Women have played a critical role in the automotive industry since the inception of the motor vehicle, but that doesn’t mean they’ve always been welcome. Today, women make up just a quarter of the auto manufacturing workforce — and that’s after decades of improvement. Despite facing sexism and discrimination, women in racing and auto — like most other male-dominated industries — have persisted, breaking barriers and challenging stereotypes. In this article, we’re delving deeper into the history of female racecar drivers, highlighting the pioneers and trailblazers who paved the way for future generations, and speaking with some of our own Carvana employees about their experiences as women in the auto industry.
The Early Days: Female Racecar Drivers in the 1900s
When motorsports was in its infancy, women’s participation was limited and often frowned upon. For many women, it was a barrier they were happy to break through. Camille du Gast, labeled a “daredevil sportswoman” in this article by the Library of Congress, was one of the earliest female racecar drivers. In 1903, Camille drove in the “Paris-Madrid Trail,” also known as “the race to death.” Despite a faultless start, she sacrificed her chance at a top-placing finish to help a teammate trapped in a car crash.
When the Automobile Club de France sports commission banned women from racing due to “female excitability,” she filed a protest letter and moved to England. There, she faced off against fellow racing legend Dorothy Levitt before transitioning to powerboat racing (yes, really), where she had a successful career.
Speaking (or more aptly, writing) of Dorothy Levitt, the “fastest girl on earth” set the Ladies World Speed record in the Brighton Speed Trials of 1905, reaching a speed of 79.75 miles per hour (mph). Later that same year, she set the Land Speed record for women at 92mph during the Daily Mail Sweepstake, beating out several male drivers.
Levitt, Gast, and other early female racecar drivers made waves — on the track and at sea — despite facing significant pushback. There’s a reason Dorothy Levitt suggested that every woman carry a Colt revolver when going out alone in her book The Woman and the Car.
The Roaring Twenties: Women in Racing; The Rise of the Automobile
When the popularity of the automobile boomed, so did the involvement of women in motorsports. Female racecar drivers competed in various events including hill climbs, speed trials, and endurance races. The rise of women’s participation in motorsports reflected the changing social norms of the time, with women increasingly pushing for greater independence and freedom.
Kay Petre was among the most notable female racecar drivers of the 20s. In 1934, she set the Woment’s Outer Circuit record, hitting a scorching 129.58 mph at the Brooklands circuit — and emerging the race victor to boot.
Hellé Nice also made headlines. After a skiing accident damaged her knee and rendered dancing and wintersports a no-go, Nice committed to racing, setting multiple speed records. In a feature, the newspaper L’Intransigient wrote, “the driving was magnificent: Nobody who saw it would feel able to argue that women drive less well than men.” Throughout her career, she won the Women’s Grand Prix multiple times and emerged victorious in major tournaments such as the Actor’s Championship, where she raced against men.
“It’s all I ever ask for, just to show what I can do without a handicap against men” – Hellé Nice.
The Post-War Era: Women’s Racing in the 1950s and 60s
Following World War II, women’s involvement in motorsports declined — it wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s that female racers like Maria Teresa de Fillipis began to make their mark in racing again. Filippis became the first female racecar driver to race in Formula One in 1958, driving for Maserati. De Filippis faced significant challenges in her racing career — during an interview in 2006, she recalled a race director who told her that “the only helmet a woman should wear is the one at the hairdresser’s” as he refused to enter her in a race.
Other pioneering female racecar drivers from this era include Motorsport Hall of Famer Denise McCluggage, who competed in sports car racing and other extreme sports. McCluggage went on to become a well-known and respected racing journalist.
“Change is the only constant. Hanging on is the only sin.” – Denise McCluggage
The Feminist Movement: Women in Racing
As feminism hit the mainstream in the 1970s and ’80s, women’s racing experienced a resurgence. Among the most famous female racecar drivers was Janet Guthrie, the first woman to qualify and compete in the Daytona 500. She repeated that achievement when she qualified and competed in the Indianapolis 500 less than half a year later. Despite experiencing intense discrimination throughout her racing career, Guthrie’s determination to make her mark on the sport never wavered.
“Perhaps someday, somewhere in America, there will be an entity – a person, a company, a corporation, a conglomerate, an organization of individuals – that will back a woman who can win the major races, with a program giving her the chance to do so. That day has not yet appeared.” – Janet Guthrie, Janet Guthrie’s Frustrating Search for Another Indy Ride (written in 1981).
Other notable female racecar drivers from this era include Lyn St. James, who competed in several IndyCar and NASCAR events, and Michele Mouton, who won several World Rally Championship events and became the first woman to win a Pikes Peak Hill Climb in 1985.
