by: Hope Player
Vicki Wood became “The Fastest Woman on the Beach” in 1960, when she set the track record for the fastest one-way run in the history of racing on Daytona Beach, and that record of 150.375 miles per hour will never be broken. Last Saturday, some of the beach drivers gathered at the restaurant located at the sight of the north turn of the beach course. The aptly named North Turn Restaurant has been a fixture in Ponce Inlet, FL since the days when the racers slid through the sand to reach the paved part of the track and run south on A1A. Pictures of drivers, cars, and wrecks cover the wooden walls and grainy black-and-white videos of the races play on screens around the restaurant.
Mrs. Wood sat on a barstool, with her feet barely touching the foot rest, ready to tell her tales of the glory days of racing. She started racing in Detroit in the powder-puff category, where women race other women. The races were generally staged to draw the interest of the local crowds, but her skill and passion won her the notice of the male drivers.
“They invited me to run with them,” she chuckles. “They said they would rather have me out there with them than a lot of those other guys!”
And run, she did. In March 1956 at Daytona Beach, she drove a Chrysler 300-B and clocked the second fastest two-way run at 136.1 miles per hour, and she did it in the same car as Tim Flock, the weekend’s Daytona 500 race winner and reigning NASCAR Grand National champion, who turned a 139.4. Petite and feisty, her blue eyes twinkle as she tells about racing with and beating the men. She holds records at Daytona on the beach, at the Speedway and at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
In the late fifties and early sixties, when television shows featured Harriett Nelson of “Ozzie and Harriett” and June Cleaver of “Leave it to Beaver” wearing pearls and heels as they vacuumed their home, Mrs. Wood was at the racetrack wearing slacks and a helmet, accessorized by a seatbelt in her car. What attracted her to the dirt, rubber and noise of racing? “I’ve always been an adrenaline junkie,” quips Mrs. Wood.
Women in racing have never been commonplace, but she followed a few trendsetters. When NASCAR, the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, the sanctioning body, was formed in 1949, Sara Christian was the first woman to race, in June of that year in the inaugural event in Charlotte, NC. She and husband Frank were both drivers and are the only husband and wife driving team in NASCAR history. She was also the first woman inducted into the Georgia Automobile Racing Hall of Fame.
Louise Smith was a great driver and a great draw for the crowd. She was brought in by Bill France, the founder of NASCAR, and went on to win 38 modified races in 11 years. Called the “Good Ol’ Gal”, she is the first woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Ethel Flock Mobley, a younger sister in the legendary racing Flock family, enjoyed the sport of racing and beating her brothers. It’s said that she was named after the gasoline that her father used in his taxicab. She also started racing in the powder-puff category, but moved quickly into the professional ranks.
Women driving racecars today, like Danica Patrick, who sits on the pole in this year’s Daytona 500, or Ashley Force Hood who drives dragsters, (Editor’s note: Younger sister, Courtney Force raced to victory in Funny Car Sunday at the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals in Pomona CA) owe the opportunity for their careers to these fearless, record-setting women. In a male dominated sport, these First Ladies of Racing competed at the same level, not from the red tees, like in golf. Danica was quoted as saying that she was raised to be the fastest driver, not the fastest woman driver. The first drivers obviously viewed the competition the same way.
They loved racing all of their lives and stayed involved in the sport even after they retired their helmets. Louise Smith owned several race teams in the 1970s, and was involved in the Miss Southern 500 Scholarship Pageant at Darlington Raceway in Darlington, SC. Vicki Wood retired from racing in 1963, but in 1993, she was a founding member of the Living Legends of Auto Racing Museum, the organization devoted to keeping alive the stories of the racers on Daytona Beach.
Mrs. Wood and the other drivers are the racing history of the once bramble-covered and rumored to be rattlesnake infested area that now boasts residential developments. At the event on Saturday, the community of Ponce Inlet, Florida sponsored the first lap on the beach since 1958, with several original beach race cars. A checkered flag waved in the breeze, and the beach access boasts a new gate emblazoned with the crossed black and white checkered flags. Racing has come a long way but is so important to celebrate its colorful roots in beach racing.
While watching the parade of cars on a blustery sunny Florida morning, you can smell the gasoline and hear the rumble of the cars hitting the potholes in the ruts in the sand. You feel the salt air that drenched their windshields as they drove at record speeds. The fans were so close that when conditions got bad the drivers often used them as landmarks to know where to turn.
So many of the drivers are known now only in the record books and biographies in halls of fame, but on that day at the North Turn Restaurant, Mrs. Vicki Wood sat on the stage and charmed the fans. (Editor’s note: Vicki Wood will turn 94 on March 15)
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