Thursday, March 13, 2008

Women at Sebring

On March 15th, the 56th running of the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring will be held. And while Audi will be seeking to re-establish it’s dominance over the competition with its R10TDI turbo diesel’s, hopefully the Peugeot 908 and LMP2 class Porsche RS Spyder’s and ARC 01B Acura’s can give the Audi juggernaut some competition.

Instead of trying to give a overview of the various teams participating, which I’ve previously done in Sebring redux, I’d like to focus on something a little different instead.

Many moons before I was introduced into the wonderful world of motor racing, an American heiress cracked the gender barrier by becoming the very first female to compete in the twelve hours of Sebring. She was the blonde Isabelle Haskell, who made her Sebring debut in 1955 prior to marrying Alejandro De Tomaso.

Haskell’s maiden outing wasn’t successful, as she failed to finish the event and apparently skipped the next year’s event after tragedy struck her co-driver aboard a Porsche 550 spyder in Europe. Newly married in 1957, the newlyweds not only shared their wedding vows, but also contested several international racing events as a driving duo. Their second attempt at Sebring also proved fruitless, once again failing to finish.

In 1958 with her husband Alejandro and new co-driver Robert Ferguson, Isabelle finally broke her duck at Sebring when the trio aboard a 750 OSCA finished eighth overall enroute to scoring a class win.

1959 would prove to be Isabelle’s final season of major competition and for the occasion she once again teamed with Alejandro and new co-drivers Denise McCluggage and Ricardo Rodriguez, where the quartet finished eighteenth overall at Sebring in their trusty OSCA.

In 1970, nearly three decades before it would become in vogue at the Speedway, three female drivers set out to accomplish something that had never been done before on the lumpy, bumpy, torturous concrete laden vintage airfield that forms the basis of Sebring International Raceway by becoming the very first all female driver line-up in the prestigious event.

These three females came from different racing backgrounds, with American Janet Guthrie arguably becoming the most famous of the trio, enroute to becoming the very first woman to compete in the Indy 500 and Daytona 500. Guthrie was joined by another Yank, Judy Ganley who was an accomplished SCCA racer from the San Francisco bay area, rounding out the driving triumberant was Roots works team rally driver Rosemary Smith. This Irish lass was originally a fashion designer and model before being exposed to rallying by a female patron of hers. Driving a Le Mans Sprite Prototype, they scored a class win and 19th overall in the Sebring 12 Hour race.

In 2004 another all female trio from Europe gained favour with the British public, becoming affectionately known as :Les Femmes Pour Le Mans," planning to enter that year’s Sebring 12hrs race in a TVR 400R. The press release noted that Amanda Stretton, Liz Halliday and a third female to be named later would make up the driving strength. Although Stretton did indeed contest that year’s event, apparently Le Femmes plans fell thru as Halliday did not participate.

Another notable female named Milka Duno was taking part in that year’s Mobil 1 twelve hours endurance race, pairing with ex-Formula 1 British driver Justin Wilson and Phil Andrews aboard a Lola B2K10/Judd V-10, finishing 22nd overall.

And it’s funny to me how the perky Venezuelan has garnered all of the attention as the latest media darling at the Speedway, while Halliday is every bit of the accomplished driver if not more so? While Milka has a total of five Master’s degrees, Halliday is a world class equestrian hoping to represent the USA in the 2008 summer Olympics.

Halliday is the daughter of Don Halliday, a racing driver in his own right, as well as being a winning CART/Fed Ex championship race engineer, who also designed the Truesports 91C race car chassis.

While Milka gets all of the credit for being the highest finishing woman at the Rolex 24, finishing second overall, Liz is the only female to win in American Le Mans Series competition, notching six LMP2 class victories along with finishing second overall aboard the Interscope Lola in the 2006 Sebring 12 Hours. Last year, Halliday contested the event behind the wheel of Team Modena’s Aston Martin DBR9…