'Bonneville's Women of Land Speed Racing' Chronicles Women's Historic Acceleration Into The Male-Dominated Event
The new book Bonneville’s Women of Land Speed Racing says “Never has any race car, truck or motorcycle operated differently due to the operator's gender.” The book, which chronicles women’s historic acceleration into male-dominated event, has been released just as The World of Speed event is underway on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Those flats are being impacted by climate change, though. Brenda Bowen is director of the Global Change & Sustainability Center at the University of Utah. She said there are a lot of factors causing damage, citing over a century of brine extraction for potash mining. Bowen pointed to other human use of the salt flats too — including racing — and said climate and weather also shape the salty landscape.
Author Louise Ann Noeth, better known as “LandSpeed” Louise, spent years as a motorsport journalist and is a former drag racer. KUER’s Pamela McCall spoke with her about the history of fast women on the Bonneville Salt Flats.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pamela McCall: When did women start racing out on Bonneville Salt Flats?
"LandSpeed" Louise Noeth: I have now in my possession the 1955 entry blank from a gal by the name of Margaret, better known as Peggy Hart, who raced in 1955, a brand new Thunderbird that her husband ripped out the lousy Ford powertrain and put in a new Cadillac engine.
PM: So were they able to officially take part in this? Or was it just always that they were there and that finally they started beating the guys?
LN: 1972 — and it was not a welcoming thing, it was a forced thing. They had sent away a woman who was American Motorcycle Association and a National Hot Rod Association drag racer and road racer Joy Houston — said, “No, you can't race here because you're a woman. We won't let you be here at Bonneville Speed Week.” They said, “No, you can't.” And she said, “well, how can I be a member in good standing here and there? But now all of a sudden, I no longer count when I come here?” — she said that to the District 37 fellow who was the representative for the AMA. Through a series of things that happened over the winter with the competition congress, they took a vote. So they had to let the women come.
PM: You've done a lot of research. How many women did you unearth that have taken part and who stands out?
LN: The list is now up to 330 women as of just this week. Of that, about 300 had put on helmets and earned the right to go to the starting line. Obviously, the one that stands out for me is the very first woman in 1972. We can go forward with a gal by the name of Tricia Kisner Kissner, now Shaffer.
She was the first woman who was a rookie to earn the Hot Rod magazine Top Time trophy. She went from zero to about 325 miles an hour in about five days, having never driven a Lakester. It's kind of like putting a rookie in the seat of a rocket and sending her to the moon. So she was the first rookie, the first woman, the first one in a Lakester and the first one to earn the Top Time trophy. Oh, and she completely bypassed the 200-mph club “Red Hat” program and went right to the “Blue Hat,” because when you set a record over 300 at Bonneville, you get to be part of the 300-mph chapter of the 200-mph club. [She was the] first and only to do that.
PM: Climate change doesn't recognize gender. We're in a climate emergency. The Bonneville Salt Flats are shrinking. Should this be proceeding? Given where we are?
LN: They are shrinking. The diameter has shrunk considerably and the thickness of the salt, which used to be as tall as this studio — five, six feet — is now in some cases crepe paper-thin. The problems with it shrinking have nothing to do with climate change as much as they have to do with the potash mining that has been going on since the ‘60s. I was out there last week. The Bonneville Salt Flats don't need water right now. They're fine. They’re very hard and very dry. Certainly motor sport — or any sport if you will — none of that matters as much as what we need to live. And if I had to choose watering plants over making the Bonneville Salt Flats smooth for racing — I’d choose plants and racing could stay home.
PM: The event is proceeding. What are we going to see? Speeds say from a woman or a man?
LN: Setting a land speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats is like turning in the greatest performance that a symphony orchestra has. It is a big matrix and it's all got to be correct. So sometimes you can do it the first time out there and you’re just beside yourself on how you do it and you end up crying. Big fat giant guys cry. And sometimes you can try for years and can't understand why you can't achieve anything. Bonneville is just as desolate and a hard place to be as it was for the pioneers that tried to go across it 200 years ago.
PM: Have you taken a rip out on the Bonneville Salt Flats?
LN: Yeah, plenty.
PM: What's it like and how fast did you go?
LN: It’s very different. There are no mile markers. There's no poles, there's no trees. There's no nothing. So 150 miles an hour seems like 60 to me. But I also have a lot of time at racetracks around the country and all kinds of cars, both production vehicles, supercars and race cars. So for me, anything past 100 is cruisin’. And I don't really get excited till it gets to about 170, 175 miles an hour.