Vicki Wood, pioneering and record-breaking race driver, dies at 101

Jonathon Ramsey



Vicki Wood's racing career is a plum subject for a documentary, because it's the kind of thing that only happens in movies. A flippant comment Woods made to her husband in 1953 turned into a decade of breaking barriers and setting records until 1963, collecting 48 trophies in the process and earning the titles "fastest woman in racing" and "fastest woman on the sand." Then she retired over another comment, this one from another competitor, that was just as unexpected as the initial line. Any documentary will need to be stitched together without its protagonist, sadly, as The New York Times reports Wood died due to a heart issue earlier this month at the age of 101.

Born Victoria Rose Raczak, her upbringing in Detroit and her six brothers constantly toying with cars aren't what put fuel in her veins. It was a trip to the race track in 1953 with her second husband, Clarence "Skeeter" Wood, that did it. They were watching the powder puff races at Motor City Speedway dirt track — races held just for women drivers — and Wood wasn't impressed. She told Autoweek in a profile from last year, after her 100th birthday, "The women in that race were so bad. They were all over the track, running into the wall and all that sort of stuff. I said to Skeeter, 'If I couldn’t drive any better than that, I wouldn’t be out there.'"

The next week, Skeeter took Vicki to the track again, this time walking her up to a 1937 Dodge Coupe in the pits and telling her, "OK, Smarty. You think you’re so good, here’s a car. Now go out there." Wood had never been in the car and never raced on a track. Even though she rated her driving "terrible," she qualified last but finished ninth out of 24 cars. The next night, at Mount Clemens dirt track, she won the powder puff race. One week later, at Flat Rock, she won five straight powder puff races. Racing became a regular thing as she also began teaching other women drivers, getting good enough for billing in a clip about a powder puff race and a profile in the Detroit Free Press in 1955. 

That same year, her husband convinced Chrysler to set her up in a 1955 Chrysler 300 during Speedweek in Daytona Beach. The automaker had made four cars for events including the Chrysler 300 Daytona Flying Mile. Wood got behind the wheel of VIN 001, the car that race driver and Chrysler Plymouth dealer Brewster Shaw drove. Wood had never driven on sand. According to a history of Speedweek on Allpar, Warren Koechling took first place in the out-and-back mile at 127.6 mph, Shaw took second at 126.5 mph, and Wood got third at 125.8 mph. The previous year, Shaw had set the 300's mile record at 117.1 mph.

In 1956, Wood returned to Speedweek, taking the wheel of a Chrysler 300B for the branded event. For some reason she's not classified, but a note says, "Wood drove (Tim) Flock's car 136.1 mph. That speed would have put her in second place behind Flock at 139 mph, ahead of Koechling at 129.0 mph.

In 1957, Wood started racing against men, breaking the gender barrier in Michigan. She also beat many of the guys, telling Autoweek, "I was a better driver than half of the men they had."

Vicki Wood at Daytona in 1960, when she set her record mile of 150.375 mph on the sand. (Getty Images)

 

In 1959, another trip to Daytona garnered Wood one of the two records she's most known for, the woman's lap record at Bill France's then-brand-new Daytona International Speedway. She said when she tried to enter the pits, a track worker stopped her because women weren't allowed in the paddock. When France heard about it, he told the worker, "Vicki Wood is not a woman. She’s a driver, and she’s allowed in the pits." Wood took a 1959 Pontiac to 130.3 mph around the 2.5-mile oval. She wanted to try qualifying for the men's race, the first-ever Daytona 500, but France told her that her Ford Thunderbird wasn't safe. 

The next year, Wood checked into Daytona Speedweek to set a one-way mile sprint down the sand that reached 150.375 mph, a mark that still stands.

She raced wearing a scarf, and sometimes in a skirt and high heels. Her grandson Neil Wood in the Times said that when a reporter asked why, she replied, “I knew I’d probably win and you’d want to interview me, and I wanted to look good." 

Still racing against men and beating them in 1963, she said, "One night, we went back to Flat Rock Speedway in Michigan, and this guy that I passed said, 'If you’re going to keep on racing with us men, we’ll go on strike.' I decided to quit. I could have still driven with the women, but that’s not what I wanted. I had had enough." The guys she passed, it seemed, didn't like being teased about it. And that was that. 

It took decades for Wood to begin to get her due, but she's been inducted into the Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame, The Villages Motor Racing Fan Club in The Villages, Florida, and there's a “Vicki Wood Cheese Steak” sandwich at Racing’s North Turn Bar & Grille in Ponce Inlet, Florida.

She drove until age 99, when Florida took her license. “That was the worst thing they could have done to me,” she told Autoweek. “I had a nice car, and I had no trouble driving whatsoever.”

A racer to the end, when a collector asked her which car she raced was her favorite, she replied, "The fastest one."