Betty Skelton

(June 28,1926 - August 31, 2011)


Date Location Driver Driver Country Vehicle Power Speed over
1 Km
Speed over
1 Mile
1954 Daytona Beach Betty Skelton USA Dodge Hemi   105.88 MPH  
1956 Bonneville Betty Skelton USA Corvette     145.044 MPH Womens Land Speed Record
27/09/1965 Bonneville Betty Skelton USA Cyclops jet car F104 J79 Starfighter jet engine   277.62 MPH Womens Land Speed Record

Racing Heroes – Betty Skelton

Hemmings Daily - Written by Kurt Ernst Jul 9th, 2013

Ask most casual fans of racing to name the pioneering women of motorsports, and the answers will generally include Denise McCluggage, Lyn St. James and Janet Guthrie. While it’s true that these women opened doors for others to follow, one figure rarely mentioned in discussion of women racers much preferred to kick doors down instead of opening them. With a career that started in aviation and aerobatics before expanding to include stints as the first female test driver for a major automaker, a multi-time land speed record holder and transcontinental crossing record holder (in both North and South America), Betty Skelton was larger than life despite her five-foot, three-inch stature.

Born in Pensacola, Florida, in 1926, stories differ on exactly how and when Skelton fell in love with airplanes and flying. This much, however, is clear: Her first solo flight occurred at age 12, well below the minimum required age of 16, while her first “official” solo flight took place on her 16th birthday. At age 18 she received her commercial pilot’s license, with a flight instructor rating soon following. Encouraged by the manager of an airfield in Tampa, Florida, Skelton began to take up aerobatic flying, and in 1945 gave her first performance at a Tampa airshow, flying a borrowed Fairchild PT-19 trainer. Within two years, she’d acquired a 1929 Great Lakes 2T-1A biplane of her own, and her professional career in aerobatics began in 1946.

In 1948, Skelton took her first Feminine Aerobatic Championship behind the controls of her Great Lakes biplane. Transitioning to a Pitts Special S-1C named “Little Stinker” (which now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum), Skelton would repeat as the Feminine Aerobatic Champion in 1949 and 1950, along the way becoming the first woman to perform a stunt known as the “inverted ribbon cut,” which involves flying upside-down at very low altitude and severing a ribbon suspended between two poles. Skelton set altitude records in this period as well, flying a Piper Super Cub to an altitude of 25,763 feet in 1949, and to 29,050 in 1951. Perhaps foreshadowing her later endeavors on land, she also managed to set a speed record for piston-engined aircraft by piloting a modified P-51 Mustang over a three-kilometer course at an average speed of 421.6 MPH.

By 1951, Skelton was reportedly burned out from competing on the aerobatic championship circuit, and disillusioned that there were no more challenges for her to conquer in the sky. Then living in Raleigh, North Carolina, she began an air charter service that ultimately led to a business relationship with NASCAR founder Bill France. In 1954, France invited Skelton to Daytona Beach Speed Weeks, where she proceeded to set a woman’s Stock Car Flying Mile record of 105.88 MPH behind the wheel of a Red Ram Hemi-equipped Dodge. The same year would see her become the first woman hired as a test driver by a major automaker (Dodge) and the first woman to drive an Indy 500 roadster (at Chrysler’s Chelsea, Michigan, proving grounds). She’d also set two closed-course speed records (143.44 MPH and 144.02 MPH), drive the pace car at Daytona and become the first woman issued a racing driver’s license by the American Automobile Association.

In 1956, Skelton was part of a Dodge-sponsored team that would set a total of 395 new speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats, adding to the nine speed and acceleration records that Skelton had set earlier in the year at the Daytona Speed Weeks. She’d also set a new woman’s land speed record behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Corvette, driving it to a speed of 145.044 MPH, as well as a woman’s transcontinental speed record, driving from New York to Los Angeles in 56 hours and 58 minutes (which came within three and a half hours of beating Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker‘s transcontinental record, set in 1933). In 1958, she’d set another transcontinental record in South America, driving from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Valparaiso, Chile, in 41 hours and 14 minutes. Though Skelton did employ a riding mechanic on both attempts, every mile of both record attempts was driven by Skelton.

Skelton joined advertising agency Campbell-Ewald in 1956, and was assigned to the General Motors account where’ she’d focus on creating print and television ads. Appointed as a technical narrator for Chevrolet at major auto shows, Skelton would later become an official spokeswoman for the brand. Her passion for Corvettes was well-known, and in 1956 Harley Earl teamed with Bill Mitchell to create a unique translucent gold Corvette for Skelton; this is the car she would use to pace Daytona Speed Weeks in 1957, and it’s one of the cars most closely associated with her.

In 1959, Look magazine requested that NASA administer the same physical and psychological tests to Skelton that were given to Mercury program astronauts. Though it isn’t clear how she scored, NASA was decades away from considering the possibility of a female astronaut, and Skelton’s application went no further than an article in the magazine. She did befriend the Mercury program astronauts, who were reportedly impressed with both her piloting skills and fearless approach to life. She would eventually turn this relationship with NASA and its astronauts into marketing gold for Chevrolet, as Skelton was one of the driving forces behind the program that put astronauts in late model Chevrolet Corvettes.

In 1965, Skelton returned to Bonneville for the opportunity to drive Art Arfons’ Cyclops jet car for Firestone tires. Her first pass on the salt was disappointing, and Skelton quickly complained that Arfons hadn’t given her enough throttle to make a truly fast run. Modifications to the J-47 jet engine were made for the return trip, where Skelton clocked a speed of 315.6 MPH, good enough for a two-way average of 277.52 MPH and a new woman’s land speed record.

Throughout the 1960s and into of the 1970s, Skelton focused on her career at Campbell-Ewald, from which she’d retire as a vice president in 1976. A move to Florida followed, and Skelton continued flying (though less often) into the 21st century; she reportedly owned and drove a Corvette well into her 80s, much to the delight (or possible disdain) of her retirement community neighbors.

When Skelton died on August 31, 2011, she left behind a legacy that will likely remain unmatched. Often called the “First Lady of Firsts,” Skelton held a total of 17 land and air records, more than any other person (male or female) in history. At a time when women were largely excluded from motorsports, Skelton always seemed to find a way around the rules, or a way to circumvent the status quo. She never achieved her goals of becoming a Naval aviator (though she was awarded honorary wings by the U.S. Navy) or an astronaut, but that hardly diminishes the astonishing things she did accomplish. Though Betty Skelton may not be a household name, she certainly qualifies as a racing hero.

Betty Skelton in Cyclops, Sept. 27, 1965, ready to run for the women's LSR. (courtesy Tom Mayenschein)
Art, his foot on the wheel of his jet dragster Cyclops, with Betty Skelton prior to her run for the women's land speed record, Sept. 27, 1965. (courtesy Tom Mayenschein)
Betty Skelton poses with Art Arfons after setting the women's LSR with a two-way average of 277.62 mph on Sept. 27, 1965. Note the spatter that the runs on the wet salt left on Cyclops. (courtesy Tom Mayenschein)
Betty Skelton