Racing has always been a male-dominated sport. What most people don’t realize, however, is that there have been (and continue to be) some outstanding professional female drivers. And we’re not just talking about Danica Patrick, either.
Let’s take a moment to pay respect to some of these unsung heroes of the racing world. We’ll take a look at the greatest female drivers of all time, along with some talented up-and-comers.
The Top 5 Female Race Car Drivers of All Time
Although there are quite a few women in racing nowadays, it wasn’t always that way. The following five women are true pioneers who paved the way for females in motorsports.
Before we go any further, let’s discuss the marketing machine, Danica Patrick. The fact that Patrick has sold an enormous amount of merchandise worldwide gets under some people’s skin—but her celebrity status shouldn’t discount the fact that she’s a talented driver and a trailblazer.
Patrick’s career includes time spent in both NASCAR and IndyCar racing (an impressive feat by itself). She and Janet Guthrie, who we’ll discuss later, are the only two women to have ever driven in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500.
Some of Patrick’s other career highlights include winning the Japan Indy 300, scoring the pole position for the Daytona 500, and racking up several top-ten finishes in NASCAR.
But it’s not Patrick’s wins on the race track that matter the most—her greatest achievement is being an inspiration for young girls around the world who dream of a career in racing.
- Most successful female NASCAR driver of all time
- Most successful female in open-wheel racing
- “Rookie of the Year” for the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 in 2005
- First woman to lead the Indianapolis 500, win an Indy-car race, and earn the pole position for the Daytona 500
- Career-high- finished third in the Indianapolis 500 in 2008
- Record holder – most top-ten finishes by a female driver (7)
Long before the Force sisters—Ashley, Brittany, and Courtney—hit the quarter-mile, there was Shirley Muldowney, “The First Lady of Drag Racing.”
Muldowney, now 79 years old, got her first major win at the IHRA Southern Nationals in 1971. She then moved on to compete in the NHRA, winning the World Championship in 1977, 1980, and 1982.
Certainly, Muldowney’s racing accomplishments are impressive. What’s even more inspiring, though, is that, as the first woman to earn an NHRA championship, she knocked down walls and opened doors for women everywhere.
As was mentioned, Janet Guthrie and Danica Patrick share the distinction of winning both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500. Guthrie, who is now 82 years old, was also the first woman to compete in a NASCAR-sanctioned superspeedway race when she competed in the 1976 World 600.
Despite doing well on multiple race circuits, in the late 1970s, Guthrie’s racing career came to an end when she was unable to find a sponsor. It’s fair to say that gender discrimination likely played a role in her inability to obtain sponsorship.
What’s most intriguing is that Guthrie wasn’t just good behind the wheel. Before getting involved in professional racing, she spent time as a pilot, a flight instructor, an aerospace engineer, and a public representative.
Additionally, prior to being invited to the Indianapolis 500, she built and maintained her own race cars.
Janet Guthrie might have been the first woman to compete in a NASCAR superspeedway race, but Sara Christian was the first to compete in an official NASCAR race of any kind.
Christian first hit the track in 1949 when she raced at Charlotte Speedway. She would go on to compete in just eight races, yet her short career has lived on to inspire generations of future female drivers.
Christina Nielsen started racing as a teenager and now, at just 28 years old, she is the first female driver to win the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Series. In fact, Nielsen won the championship title twice: in 2016 and 2017.
She has spent time behind the wheel of a variety of Ferrari and Porsche supercars—and she has competed on some of the most grueling tracts.
The 5 Up-and-comers to Watch
There are many up-and-coming female drivers competing in various types of racing. Here are some of the top contenders that you’ll want to keep an eye on:
Amber Balcaen is the first Canadian woman to win a NASCAR-sanctioned race in the United States. The 28-year-old began her career in the dirt, with sprint car racing. Shortly after, she caught the attention of NASCAR.
In 2016, she won her first official NASCAR race.
Balcaen is now President of her own company, Amber Balcaen Racing Inc. She also competes on the dirt track racing circuit.
At the age of eight, Hailie Deegan began racing. She is now 18 years old and competes full-time in the ARCA Menards Series.
During her young but impressive career, Deegan was named Lucas Oil Off Road Pro Series Driver of the Year in 2016. She also won multiple races in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series between 2018 and 2019.
Deegan is determined to make it into the NASCAR Cup Series—and with so much raw talent, there’s a good chance she’ll get there.
Leah Christine Pruett
Like Hailie Deegan, Leah Christine Pruett (Leah Pritchett) began racing at just eight years old. At the age of 18, she became the first woman to run in the 5-second range in a Nostalgia Funny Car.
Her professional racing career truly began in 2011, when she started driving for Funny Car and Pro Mod team owner Roger Burgess.
In 2018, Pruett won a championship title in the Factory Stock Showdown Series. She also earned a top-five finish in the Top Fuel class.
These days, she competes in an NHRA Top Fuel dragster for Don Schumacher Racing.
Most weekends, you’ll find 22-year-old Natalie Decker competing in the NASCAR Gander RV and Outdoors truck series. She is the highest finishing female to ever compete in the class.
As a teenager, Decker won the CWSSA Super Stock championship. Plus, she was named Rookie of the Year crown in the Triple Crown Super Truck Series. She finished 7th overall in the ARCA Series Point Standings in 2018.
In addition to racing, Decker now has her own podcast (Racing Girls Rock), and she’s a prominent social media influencer.
The Force family is a staple on the NHRA racing circuit. Brittany Force, the youngest daughter of 16-time NHRA champion John Force, is now carrying the torch for the dynasty. Her two sisters, Courtney and Ashley, who were also prominent race car drivers, are now retired.
With a 2017 Top Fuel World Championship under her belt, Brittany is certainly doing an outstanding job of carrying on the family’s winning streak.
It’s Not About Being A Woman—It’s About Being a Great Driver
While it’s great to honor female drivers, it would be nice to get to the point where gender is irrelevant in motorsports. The talking point shouldn’t be whether someone is a good female driver—but whether they’re a good driver. Period.
Christina Nielsen says it best: “At the end of the day, I am proud to be a female competing on such a high level, but most importantly, I am proud to be a driver who competes at that level. My personal statement is about the fact that nothing, including your gender, should stop you from pursuing your dreams and doing what you want.”