FAST WOMEN IN HISTORY PT II | AUTO RACING’S TOUGH FEMALE PIONEERS

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Legendary British race car driver~ Kay Petre

The Canadian-born, Kay Petre was an early motor racing star at the legendary Brooklands track. The exploits of this 4’10” speedqueen made big news back in her day.  Born Kathleen Coad Defries in 1903, she moved to England in 1930, following her marriage to Englishman Henry Petre.  Henry was a keen flier who regularly took off from the Brooklands airfield– it was here that Kay first became interested in motor racing. She had always been a skilled and competitive sportswoman back at home, especially in ice-skating. Henry bought Kay her first car for her birthday, a Wolseley Hornet Daytona Special. Soon after her racing career began, with a third and a second in her first two races.  In 1933, Kay purchased her first “proper” racing car, a 2-litre Bugatti. She used it to good effect in the regular handicap races at Brooklands, quickly adjusting to the handling and the increased speed.

One of the most famous images of Kay is her seated in the big 1924 Delage, a 10.5 litre V12-engined ex-John Cobb Land Speed Record car she had been racing. In order to reach the car’s pedals, she had them rigged with large wooden blocks.  Petre threw down the gauntlet to her French rival on 26th October 1934, clocking 129.58 mph on a flying lap. The record stood until the August of 1935, when Gwenda challenged again, setting a new benchmark marginally faster. Not to be outdone, Kay jumped straight in the Delage and beat the record the same day, lapping at an average of 134.75 mph. this was the first time that a female driver had earned the Brooklands badge for a lap at 130 mph or over. Gwenda, driving her Derby-Miller special, joined that exclusive club three days later, hitting 135.95 mph. Kay admitted defeat graciously and went back to her own racing.

The racing legend, Kay Petre, in her car in the pits at Brooklands, prepares for her first drive since an accident on the circuit, ca. 1938.

The racing legend Kay Petre in the pits at Brooklands, prepares for her first drive since an accident on the circuit, ca. 1938. © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

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