First Lady of Stock Car Racing
Sixty years ago Louise Smith discovered a new way to chase the boys.
Louise Smith died on April 15 at age 89 after a long bout with cancer. In 1999, she was the first woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega. Challenging men in the 1940s and ’50s was not easy for Smith. “It was hard on me,” she told the Associated Press in 1998. “Them men were not liking it to start with, and they wouldn’t give you an inch . . . If you won a race, you sometimes had to fight. I remember grabbing a tire iron one time to help Buck Baker.”
Louise was known for her Dale Earnhardt-style aggression and breathtaking crashes. One night her car became airborne coming out of the second turn during a race. It took more than half an hour to free her from the wreckage with an acetylene torch. At a Mobile speedway she crashed into driving star Fonty Flock and wound up sitting on top of her car in the middle of a lake. She had a reputation for taunting Greenville, South Carolina, police into high-speed runs staged for the thrill of the chase. She was uncatchable. She once drank a fifth of liquor before meeting with one of her early racing sponsors, backing into a telephone pole as she waved good-bye. “Louise was a pistol,” recalled racing historian Mike Bell, who knew Smith. “It was all a party in those days.”
Louise Smith and her husband, Noah, owned a junk yard in Greenville. Former dirt track racer J.B. Day was an orphan unofficially adopted by the Smiths. The couple allowed Day to sleep in a 1936 Cadillac in their salvage yard. “Yeah, I stayed there for seven or eight years,” said the 72-year-old Day in an interview a week after Smith’s death. “My mother died when I was real small. [Louise and her husband] were good to me. They were like my mother and daddy.” Day remembered Smith’s fearlessness. “She’d run with the men . . . Louise was a ball of fire in her day.”
Smith began racing in 1946 when NASCAR founder Bill France was promoting a race at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in Greenville. It was not only Louise Smith’s first time to compete, but also the first race she’d ever witnessed. “They were trying to think of what they could do to spice up the show,” explained Bell. “And somebody said, ‘Get Louise Smith to drive. She’s crazy; she’ll drive anything.’” She raced a 1939 Ford modified coupe and finished third. “In those days 300 or 400 fans was a big crowd, and Bill France thought I could put more people in the stands,” Louise Smith once recounted. “[Before the race] they told me if I saw a red flag to stop,” Smith recalled. “They didn’t say anything about a checkered flag.” All the drivers except Smith came in at the end of the race after the checkered flag had been thrown. “I’m out there just flyin’ around the track. Finally somebody remembered they told me not to stop until I saw the red flag.”
In 1947, Smith drove her husband’s brand-new Ford coupe to Daytona to watch the races held on the beach. She couldn’t resist joining the fray. NASCAR officials gave Louise the number 13. Superstitious, she attempted to swap it for another. Smith recalled the story years ago to an interviewer. “I went all down the line trying to trade that ‘13’ off,” said Smith. “[Other drivers] said, ‘Aw, Lou, just follow us through that north turn.’ So I followed them, but when I got to the north turn seven cars were piled up. I hit the back of one of them, went up in the air, cut a flip, and landed on my top. Some police officers turned the car back over, and I finished 13th.” She left the wrecked Ford at an Augusta, Georgia, repair shop on the way back home to South Carolina. “Her husband said, ‘Where’s the car, Louise?’ And she said, ‘That ol’ trap broke down in Augusta.’ Her husband showed her the newspaper. The wrecked car was on the front page.”
Bill France soon put Louise Smith on the modified touring circuit. She was paid up to $150 per race to pack grandstands from Alabama to Canada as a novel, but fearlessly competitive, barnstormer. Before meeting France, she had struggled financially. Smith once had to pawn her jewelry to bail out some fellow drivers who got into a fight—complete with flying chairs—at a restaurant after a race. “Money was nothing back then,” Louise Smith once reflected. “Sometimes it seemed like the more you drove, the less money you had. I remember one time Buck Baker and Lee Petty and I had to put our money together just to split a hot dog and a Coke.” She had no regrets: “Yeah, I won a lot, crashed a lot, and broke just about every bone in my body. But I gave it everything I had.” &