I stumble across the Louise Smith story in the search to say something original about Danica Patrick. I'm on the bus with everyone else about Ms. Patrick and her qualification run that put her on the pole position for the Daytona 500 on Sunday. It's great. It's terrific. It's a big step forward for women, for equality for …
Wait a minute.
Here's Louise Smith.
Wait a minute.
The year is 1949. The way the story goes -- and there are different versions of it, facts fuzzy with time, so I'm simply picking the one I like best -- she arrives at the first NASCAR race in Daytona history in her husband Noah's 1947 maroon Ford coupe. Noah is back home in Greenville, S.C., taking care of the family business, which is an auto salvage junkyard.
She has told him she is going to Daytona to watch the race. This is promoter Bill France's second race in his new NASCAR series, which he calls Strictly Stock, and she wants to give it a look. The first race was three weeks earlier in Charlotte, and she wants to see what will happen on the Daytona Beach Road Course, which covers parts of Route A1A and the beach itself.
"Have a good time," Noah says. (This is dialogue I invented.)
"I certainly will," Louise replies. (More invented dialogue.)
A good guess would be that Noah has some suspicions about what is going to happen next because Louise already has raced cars on the dirt tracks up and down the Eastern seaboard. She also is acquainted with Mr. Bill France.
The promoter had thought that a woman driver -- that more than one, if possible -- would be a stock car attraction. The battle of the sexes would sell tickets. Louise was one of his first recruits. Known as a fast driver on the back roads around Greenville, involved in chases with the local police, she had been suspected of being a bootlegger during Prohibition. She always replied that she "drank whiskey, didn't carry it." She drove fast because she liked to drive fast.
This explanation sounded fine to Bill France. He put her on a local track in 1945 without much instruction, and she drove so fast she finished third. The only problem was that no one had told her the checkered flag meant the race was finished. She kept on driving at top speed for an extra lap until she saw that everyone else had stopped.
She liked racing and he liked how she raced, so she simply continued. Some of the good old boys were not happy with her presence on the track at first -- "Them men were not liking it to start and they wouldn't give you an inch," she said in a 1999 Associated Press story -- but she started sliding a few of them into the walls in the turns and they settled down just fine.
So now she shows up in Daytona, and one story says she is just so excited by what she sees in practice, all that sliding on the beach and everything, that she enters Noah's maroon 1947 Ford right there. She does this even though she knows that it is his dream car, the one he pre-ordered long distance from the dealership when he was in the Pacific finishing up his duties in World War II. Spur-of-the-moment craziness. Impulse.
Another story says there might have been some premeditation. She secretly had carried a second, racing engine in the trunk of Noah's maroon 1947 Ford coupe, had the engine switched at Daytona. This meant she always had been ready to race. Whatever the story, she is mentioned in the pre-race newspaper stories as one of the 28 starters. She also -- in this first NASCAR race at Daytona, the start of what has become the present Daytona 500 -- is mentioned as one of THREE women drivers.
Sara Christian, who drove in the first NASCAR race in Charlotte, is in the field along with her husband, Frank. Ethel Mobley joins brothers, Tim, Fonty and Bob Flock in the field. Her family is so involved in racing that Bob Flock says his father named his sister after the family's favorite kind of petroleum. Louise, driving Noah's maroon 1947 Ford, is the third woman.
The race takes place under threatening skies, which keeps the crowd down to an estimated 5,000 witnesses. The winner is Bob (Red) Byron, a wounded Word War II veteran driving with special braces on his legs. He averages 79 miles per hour for the 40 laps that covered 160 miles. He collects $1,500 for the win.
Ethel Mobley in a Cadillac convertible is the first woman finisher at 11th. Her brother, Tim, finishes second behind Byron, but Fonty and Bob finish behind their sister. Sara Christian finishes 18th in a 1949 Ford. Her husband, Frank, finishes sixth in an Oldsmobile. Louise? Ah, Louise finishes 21st.
There is a story. On the 21st lap, Louise flips the 1947 maroon Ford coupe. Noah's dream car was upside down. Fans run out, flip the car back upright. Louise gets back in and despite the damage is able to finish the race.
She would go on from here to a hall-of-fame career. Not in the Strictly Stock series, which will evolve into the Sprint Cup cars of today, but in the modifieds, where she wins 38 times in 11 years. After retiring, she would go on to sponsor race cars with other drivers, to work at Darlington Speedway. She would die in 2006 at the age of 89.
Her immediate piece of business, though, is to drive that dream car home to her husband. She can't make it. Somewhere in Georgia, maybe Augusta, the battered car gives out. She takes a bus back to Greenville.
"You know, that old thing weren't no good," she tells Noah when she gets home, the story she has concocted. "You bought a lemon and it broke down on me and it broke down on me in Augusta and I had to catch a bus back."
Noah doesn't say a word. He spreads out the local newspaper.
A picture on the front page shows Louise and the dream car.
* * *
Some versions of this story say that parts of it happened in an earlier, pre-NASCAR race in 1947 at Daytona Beach. Others say it all happened in 1949. Either way, Louise is the Danica Patrick of her time.