an up-and-down Indycar career, culminated by a victory at the Japan Indy 300 in 2008, the first ever win by a woman in Indycar.
Patrick would jump to NASCAR fulltime in 2012 and would make history by winning the pole for the 2013 Daytona 500, being the first woman to ever do so. Patrick’s career in NASCAR has unfortunately been marred by multiple accidents and a long string of crashes and poor finishes, but she does own seven career top ten finishes. Although Patrick has received more than her fair share of criticism for her limited success in NASCAR, she still owns the distinction of being the most successful female competitor in series history.
1. Shirley Muldowney
Known as the “First Lady of Drag Racing,” Shirley Muldowney is often considered among the greatest female race drivers in history. Muldowney found her love of drag racing during her teen years and eventually focused on it full time. Muldowney would win her first major event in 1971, the IHRA Southern Nationals. She would eventually move up to racing Top Fuel cars in the NHRA and would win the World Championship in 1977, 1980, and 1982.
Muldowney was the first to ever women to win a championship in any NHRA drag racing class and to this day in considered royalty among drag racing fans both male and female. But to use a cliché, Muldowney’s biggest win wasn’t on the track. Muldowney’s success won female drivers respect and recognition in drag racing. Before her championships, drag racing was not friendly to female drivers and considered a man’s game. Muldowney broke down this barrier and to this day, drag racing in the United States is one of the most diverse racing communities, with countless female drivers having competed.