[Editor’s note: Francesca Steele, who previously showcased a select few women who influenced automotive history for us, took the opportunity presented by today’s holiday to highlight a number of gearhead mothers who we should know from throughout automotive history.]
My mom wore bright red lipstick, cat eye sunglasses and drove a dove grey, 1968 Citroën Safari. I remember when she would drop my four siblings and me off at school she would pull her rocket-shaped station wagon up to the curb. The kids at school would surround our car begging her, “Make it go up and down! Make it go up and down!”
The DS, which sounds like “Déesse” or goddess, when pronounced in French, would raise and lower like a futuristic hovercraft, thrilling my friends waiting for first bell. My father, a French car enthusiast, had bought her the car because it had an innovative and unique hydropneumatic self-leveling suspension system, four-wheel disc brakes and directional headlamps. He may have been thinking safety first for his large family, but for mom it was surely style all the way.
While some moms bring cool to the carpool, others bring the salon to the saloon. In 1970, The House of Carmen, a leader in beauty and personal care products sponsored an all-female race team: Team Carmen Curls. In the image above, there’s no question that the rosebud monogramed Royale RP4, the “hey boys” hot pants, and the big hair attitude must have made an impression on the short-seasoned Formula 100 circuit.
The professional team comprised of Tina Lanfranchi, team leader and wife of famous Formula One driver Tony; a four-woman pit crew; and two drivers: Micki Vandervell and one of the U.K.’s most celebrated women drivers, Lady of the Manor and mom, Gabriel Konig.
Shortly before her passing in 2013, Konig reminisced about her childhood growing up in her historic Irish family estate, Beaulieu House. She described how she felt when her mother would take her to the auto races in The Curragh, The Dundrod, and Phoenix Park.
“I remember those days so well because the smells, the noise and the excitement of the day had such an impact on me and from that time I was hooked.”
The young Gabriel would grow up to be the first woman, in 1966, to win a race at Lydden in England. She went on to win Group 1 races in Phoenix Park, Mondello, Bishopscourt, and Kirkistown, and in international competitions. In late February 1970, she had been driving Formula Ford in Brazil, when a minor crash sent her back home to recover. Later in the year, she returned to U.K. club racing F100 and joined Team Carmen Curls. F100 lasted only two years, 1970-’71, and Gabriel was on to other races until her retirement to Beaulieu House in the 1990s.
Gabriel’s oldest daughter, Cara Konig, now oversees the mansion and grounds that, according to Gabriel, were passed down through her mother’s side of the family since the 17th century. The grounds are open for tours and include an exciting racing heritage museum with Gabriel’s stunning race car collection to inspire the next generation of racing enthusiasts.
Perhaps as a girl on one of her visits to The Curragh she was inspired by Sir Stirling Moss’ Wakefield Trophy win in 1951. Or perhaps Gabriel’s mother had a chance to chat with Stirling’s mother, Aileen Moss, while giving racing tips to her then 22-year-old son. Aileen herself raced a custom Merandez in early rally and trial races and later dedicated herself to the successful careers of her son and daughter rally queen, Pat Moss.
Pat, along with co-pilot/navigator Ann “The Wiz” Wisdom, went on to dominate the Ladies’ category in the mid-1950s and early ’60s. Ann Wisdom also being the daughter of formidable racing mom, Elsie Mary “Bill” Wisdom, who in 1932 along with Joan Richmond won the 1000-Miles Race at Brooklands. That year she also set the women’s speed record at 121.47 mph (195.48 kph).
The early years of racing may have been sparse for women drivers, yet the women that did show up in the sport certainly made a name for themselves and sometimes their children. One of these more prominent racing moms of the ’30s and ’40s was Lucy O’Reilly Schell, mother of Formula drivers and bon vivants, Harry and Philippe Schell. (Harry being the first American to start a Formula One Grand Prix.)
An American in Paris, Lucy O’Reilly Schell was born into a wealthy family and took up the sport of Grand Prix racing. She married automotive enthusiast Laury Schell and together they subsidized the struggling Delahaye auto manufacture company. She raced Delahayes and Bugattis in several Grands Prix and in 1937 Lucy and Laury formed Ecurie Bleue.
Lucy was primarily responsible for financial support and promotion of the team and upon celebration of winning the million-dollar speed trial at Autodrome de Montlhéry in 1937, she had a red and a white victory stripe painted over the bonnets of all her blue Delahayes, emulating the celebratory ribbons of the champion, effectively inventing the first racing stripe.
The following year, it was the Delahaye 145 GP, driven by René Dreyfus for team Ecurie Bleue that beat Germany’s indomitable Silver Arrows — twin Mercedes-Benz W154s driven by Rudolf Caracciola and Hermann Lang — at the Grand Prix de Pau in southwestern France. After the war, Lucy retired from racing to focus on supporting her sons’ racing careers.
Though some great drivers and racing sponsors come from family traditions of auto sports, sometimes it seems that historically the barrier to entry may be closed to the majority of women and people of color. Although NASCAR racing greats like Louise Smith or Wendell Scott first broke glass ceilings and color barriers from the deep-south traditions as far back as the mid-1940s, there was still a lot of work to be done.
But there’s no telling what a mother’s love can do. Melissa Harville-Lebron is an African-American, single mother of seven and the owner of NASCAR team E2 Northeast Motorsports.
In an interview with Selena Hill for Black Enterprise Online 2018, she explains how she got into the sport. One day she brought her two sons, Eric and Enico Lebron, at the time 19 and 18 years old respectively, to a NASCAR event at Charlotte Super Speedway. She was working on a project for her music business when the young men had been offered an opportunity to drive 150 mph (241.4 kph) during a lap session; they were hooked.
“It was the first time I had ever seen them like that, where they were super excited about something and really doing the research and find out everything they could about the sport,” she told Black Enterprise Online.
Encouraged by her sons’ enthusiasm she created E2 Northeast Motorsports under the umbrella of her music business. Together with programs like NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity and foundation teams like Rev Racing, she hopes to create more opportunities for women and people of color to get involved in racing and owning NASCAR teams.
E2 Northeast Motorsports races competitively in both the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and in the Whelen All-American Series. Last year, Melissa celebrated with Copp Motorsports and Scott Stenzel who started in her sponsored 2018 Chevrolet Silverado at Daytona NCWTS and placed 15th. Melissa and her seven children will be celebrating more years of finishes to come and a new dynasty of racing moms.
Maybe your mom wasn’t a team owner or a race car driver. Maybe she was the one, when you were young, who let you shift the family car into reverse when she drove the car down the driveway; or when you were a teen with your first license, gently reminded you not to text and drive; or, when you were in college, let you know she would pick you up from a party if you couldn’t drive home.
Or perhaps she was a more challenged driver herself. You may remember her explaining to your dad how the neighbor’s mailbox was “simply unavoidable” as it leaned into the driveway before she hit it.
This Mother’s Day weekend, this cool carpool mom will be appreciating classic cars with my family at the Triple XXX Root Beer Drive-in in Issaquah, Washington, for the Sunset Highway Cruisers Spring Open with the best root-beer float in the area in hand.
Feel free to leave a memory of your mom in the comment section below and have a Happy Mother’s Day.