Annabeth Barnes in her car at Hickory Motor Speedway, 2011
Annabeth Barnes in her car at Hickory Motor Speedway, 2011

In the upcoming POV film Racing Dreams, Annabeth Barnes dreams to be the first woman to win the Daytona 500. She hopes to follow in the footsteps of racers such as Danica Patrick and Lyn St. James, NASCAR women who have made names garnering titles like the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year. So, not being a NASCAR afficionado myself but still having heard of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and the Formula One racer Ayrton Senna (thanks to the award-winning documentary about him), I began to wonder, why haven’t I heard about the female racers?

Initially, I assumed that female racers did not have a long history. Maybe it wasn’t until recently, as with other sports, that women took to the racetrack with the guys? However, this was not the case. French women were the first to take laps with the men at the very beginning of the 20th century. Camille du Gast became the first woman to race internationally in the Paris-Berlin race of 1901, where she finished in the top third of more than 100 racers. Not too much later, in the 1920s, Violette Morris, an athletic tomboy who even had a double mastectomy so she could be completely comfortable behind a steering wheel, emerged onto the racing scene with brute force. But her accomplishments were poorly recognized in France and her image was indelibly tarnished after being recruited for the Gestapo. Either way, I would think a character and story like that would certainly draw the attention of a filmmaker! (Any takers?)

In the United States, women started appearing on the racetrack in the 1940s, with Sara Christian becoming the first woman to race in a NASCAR event. That same year, her fifth place finish in the October Heidelberg race remains the best finish for a female in the premier stock car circuit. In 1977, Janet Guthrie made leaps for women in racing when she became the first female to qualify for the Indy 500. That same year, in her rookie NASCAR Winston Cup season, she finished in the Top 12 a phenomenal ten times.

Learn more about the history of karting and women in racing »

Danica Patrick at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Pole Day for the 2008 Indianapolis 500
Danica Patrick at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Pole Day for the 2008 Indianapolis 500 (Photo by wikipedia user Manningmbd

With a long history of women racers in place, what else could it be that has kept me from hearing about them? Racing is a sport unlike others in that women can compete against men and win by having good equipment, a sharp and quick mind, and physical fitness. They don’t need to worry about building as much muscle mass as the men because it’s not a factor that would work in their favor. To me, the sport is genderless. On the surface it looks like a great sport women can use to break barriers — a subject that I’ve seen many doc filmmakers flock to.

In 2010, NPR aired a story about Mona Ennab, a member of group of drivers in the West Bank who call themselves the Speed Sisters. Ennab has proven to be a talented female racer, earning Top 10 finishes in most of her races. Men and clerics in the area have challenged the choice she’s made to become a driver, but crowds still openly cheer for her and go to see a “girl” take on the big boys.

With a seemingly large number of complex subjects to follow today and through history, and a number of nuanced stories to tell, why haven’t we seen the stories of these racetrack pioneers played out on screen yet? I’ll be first in line for that screening as soon as it comes out!

Watch Racing Dreams — premiering Thursday, February 23, 2012, on PBS — to see one girl taking on the boys in the elite World Karting Association. Check local listings »

Read more posts about women in documentaries…

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POV Staff
POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 400 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.