Thursday, January 12, 2012

One Fast Lady / Betty Skelton

Once in a great while, someone comes along that turns the car culture on its ear. Betty Skelton not only turned it, she up-righted it. Her parents knew she was different because she was fascinated watching airplanes flying above her house and would rather play with models of planes instead of dolls. The handwriting was on the wall, she began taking flying lessons at age 10, had a private license at 16, and was a flight instructor at 18. She was addicted to speed and became a daredevil pilot, who was a three-time National Aerobatics Champion, which lead her to fast cars.

By 1951 Betty had become friends with Bill France Sr., the founder of NASCAR. Bill talked her into driving the pace car at the Daytona Beach Speed Week. At that point, she was the first woman granted a race driver's license by the Automobile Association of America. This lead her to be hired by Dodge to set a stock car record for women in a 1954 Hemi-powered Dodge Ram V8 on that same beach. Suddenly she had a new career, the first woman to be a test driver for the auto industry. The following year, 1955, Betty headed to the Bonneville Salt Flats as part of the Dodge team that set 395 new records during a 14 day endurance test. in 1956, General Motors and Corvette attracted her to become a spokeswoman for Chevrolet by appearing at auto shows, television commercials and national print advertisements. The Corvette bug had struck, and more was to come for Betty.

PR shot for her favorite car, the Corvette. Image, General Motors Media Archive

As you would guess, Corvette being the car of choice for her to drive on the street, she teamed up with Zora Arkus-Duntov and road racer John Fitch in February 1956, to head to the NASCAR Speed Week trials, all three driving white and blue Corvettes. Betty hit the sand running and averaged 145 mph for her flying mile, even with a strong headwind for her return run setting another record for women, just 3 mph slower than the men's record at the time. In addition to the 145 mph she reached in her Corvette that year, she set a transcontinental speed record driving from New York to Los Angeles in 56 hours, 58 minutes beating the men. Following up on that, Harley Earl and Bill Michell, taking advantage of her talent and good looks designed a special, translucent gold Corvette for her to drive to Daytona Speed Week to serve as the pace car in 1957. Speed Week was still being held on the beach at this time, it wasn't until 1959 that the Daytona 500 was christened.

Art Arfons offered Betty a chance in 1965 to have another shot at Bonneville. The cars were the jet powered Green Monster and the Cyclops, both built by Art. The land speed record had been established by Art in 1964 in his Green Monster and no one had yet broken it. He was now after a new record, that of the standing quarter-mile. He set the new record at 258.62 mph. Next, Betty climbed into the Cyclops wearing no more protective gear than an open-faced helmet and a windbreaker. She was gone, streaking down the black line topping 315 mph speed during one run and at the end of two runs her average was 277.62 mph setting her last speed record.

Throughout her lifetime, she would come to own no less than 10 Corvettes, and was inducted into the National Corvette Museum Hall of Fame in 2001. Betty passed away in 2011 at the age of 85 still owning and driving the red one.

"I just like to go fast, I really enjoy it, I really do."- Betty Skelton

Betty became a spokeswoman for General Motors and Corvette at many of the auto shows by 1956. Image, General Motors Media Archive

Photographed during one of her record runs at Daytona Beach.

Betty joined Zora Arkus-Duntov and John Fitch, Betty setting a record for women.

PR shot for Corvette at Daytona.

PR shot for Corvette at Daytona.

Betty Skelton photographed at Daytona.

Betty Skelton readies to set the land speed record for women in the Cyclops on September 27, 1965. Image © Tom Mayenschein

Betty Skelton at the wheel of Art Arons Cyclops before her record run at Bonneville on September 27, 1965. Image © Tom Mayenschein 

PR shot from Bonneville in 1965. Image © Tom Mayenschein

Betty Skelton after her record run at Bonneville setting a speed of 277.62 mph in 1965. Image © Tom Mayenschein

Betty also tried her hand at road racing.

Betty was the first female boat jumper, flying a boat over a Dodge in a publicity stunt in 1955.

One fast lady...Betty Skelton.

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  1. I had the honor to meet Ms Skelton and her late husband Don when I worked at Collier Jaguar in Orlando. She, in her love of speed, had a Red Jaguar XJS V12. On meeting her I had no idea of her records or history. In talking to her I found out about her life and her plane "Little Stinker". My Dad was a docent at the Paul Garber Smithsonian facility, were her plane was stored. She inquired as to it's status, as it had been sitting for many years and not on display as wished. I put her in touch with my Dad, Dave Bellmore, and he kept her updated on the Pitts progress from then on. They formed a good and lasting friendship. Ms Skelton was a very adventurous person and a trill to know. John Bellmore

  2. Once in a great while, someone comes along that turns the car culture on its ear. Betty Skelton not only turned it, she up-righted it. Her parents ...