Last week, a little piece of motorsports history went away when Louise Smith, known as the first lady of racing when she made NASCAR headlines from 1945-56, died in Georgia on Saturday at age 89. Like the more recent excitement surrounding Danica Patrick's presence in the IRL, Louise Smith's career started when promoter Bill France was brainstorming ways to increase NASCAR's fan base and came up with the idea to bring in a woman racer. He came across Smith, who had a reputation for being able to outrun every officer of the law in her area of Georgia. While she'd never even seen a race before, Smith placed third at the Greenville-Pickens Speedway and went on to win 38 Modified events.
One has to wonder if Danica Patrick is really deserving of all the hype surrounding her place in women's automotive history after you look at Smith's career. Similar to Smith placing third at the first race she'd ever laid eyes on, Patrick shocked all the good ol' boys in the sport when she became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 for a lap and ultimately placed fourth. If Patrick can keep up her pace and outlive the rookie stage (is she a one-hit wonder or a lasting figure in the biz?), she could very well be the next woman to bridge the gap between male and female in the racing world, just as Smith did so many years ago. And the ultimate prize, while far away, is a ball for Danica to keep her eye on -- in 1999, Smith became the first woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
In the meantime, let's all raise a glass and toast to the best female motorsports competitor in history.