Vicki Wood: Breaking Gender Barriers in Auto Racing
today at 4:21 pm
Before women could be seen-or even allowed-on the racing track, Vicki Wood was “the fastest woman in racing.” Known as a “Lady Speedster,” Wood began racing stock cars for ‘kicks,’ while raising a family in Detroit. If you were a woman racing at all back then, it was most often in the powder-puff events. The major races and speed trials were open only to men. Fortunately, Vicki never saw it that way and was eager to race against the boys!
Often beating them, Ms. Wood became one of the first women to compete in NASCAR events in 1953. Retiring 10 years later, she was then in her mid-40s and had won 48 racing trophies and set the record for the fastest run across the sand in Daytona Beach, FL, at 150.376 mph in 1960. At first, she couldn’t imagine driving on the beach. Finishing third in the speed trial championships, she navigated the sand just fine. She went on to receive special permission from NASCAR founder Bill France to try for a speed record in 1959. Almost prohibited to drive, France stood up for her saying “Vicki Wood is not a woman…She’s a driver, and she’s allowed in the pits.” She topped 130 mph in a Pontiac and the following year at Daytona, set a women’s record with the fastest one-way run on the sand in history.
“I just love speed,” Wood said, “and the racetrack is the safest place for it.”
Ms. Wood was 101 when she died on June 5 in Troy, MI of a heart-related illness. She often remarked how she ‘got bounced around a little bit,’ but never hurt badly. She often told the story of flipping over another car at Flat Rock Speedway in Michigan. She went sailing over the wall into the track’s retaining screen. Taken to the hospital, Wood was kept under watch for two days before she returned to the cockpit the following week!
Standing just 5-foot-3, Ms. Wood was a striking figure on the racetrack, wearing colorful scarves and at times walking through the pit in a skirt and high heels. When it came to racing, though, she was all business, drawing on her knowledge of automobiles that she gained as a child. Having six brothers didn’t hurt, she’d joke. She either joined in tinkering with cars, or be left out, she noted.
Vicki Wood was born Victoria Rose Raczak, one of seven children, who grew up in Detroit. In fact, she began to race when her husband challenged her after his own racing career was cut short due to injuries. The first woman to race with the men, Ms. Wood was invited to Daytona Beach for NASCAR’s 1955 Speed Week, where she was given the keys to a Chrysler
Wood later shared with Autoweek that those ‘women in the race were so bad; all over the track, running into the wall….” She told her husband if she couldn’t drive better than that, she wouldn’t bother. Challenging her, he led her to the track and a 1937 Dodge coupe. Without any training experience, she finished ninth. The following night she won a powder-puff race at Mount Clemens. A week later she won the asphalt at Flat Rock.
A few years later, Wood was confronted by a male driver warning her if she continued to race, the men would go on strike! Seems a few of the male drivers couldn’t handle the possibility of being beaten by a women driver! She told Autoweek later that she decided to retire. She had “had enough.” Although she didn’t race into old age, she did continue to drive, almost to the very end. At age 98, Wood’s Florida license was revoked. For someone who loved to drive, it was the worst thing they could have done to her, she said.
When racing at Daytona and Atlanta International Raceway, Ms. Wood completed short-track races, following in the heels of such women as Sara Christian, Ethel Mobley and Louise Smith. She competed in NASCAR shortly after the association held its first sanctioned race in 1948.The sight of women racing in later years was more common. Many enthusiasts remember Lyn St. James, Janet Guthrie, Shirley Muldowney and Danica Patrick, among others.
Ms.Wood raced sporadically, and only locally, so did not have the global impact that a female racer might today. She not only raced, she drove in research demonstrations to determine hoe much wear and tear a car could take. At one time she worked in sales at Jordan Marsh in Florida. Driving against men was easier than driving against women, she remarked. “Female drivers were too unpredictable. They were rough drivers. They would get mad, especially if they lost, team up and ram you,”she said.
Although competitive on the track, Ms. Wood only had one speeding ticket in 80 years of driving. And contrary to some beliefs about women race drivers, she wasn’t coarse, nor did she chew tobacco. Just a gal who loved racing cars!