This 95-Year-Old Race Car Driver Is Finally Getting the Respect She’s Long Deserved
Coming to the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, on May 24, is an evening program featuring the film Paula Murphy: Undaunted, from the Left Behind documentary series created by Pam Miller and Cindy Sisson. The series tells the previously untold stories of trailblazing women whose contributions to the automobile and motorsports world have not gained the recognition commensurate with their notable achievements.
Paula Murphy shook up the racing scene like no other woman driver has ever done. It was a man’s world in the 1960s and 1970s, and Murphy, born in 1928, entered a space where women weren’t welcomed. She broke down barriers, and may be the most significant woman in motorsport history because of her versatile talents and indefatigable resolve to compete and win. As women championed for equal rights in every aspect of society during those turbulent times, Murphy “crashed” the most exclusive men’s club of them all.
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Her family came to Southern California in the 1950s, where she soon discovered Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) racing and won her class in an Alfa Romeo in 1959. Shortly after, the noted racer Scooter Patrick let her drive his modified Porsche. She went on to teach at Dan Gurney’s racing school, and caught the attention of marketing genius Andy Granatelli—at the time, the most famous name in motorsports.
She soon became known as “Miss STP”, and for good reason. Driving for Granatelli’s then ubiquitous STP oil-additive brand, she set 365 new stock-car records for Granatelli and Studebaker at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1963. Her success made her the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500, doing so behind the wheel of the Novi, Granatelli’s challenging Studebaker Indy race car. Back to Bonneville in 1965, she piloted Avenger, the STP jet car—despite four inches of water on the ground—to 243.33 mph.
Drag racing was her next frontier, where she became the first woman licensed to pilot a nitro-powered NHRA funny car. Murphy showed up to NASCAR in 1971. “I knew I was doin’ pretty good,” she remarked about her first time qualifying. But a 1973 accident at Sears Point Raceway (now Sonoma Raceway) in Sonoma, Calif., changed things. That was when her STP-sponsored, jet-engined dragster clocked 254 mph but crashed following a mechanical failure, breaking her neck and laying her up for more than half a year. Undaunted, Murphy went on to Grand Prix racing, where she was the only American selected to represent the United States in the first Women’s Grand Prix Race in 1974. “Who didn’t want to go to Monaco?” she said.
In 1976, she was back at Talladega, climbing into Richard Petty’s No. 43 Dodge stock car, the better one of only two cars in the King’s stable. “It was quite an offer,” said Murphy regarding Petty’s faith in her abilities, adding, “I hope to go 180 [mph], just depends on how much nerve I have.” She set a new World Women’s Closed Course Speed Record at 172.336 mph.
During the course of her career, Murphy rubbed shoulders with so many great racers, yet few from any era have achieved her level of versatility as a driver. “How could you accomplish what Paula Murphy did in that time, to race in all those different categories?” says John Force, 16-time NHRA Champion. “That is unheard of by a man, let alone by a woman.”
Looking back on her 15-year career, Murphy once said, “I may have started a little something.” The Petersen evening features the film screening, a panel discussion, a silent auction, and made-to-order In-N-Out burgers. To purchase tickets or donate, visit here.
Ready to start summer in high gear? There’s still time to join Robb Report’s 2023 California Coastal Rally, June 4 through 8. For more information, or to register, visit here.
Click here for more photos of ground-breaking racer Paula Murphy.
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