Vicki Wood, Who Broke Car-Racing Gender Barriers, Dies at 101

She was called “the fastest woman in racing” and “the fastest woman on the sand.” Her explosive speed on the hard-packed sands of Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1960, topping 150 miles per hour, earned her a place in the record books.

Vicki Wood, a trailblazer in the macho world of auto racing, was among the first women to compete in NASCAR events. She broke the gender barrier in 1957 in Michigan and in 1959 at the Daytona International Speedway, which had just opened that year.

In the decade from 1953 to 1963, she set speed records. And when she quit racing in 1963, she had collected 48 trophies.

Ms. Wood was 101 when she died on June 5 at a hospital in Troy, Mich. The cause was heart-related, her niece Beverly Van De Steene said.

In the 1950s, female drivers generally competed only against one another, in so-called powder puff races. Ms. Wood was soon racing against men, but she was not readily accepted.

Bill France, who built the Daytona speedway and founded NASCAR, had given her permission in 1959 to race at Daytona, but word had not filtered down to the gatekeepers. When she showed up ready to drive, she was told that women weren’t allowed in the pit area.

When he was told what happened, Mr. France was furious.

“Vicki Wood is not a woman,” he declared. “She’s a driver, and she’s allowed in the pits.”

With her confident bearing and signature scarf knotted at her neck, Ms. Wood cut a glamorous figure at the track. Sometimes she wore a skirt and high heels. A reporter once asked her why she dressed up to drive.

“I knew I’d probably win and you’d want to interview me, and I wanted to look good,” she replied, according to her grandson Neil Wood.

Women were so rare behind the wheel in those days that the application to join NASCAR had a space for “Wife’s Name.” On Ms. Wood’s application, in 1954, she crossed that out and wrote “Husband’s Name.” Women are more common in racecar driving today, but it is still largely a male domain.

While Ms. Wood loved fast cars and broke speed records on the track, she was cautious on the highway: In 80 years of driving she received only one speeding ticket. At the age of 99, when the Florida State Police took away her license, prompted by a report from someone that she was still driving, she was crushed.

“That was the worst thing they could have done to me,” Ms. Wood told Autoweek last year. “I had a nice car, and I had no trouble driving whatsoever.”

Victoria Rose Raczak was born on March 15, 1919, in Detroit. Her mother, Rose (Krok) Raczak, was a homemaker, and her father, Paul, was a contractor.

Growing up in Detroit, Vicki was surrounded by cars. Her six brothers were always tinkering with them, and automobiles were a popular topic of conversation. But she didn’t start racing until her mid-30s.

She worked odd jobs after high school and, in 1941, married Tom Fitzpatrick. He was killed in Germany at the end of World War II when he picked up a live hand grenade.

In 1947 she married Clarence Wood, known as Skeeter, who died in 2000. He had four children, Bob, Ed, Donna and Wayne, from a previous marriage, and all but Bob, who died in 2015, survive her, along with several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

One summer night in 1953, Mr. Wood, who had been a racecar driver himself, took his wife to watch the powder puff races at the Motor City Speedway in Detroit. She was not impressed.

“The women in that race were so bad,” she told Autoweek. “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 Mr. Wood took her back to the track. But instead of going with her to the bleachers, he took her to the pit area and pointed to a 1937 Dodge Coupe.

“OK, Smarty,” he said. “You think you’re so good, here’s a car. Now go out there.”

Ms. Wood had never been on a track before, but in a race against 24 other drivers, she came in ninth.

And she was hooked. The next night they went to the dirt track at Mount Clemens, northeast of Detroit, where she won the powder puff race. The next week, they went to another nearby track, in Flat Rock, where she won five consecutive powder puffs.

Ms. Wood began giving lessons to other women at Flat Rock while continuing to compete. In one qualifying race, she came in 2/100 of a second faster than the leading male driver. She became the first woman in Michigan to race against men, and she beat many stars of the day. She was inducted into the Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame last year.

Ms. Wood started going to Daytona in 1955 and racked up speed records there.

Her crowning achievement came in 1960, when she burned up the sand at Daytona during a speed trial — competing against the clock, not other drivers — at 150.375 miles per hour. That speed remains a record for a one-way run on the sand, mainly because beach racing is no longer allowed.

She kept winning competitions against men, but by 1963 she had realized that the men didn’t want her around.

“The boys said that if I kept on racing with them, they’d go on strike,” she said in a video interview in 2016. They were sick of being teased when they lost to a woman.

She said she understood their attitude, “so that’s when I quit.”

It never occurred to her to go back to the powder puffs because, she said, she never thought much of female drivers. “They’re unpredictable,” she told an interviewer in 1960. “You never know what they’re going to do.”

She spent the next 15 years working as a saleswoman at the Jordan Marsh department store at the Palm Beach Mall in Florida.

But she remained proud of her racing career. Her grandson Neil said that years later, when he would ask her about racing against men, “she would get this glow, her face would shine, and she would say, ‘I raced against a hundred of them and I beat them all.’”

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