So, they tell us fairer sex, women can’t drive, cars belong to a male-dominated world, and the list is endless. Well for many years, the racing world has been a male-dominated arena. And the most part, even now, the Formula 1 Grand Prix, and celebrated at other global locations, remains dominated by the more gallant species.
However, over the last century, there have been a few select pioneering ladies who embarked on becoming exceptional racers and who in our opinion should be recognised and celebrated!
Some of our best female race car drivers of all time are listed below. Some are still racing and some retired to enjoy knowing they became revolutionary doing what they loved most.
We start at Number 10…
Top 10 Female Racing Drivers
Number 10 – Denise McCluggage
When you look at the life of Denise McCluggage, what you find is she was more than just a regular race driver, she had many talents. Not only was she an established journalist, but her racing career included these accomplishments:
- Drove a Porsche 550 to victory at the 1956 Nassau Ladies Race 1
- Won the Watkins Glen Grand Prix Ladies Race in 1957 with a Porsche 550
- Drove a Porsche 550 to victory at the Nassau Ladies Races 1 and 2 in 1957.
- Drove a Ferrari 250 and took first place in the Sebring 12 Hours GT category in 1961.
- Won the Copa de Damas with a Porsche 550 during the Grand Prix of Venezuela.
- Drove a Ford Falcon to first place in the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally.
- Inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. She’s the only journalist to ever receive this honour.
After all these awards, you can see why we choose her to start off our list of female race car drivers. Aside from racing, Denise’s career kept her busy at the San Francisco Chronicle. Then, she made the acquaintance of Briggs Cunningham, the first American car builder that supplied vehicles for racing during Le Mans.
She uprooted to New York and started racing professionally. To fulfil her journalistic side, she went to work at the New York Herald Tribune covering sports. She quickly earned the respect of her male competitors, even though she wore a white helmet featuring pink dots.
Her racing career ended in the 1960s, but her successes didn’t stop. She won automotive journalistic awards and helped launch AutoWeek, where she remained until her death in 2015. At that time, she was the Senior Contributing Editor.
Number 9 – Sabine Schmitz
This German female race car driver is best known as the TV personality on BBC’s Top Gear. She also drives for Porsche and BMW. You might know her as the woman who drove the BMW “ring taxi” on the Nürburgring track.
Sabine comes from the Schmitz family, who are known for owning both restaurants and hotels. She and her older sisters grew up living in the Hotel am Tiergarten. She followed in the footsteps of her family and owns hotels and restaurants.
While all three of the sisters began driving race cars, Sabine is the only one that stuck with it and went on to victory. She’s run several events including:
- 1996 and 1997 24 Hours Nürburgring
- 1998 VLN endurance racing championship
Think about that for a moment. She is fast enough to win at 24 Hours Nürburgring two times! If that’s not enough, in 2004 she also became a helicopter pilot. Today, Sabine is one of the most recognisable female racing drivers in the world.
Number 8 – Hellé Nice
One of the female racing driver pioneers was Hellé Nice. Her real name was Mariette Hélène Delangle and she was more than just a driver. She also worked as a dancer and French model. She first became interested in motor racing through driver de Courcelles. Her first performance occurred at the annual fair in Paris.
Prior to that, she had been a dancer and an avid skier, but an accident hurt her knee and ended both passions for her. In 1929, she became the winner of the all-female Grand Prix race at Autodrome de Montlhéry while driving an Oméga-Six.
After a relationship with Philippe de Rothschild, she met Ettore Bugatti who put her on with his male race car drivers. That’s when she started driving a Bugatti Type 35C during five separate French Grand Prix. With that came numerous endorsement deals and she became one of the most famous women in France.
It’s true that she never won a race, but she is still one of the best female drivers ever to live. She competed hard and often finished before many of the top male competitors. At times, she was the only woman on the Grand Prix circuit. Then, she branched out and raced rallies and hill climbs as well. She was even in the Monte Carlo Rally.
She was also racing at the 1933 Monza Grand Prix when three of the top race drivers during that time were killed. Then, in 1936, she was involved in an accident during a Grand Prix race. The Aston Martin she drove did somersaults through the air and collided with the grandstand. Over 30 people were injured and six died, but she was thrown from the car where she landed on a soldier who saved her life.
Number 7 – Pat Moss
When you talk about the best female auto rally drivers, you are sure to hear the name Pat Moss. She won three times outright and had seven podium finishes during international rallies. Five times she was crowned as the European Ladies’ Rally Champion.
You may also know her as Stirling Moss’s brother. He was a big Formula One Grand Prix star from the 1950s. In addition, she was married to Erik Carlsson, the Swedish rally driver.
Above all her racing achievements and personal connections, she also wrote some books. The Story So Far, written in 1967, was a memoir. The other book she wrote, The Art and Technique of Driving, was written with her husband.
Number 6 – Jutta Kleinschmidt
This German competitor raced during off-road events. You may recognize the name from the Paris Dakar Rally. Originally, she studied at Isny Polytech and majored in physics. Then, she went to work for BMW.
