One summer evening in 1953, Vicki Wood, who would later become known as “the fastest woman in racing”, was taken on a trip to watch the women-only powder puff races at Motor City Speedway in Detroit by her husband, Clarence “Skeeter” Wood.
Wood, who has died at the age of 101, was then 33 years old, and she had never been in a race car. But she wasn’t at all impressed by what she saw that day.
“The women in that race were so bad,” Wood recalled in an interview with Autoweek in 2019. “They were all over the track, running into the wall and all that sort of stuff.” She told her husband that if she drove as badly as they did, she wouldn’t let herself be seen out on the track.
The next week, her husband, who had been a race car driver himself, took her back to the track — this time to the pit area. He pointed to a car and said, “All right, smarty, you think you’re so good. Get in there and see what you can do,” Wood remembered in 2015. She admitted that her first attempt on the track was “terrible”, but over the next week, she won a string of powder puff races around Michigan. From there, her racing career took off.
Born in Detroit on March 15, 1919, Victoria Rose Raczak grew up surrounded by cars that she and her six brothers tinkered with. Her father, Paul, was a contractor and her mother, Rose, was a homemaker. Wood’s first husband, Tom Fitzpatrick, whom she married in 1941, was killed picking up a live hand grenade at the end of the second world war. She remarried six years later, to Clarence Wood, and together the couple raised children from his previous marriage.
By 1955, just two years into her racing career, the Detroit Free Press had tipped Wood as one of the top female talents on the track. She was invited to race against men at the Detroit-area short tracks. “Vicki, you’re too good to drive with those girls,” she remembered a male driver saying. “I’d rather race with you than half of the boys we have here.”
As the first woman in Michigan state to race against men, she came in two hundredths of a second faster than the top male driver in one qualifying race. Yet while breaking down barriers, Wood didn’t let the macho world of auto racing stamp out her personal style. A scarf knotted at the neck became her signature look, and she sometimes wore a skirt and heels to race — lest she win and be interviewed by reporters looking less than elegant.
In 1959, the founder of Nascar (the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) Bill France gave Wood permission to race at the Daytona International Speedway he had just built in Florida and she became the first woman to turn a timed lap on the sand track.
Yet on the day she turned up at Daytona to drive, the news of her acceptance on to the track had not reached the gatekeeper, who turned her away from the pit area because she was a woman. When France heard, he declared, “Vicki Wood is not a woman. She’s a driver, and she’s allowed in the pits.”
Wood set a women’s record for fastest lap (130.3mph) in the race, and began collecting many more speed records at Daytona. Her defining moment came in 1960, when she topped 150.375mph on sand, competing against the clock on a one-way run. This remains a record today.
For all the barriers Wood tore down, discrimination eventually brought her racing career to an end. “The boys said that if I keep on racing with them, they’re going to have a strike,” she recalled. They were sick of being teased for losing to a woman. She quit in 1963.
By the end of her decade-long racing career Wood had amassed 48 trophies and set numerous records. Even so, she is still relatively unknown in the racing community. When the champion Nascar driver Julia Landauer first heard of Wood last year, she was shocked that she hadn’t before.
“I’m pretty familiar with the pioneering women in racing, and they’re from the 1970s and 80s,” Ms Landauer says. “Vicki Wood just didn’t have a lot of press around her.”
Ms Landauer believes Wood is the perfect example of how the lack of representation of women in the sport is not due to a lack of talent. “If Vicki had got more press and felt like she could keep going in her career, what would that mean for women in the sport now. Would we be ahead of where we are?”
Wood continued driving all her life until she was 99, when the state of Florida seized her licence due to her age. “That was the worst thing they could have done to me,” she told Autoweek in 2019. “I had a nice car, and I had no trouble driving whatsoever.”
Get alerts on Vicki Wood when a new story is published