By Tom Gillispie
Before Danica Patrick, Lyn St. James and Janet Guthrie, there was Louise Smith. And she was hell on wheels.
Smith, who died April 15 at age 89, was born in Barnesville, Ga., and she was 4 when her family moved to Greenville, S.C. Her first automobile accident was with her daddy's Model T. The tot took the wheel, couldn't stop the car, and drove it right into the chicken coop.
Her start at racing, in the '40s, was more successful. She was a famous local leadfoot, and, Junior Johnson-style, she led many police cars on a merry chase.
Big Bill France was looking ways to promote racing, and he heard about Smith. Putting a woman on a racetrack seemed like a great way to put people in the seats. Even though she'd never seen a race, she entered a race and finished third at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in a 1939 Modified Ford Coupe.
Her husband, the late Noah Smith, was a junkyard owner who didn't care for her racing as she barnstormed the country for tiny purses and a little appearance money.
She won 38 Modified victories and held her own against luminaries like Curtis Turner, Ralph Earnhardt and Buck Baker in Modifieds and in France's NASCAR Grand National circuit. She retired in 1956 and became the first female inductee into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1999.
The chicken coop wasn't her only wreck, though.
Once in Hillsborough, N.C., Turner was teaching her how to slide a car through the turns on a dirt track, then apply the gas as she left the corners. She broke the track record in qualifying, but on her third circuit, the car went airborne and wiped out some small trees. They cut her out of the wreckage with a torch; she needed 48 stitches, and four pins were inserted in her left knee.
Her signature wreck, though, came in '47. She went to Daytona Beach to watch the beach races in Noah's new Ford coupe, but she wanted to race. So she raced the new car and, naturally, wrecked it. She didn't want to tell Noah. When he asked, she said the car broke down in Augusta, Ga.
Then he showed her the newspaper and the front-page photo of his crumpled coupe.
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