20th Century Leaders

Louise Smith

Credit: Collection of South Carolina State Museum

Louise Smith (1916-2006) was born in Barnesville, Ga. Known as “The First Lady of Racing” she spent most of her life in Greenville, S.C.

By the time she was five, Louise Smith, the nation’s first woman race car driver, knew that she loved cars and that she wanted to drive. Driving whenever she could, she “became good at it.” In an arena dominated by male drivers, her first professional race was in 1945 in Columbus, Ga. After winning the race in her 1938 Ford coupe, she was crowned, with her own helmet, Woman Race Car Driver of the Year.

From 1949 until 1956, Smith drove in as many races as she could: the Modified, the Sportsman cars and the NASCAR Grand Nationals, now called the NASCAR Sprint Cup. She won more than 38 races. In 1950, when the Darlington Raceway opened, Bill France Sr. invited her to race. His confidence encouraged other promoters to give her a chance.