On this day in 1916, the future racing legend Louise Smith, who will become the first woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, is born in Barnesville, Georgia.
In the mid-1940s, the racing promoter Bill France was looking for a female driver as a way to attract spectators to some of the earliest events in what would become the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) circuit. Before a race near Greenville, South Carolina, in 1946, he heard of Louise Smith, a local resident who was famous for outrunning law enforcement on the roads. With France’s encouragement, Smith entered the race at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in a 1939 Ford and finished third. Unaware that a checkered flag meant the finish line, she kept going beyond the end of the race until someone threw out a red flag.
Though her husband Noah, the owner of a junkyard, didn’t approve of her new speed-demon career, Smith was hooked. In 1947, she famously “borrowed” Noah’s new car, a Ford coupe, and drove it to watch races in Daytona Beach, Florida. She ended up entering the race herself and wrecking the car, a fact she tried to conceal from him, not knowing that the news had made the front page of the Greenville paper before she returned home. Smith subsequently became a regular on France’s new circuit, appearing in NASCAR events throughout the United States and Canada for the next decade. She won 38 races and had some spectacular crashes, including one in which her car overturned, earning her 48 stitches and four pins in her left knee. Dubbed the “Good Ol’ Gal” by her fellow drivers, Smith nonetheless struggled in the masculine world of NASCAR. As she told the Associated Press in 1998: “Them men were not liking it to start with and they wouldn’t give you an inch.”
Smith retired in 1956 but remained active in the racing world: She sponsored various drivers, and was involved in the Miss Southern 500 Scholarship Pageant at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. In 1999, she was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Alabama. Smith died in April 2006, at the age of 89.