“For me, driving a car was synonymous with freedom, independence, and movement.” – Michele Mouton
Breaking Barriers: Female Racecar Drivers in the 2000s and Beyond
Recently, more and more women have emerged at the forefront of racing and the automotive industry. In 2013, Danica Patrick became the first female racecar driver to win the pole position for the Daytona 500 and to lead a lap in the race.
Brittany Force won the NHRA Top Fuel championship in 2017, and just repeated that victory last November. In 2019, Jamie Chadwick became the first female racecar driver to win a race in the new W Series, a racing series exclusively for women — she went on to pick up five more victories in 2022. In 2020, the Williams Formula One team also named Chadwick a development driver. Although Motorsports and the auto industry at large still have significant opportunities to be more equitable, recent developments have helped signal a shift towards greater inclusion of women in the sport.
At Carvana, there’s no shortage of amazing women working across our organization. We asked three women — Maddie R., a Brand Activation Specialist, Stevie P., a General Manager at ADESA overseeing car auctions, and Samika M., a Senior Manager in our Registration Department — questions about their experiences in the auto industry.
How’d you get into the auto industry or What led you to Carvana?
“My grandfather managed a tow service company, briefly operated a dealership, and finally owned a junkyard before he passed away. When I was in high school, I helped my grandmother and uncle on small jobs at the junkyard, which helped me pay for my very first car, a PT Cruiser that had been towed into us and that my dad repaired.
In the summer of my Junior year of college, I knew I wanted to do an internship, so I started looking for options and found Carvana. Once I read a bit about the company… I was sold. I knew I wanted to get in on this start-up style business and took the leap. After a summer of learning a ton about creating incredible car-buying experiences, I heard of a team just getting started doing local event sponsorships, experiential marketing, and community outreach. At the time, I was going to school for Marketing with a minor in Tourism and Hospitality Management, so I knew this would be a great role for me, and I made it a mission to come back to Carvana and join the team. I came back full-time in 2017 and joined the ACE Team (now called the Brand Activation Team) in 2019.”
“So, don’t get me wrong, I love cars. Cars are awesome. I’ve always been interested in the mechanics, but the biggest thing that got me was ‘auction day’. ‘Auction day’ is like our game day — we spend all week preparing for it, and then you have three to four hours to make the magic happen — it’s just amazing. The first auction I was at was nine lanes, and every lane had an auctioneer and a ringman. Every single lane had all this stuff happening, all these cars going through, dealers all around the lanes — just commotion everywhere. And it’s just one of those experiences where you just have to say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is, this is amazing.’ That sale day drew me into this.”
“A recruiter for Carvana reached out, and she was just like, ‘Hey, I’d like to get to chat.’ I was working nights at the time, which I didn’t love. So I said, ‘Oh, I’ll entertain the conversation,’ but I didn’t even know what Carvana was or what they were about. It was so funny to me when I got hired for the registration department because I used to be really bad at making sure my vehicle was registered on time… so, I love telling people that now I’m really good at making sure my vehicle gets registered.
My primary reason for wanting to come to Carvana was that I had hit the ceiling at my last company. I was a Team Lead over there, and to get into a management position, I was waiting for the current managers to retire. There just wasn’t a lot of growth. So looking at Carvana, I was like, ‘Wow, there’s a real opportunity to move up,’ and that’s exactly what I wanted to do. So I’m very happy with my decision, talking you through the different paths I’ve taken. I’ve gotten just that opportunity I was looking for.”
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced working in a typically male-dominated industry?
“The main challenges I faced came while driving the haulers as a Customer Advocate in Market Operations. I would often get funny looks or see those that identify as male second-guessing if I really drove the haulers as I would climb down from the cab. Some couldn’t believe I could casually and confidently load cars and operate the truck correctly. I once had a customer that worked for a trucking company attempt to incorrectly tie down a car to the back of the hauler, to which I had to promptly redo the straps to ensure the vehicle was secured correctly.”
“When I was in Denver, there were times I had to fill in driving our service truck. I would stop by, and the reaction would be, ‘But you’re a girl, you can’t help me.’ Like, you don’t know what to do. Slowly but surely, I just took it upon myself to educate people and show that it doesn’t matter what your gender is.
You know, it’s learning tricks of the trade and continuing to educate yourself. And I have to say, ADESA is an excellent company that really fosters that inclusivity. They do a great job. There are so many women in leadership roles across this company, which is not necessarily the case everywhere.”
“There were times when things would generally just get passed off to like a male thinking, ‘Hey, this is something that we know they’re capable of.’ So I always felt this need to prove myself or my capabilities — that was something I needed to do to move up or get the next opportunity or the next project. I know I’m not the only one who’s struggled with it — I’ve talked to a lot of people at Carvana who have struggled with that same kind of feeling.”