The first time she raced was in 1988 with a BMW motorcycle. She only did that in 1988, 1992, and 1994 before switching to cars. In 1995, she began racing and even had a podium finish in 1997. Then she ended up winning the Paris Dakar Rally in 2001. She was the only woman and the only German to win.
What did she win the race with? A Mitsubishi.
Number 5 – Courtney Force-Rahal
Ask anyone who the top female drag racer is and they’ll tell you to watch out for Courtney Force-Rahal. She drives the Advance Auto Parts Chevy Camaro SS Funny Car under John Force Racing. That’s because Courtney Force is John Force’s daughter, and sister of Ashley Force Hood. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, it should. He won the NHRA World Funny Car Racing Championship 16 times.
Don’t assume she made our list just because her father is a legend. She won the Top Alcohol Dragster during the 22nd annual NHRA Northwest Nationals in Washington during 2009. Then, in 2013, she became the first woman to qualify in the number one position during the O’Reilly Auto Parts Winternationals.
In fact, in 2014, she took the lead of most wins by a female driver in the NHRA with her 100th win. Do you know who previously held that record? Courtney’s sister. You may also know Courtney from her family’s reality show on A&E, “Driving Force.” The Force family are a drag racing dynasty, and a force to be reckoned with.
Number 4 – Marie-Claude Charmasson
This lesser-known female race car driver deserves more recognition. She was a rally driver from 1965 through 1974. She drove the Opel Kadett, Chevrolet Corvette, Opel Commodore, and Chevrolet Camaro. Then, from 1974 until 1976, she raced circuits.
Her racing career ended in the 1976 production car championship with a BMW 3.5 CSI. By the end of her racing years, she had two class wins to show from her time racing big block Chevys.
But that wasn’t the end of her career. She became a professional photographer for the 24 Hours of LeMans and the Grand Prix. Then, she was hired to work in external relations for Renault Sports from 1977 until 1982.
Number 3 – Shirley Muldowney
During the 1970s and 1980s, Shirley Muldowney stood out from all the male race car drivers on the planet. Her accolades speak for her competence. In 1975, Shirley became the first woman member of the Auto Racing All-American team. Then, in 1976, she became the Drag News Top Fuel Driver of the Year.
During 1977, she won the NHRA Winston world points championship. It was the first time a woman claimed this title. She also earned the “Outstanding Achievement Award” given by the U.S. House of Representatives. That wasn’t all for that year, she also became the Car Craft Magazine Person of the Year and won three NHRA national events consecutively.
Then, in 1980, Shirley won the NHRA Winston world points championship for her second time. Not only did she win the 1981 AHRA world championship, but she was also voted to the Auto Racing All-American team for the fifth time in her career. On top of that, she was voted to the Car Craft Magazine All-Star Team as the Top Fuel Driver of the Year for the second time in a row. Finally, in 1982, she won the NHRA Winston Points Champions for the third time. She was the first person to accomplish this, making her one of the best female drivers.
Number 2 – Lyn St. James
This former female race car driver was born Evelyn Gene Cornwall, but she legally changed her name to match her racing persona. She was one of the most popular drivers in the IndyCar series. She had eleven CART plus five Indy Racing League starts in her career. In addition, she is one of nine women that have qualified for the Indianapolis 500. If that wasn’t enough, she also became the first woman with an Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award.
Other accomplishments she holds include:
- 2 victories from 24 Hours of Daytona
- A win from the 12 Hours of Sebring
- Competed in some Europe endurance races
- First and second place team finishes in the 24 Hours of Nürburgring
Aside from racing, she is also the founder of the Women in the Women’s Circle Foundation non-profit. Lyn also spends time as a motivational speaker plus she is an appeal panelist for NASCAR on the National Motorsports Appeals Panel.
Our Number One – Michele Mouton
Anyone that knows anything about race car drivers would clearly list Michele Mouton as the best female. She is a former rally driver and has competed in the World Rally Championship for the Audi team. In her career, she’s earned four victories plus finished as a runner-up in the drivers’ world championship of 1982.
She started as a co-driver, but it didn’t take long for her to graduate to the driver’s seat. In 1975, she won the two-litre prototype class during the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Then, she signed with Fiat France in 1977. Just a year later, she won the Tour de France Automobile and had consistent results during the WRC home events.
In 1981, Audi Sport signed her and she won the Rallye Sanremo that same year. During her 1982 racing year, she had victories in Brazil, Greece, and Portugal putting her in a close second to Walter Röhrl. Not only did she win the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb in 1985, but she set the record fastest time.
Then, in 1986, she went with Peugeot and won the German Rally Championship. She was also the first female driver to win a major rally championship. Once the ban of Group B supercars occurred, she retired from rallying altogether.
That didn’t stop her from making a difference in the racing field. She went on to co-found the Race of Champions in honour of Henri Toivonen (her former rival). In 2010, she became the first president of the FIA’s Women & Motor Sport Commission. Then, just a year after that, she took on the role of FIA’s manager in the World Rally Championship.