The Fastest Woman on Wheels, The Life of Paula Murphy

by Erik Arneson

As long as Paula remains a racer, she’ll be a credit to our sport. A careful, brave, consistent, and thoughtful example to all racers, regardless of race, color, creed, or sex.”  

—Andy Granatelli

Those familiar with Paula Murphy’s two-decade-long motorsports career—at a time when women typically were not as prevalent in the cockpit as they are now—realize how many different types of cars she drove, and set records in too. Moreover it all came naturally to her. She could strap into a type of racecar she’d never seen before, much less driven, and go fast practically from the get-go. Additionally, Paula just quietly went about achieving without any dramatics or theatrics.

As the opening quote expressed, she ever and always conducted herself calmly and ladylike. What’s more, she was always good-natured even when asked to do silly things like freshen her lipstick while sitting in a cockpit still dressed in nomex and fire suit. Or, after removing her helmet, fluff her coif for the cameras. As one wag asked, “Would any reporter or photographer have had the temerity (or bad judgment) to make a similar type of request of A.J. Foyt or Parnelli Jones?”

Versatility describes Paula’s driving talents. Whereas the majority of drivers, no matter their gender, specialize, Paula wanted to experience it all and proved herself able and capable of all she tried as the litany of the cars she drove—most always to records—and other accomplishments attest. What follows are highlights and in no way a comprehensive summation of all Paula Murphy accomplished during her 1956–1976 motorsports driving career:

  • first woman to drive the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track at speed; 13 years prior to when Janet Guthrie would become the first woman to qualify to race in a 500
  • drove competitively in Mobilgas Economy Run 1961–1966 achieving numerous top finishes
  • in the STP/Granatelli years she set records on Bonneville’s salt flats and also records in transcontinental runs in Studebaker Avantis
  • driving the Arfons jet car at Bonneville [1]
  • first woman to be granted a Funny Car license by both UDRA (United Drag Racers Association) and NHRA
  • first woman to drive Talladega high-banked oval at speed while breaking women’s closed-course speed record
  • probably the only woman ever to drive 20,402.3 miles around the world

Paula’s biographer, Erik Arneson, quotes her as saying, “My competitive drive just comes naturally to me . . . either you have it or you don’t.” She obviously had it from girlhood “winning first place in a 1940 Silver Skates Ice Carnival speed skating event in downtown Cleveland.” A bit later she was winning sailing competitions in an old single mast catboat as well as equestrian competitions including trick riding. Years later when first invited to try her hand at driving competitively, she found she enjoyed it immensely and, no surprise, being almost intuitively good at it too. As they say, the rest is history.

Perhaps the chapter about her drive around the world near the end of her driving career is the most interesting simply because it is told in more detail than found in other accounts. 

That drive, planned and held in observance of America’s bicentennial, was co-sponsored by Pontiac and National Car Rental as, at that time, National had operations in sixty countries. Drivers were Paula and 1950 Indy 500 winner Johnnie Parsons (photo above) in separate his and her Pontiacs. They were accompanied by a one-man support crew in a van loaded with spare parts as might be needed (happily neither Pontiac would experience any major issue only sometimes running roughly due to poor quality of gasoline available), an official USAC observer named Donald Davidson (yes, that Donald Davidson), a cinematographer, and a crew coordinator—seven people in all with Paula the sole femme. She later reported they all got along well and it had been a fantastic experience but that she “was always the one who would have to ask for directions. Not one of those guys would ever open their mouth. God forbid a man should ask for directions.” The drive put 20,402.3 miles on each Pontiac’s odometer. It took 104 days as they visited 29 countries located on five continents.

A classy and pioneering lady whose story is well and fully told by this book with only one, single mis-keyed word—of a word easily misspelled: race car driver Rodger Ward’s first name. When asked what it felt like to be achieving in what was generally perceived as a man’s world or about the then-in-the-news women’s liberation movement, Paula calmly responded “I was doing my own thing before those two words were ever uttered.”

Paula Murphy chose to hang up her helmet shortly after completing the ‘round the world drive opting to return to the aerospace industry. In the words of the writer of the book’s Foreword and proprietress of the LandSpeed Productions Research Library’s Paula Murphy Collection, Louise Ann Noeth, “Paula Murphy is the pioneer who allowed other women to put on helmets all over the world. She blazed the trail in so many different aspects of motorsports.”

  1. Interestingly Paula’s reaction/response to the jet car fishtailing on her was exactly the correct one—the only correct one: she pulled the chute in order to straighten out. Had she tried to steer out of it, the car would have gotten more out of control. Had she been instructed or was it pure instinct? Since we can’t ask her (she passed in December 2023, age 95), the question is rhetorical but was affirmed by Mickey Thompson’s son, Danny, who is quoted saying, “When things get sideways at Bonneville, you pull the parachute. What the parachute does is separate the center of gravity, and it gives the car more stability and yaw. So, when it’s sideways, [the parachute] will bring it back . . . hopefully, bring it back straight.”
The Fastest Woman on Wheels, The Life of Paula Murphy
by Erik Arneson
Octane Press, 2023
280 pages, 70 b/w images, softcover
bibliography, index
List Price: $19.95
ISBN 13: 978 1 64234 145 4
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