How have you faced those challenges?
“I always try and face these challenges by being confident in myself and my skills while knowing that I’m always open to learning if others are willing to teach… it’s easy to stew in the negativity when these challenges arise, but I try to remind myself that I can hopefully change the perception of the industry by being a woman in traditionally male-dominated roles.”
“I take on most of my challenges looking through this lens of, ‘This is gonna be really tough, really hard, and I’m probably gonna fail along the way. I’m gonna make some mistakes. But the journey of growth and whatever the outcome is will be worth it.’
I will always take a challenge and say, ‘I’ll take it.’ I think that over the last four years here, I’ve just done a lot of work internally to be comfortable talking about my achievements and sharing them with others in a way where it’s like, ‘I’m not bragging about this. I’m being vocal about things that I’m capable of doing and some of the like achievements I’ve been able to make.’ And I think that kind of helps open people’s eyes to like, ‘Okay, yeah, this person can do this, and let’s give them a chance on this project or this new role.”
Any advice for women now who are coming up in the auto/tech industries?
“Sometimes, they don’t think they can do it, and that’s not true. There are women that walk on the lot, and they’re like, ‘You know, this car needs a jumpstart.’ And I’m like, ‘Do you know how to jumpstart a car?’ And they’ll say, ‘No.’ And I go, ‘Okay, well, let me teach you.’ And a lot of times, the reaction is just shocked that, you know, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re gonna show me how to do it, you’re gonna expect me to do that?’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, because you can
Don’t be afraid to take chances. Don’t be afraid to put your name out there and try for something. If you’re interested in it, go for it. Nothing is stopping you from at least trying, and it doesn’t ever hurt to educate yourself and learn.”
“It can be very intimidating to go into automotive and tech industries that don’t have as much diversity as we would like to see… yet! It starts with those that identify as women (or non-binary or however one identifies) to break the trends that enable industries to become dominated by one sect of people over others. If possible, find communities (within your organization or otherwise) to help build your confidence and create a support system that will enable you to push through the hard times and celebrate your wins. It only takes a few brave individuals to inspire others to follow suit, and that’s how we create the change we want to see in the world and in our careers.”
“I think back to the first moment where I was like, ‘I need to figure out how to do this. It was actually my last company, I had interviewed for the team lead role — and I got it — but I felt like my interview was horrible. So I reached out to the director that was hiring and was just like, ‘Hey, can I get feedback? Because I felt like I bombed that interview, but I still got the role, so I’m confused.’ So she talked to me about your personal brand. She said, ‘Anytime you get asked a question or get an opportunity to speak on yourself, it should be something that ultimately just translates into one of those three to five words.’
That’s where things started. I just started using that practice as I did interviews or conversations with people. Even if you’re not relying on anyone else, you know those three to five words. And then I think that finding allies is a big one. I have male and female allies, like the people in EmpowHER that I can rely on, and that’s really important.”
What changes do you hope to see in the future?
“It would be really neat to have a General Manager come from someone who I helped develop.
That would be amazing. I’ve had some pretty great success stories already — I have people from Denver who’ve called me, and they’re now supervisors. I take a lot of pride in trying to grow and develop people — that’s one of the best parts about being a manager, watching people grow and flourish and become something that they didn’t know they could be. It would be really, really neat to have one of the people that I have hopefully positively impacted come out and be a General Manager or a Regional Vice President or something like that and, you know, really go far in their company.”
“Of course I want to see more women in traditionally male-dominated roles. There are two women here at Carvana that I really respect in more male-dominated roles, Catherine McClelland and Maggie Reid. They’re analysts and have supported me throughout like my time at Carvana. I’m just amazed at how intelligent they are, the skills they have, and the support that they just provide to me and my team. So I’d love to see more of that, more women in leadership. When I started at Carvana, I heard great things about Teresa Aragon — just that she was fantastic.
I’ve always wanted to work for her, and right now, I am. She’s always been my north star for how I want to lead, how I want to operate, how I want people to see me. So I think I want to see more women in leadership roles. I think we can make an impact on people in ways that I think people just don’t traditionally think about today.”
“In the future, I would love to see those that identify as female be able to unquestionably follow their passions and dreams…In particular, I’d like to see more and more women leading companies and organizations within the automotive and tech industries, as so many executive-level positions are still predominantly male. By showing young people that those identifying as female can exceptionally lead others and businesses, it rewrites the narrative that we’ve, unfortunately, been told by our society.”
To all of our Carvana employees who gave statements for this article, thank you.