Monday, May 6, 2013

The Fastest Woman In The World Jumps Into The Fire: Part One, The Rise

A water pistol and a chloroform rag. Had it really come to this?

Look at her. Look at that face. Have you ever seen anyone happier, more at home anywhere, than Joan La Costa was behind the wheel of her Miller race car? She was a daring, young (only 21), divorcee (married at 18, divorced at 19 from fellow racer Walter "Waldo" Martins) speed queen "from France" (more on that later) with no equal. She drove fast, like the men, and wasn't afraid of death or disaster.

The French star was discovered and managed by the famous racing promotion duo of J. Alex Sloan (a slick Chicago-area promoter) and Sig Haugdahl, a tough-talking Norwegian racing star who together knew how to draw a crowd and get free newspaper space. 
Here's one of their many crowd-pleasing stunts of a man leaping from a flying plane into Sig's Miller Special...

A pilot for the Mabel Cody Flying Circus flew her plane above Sig Haugdahl, in his Miller 8 Special automobile, on Daytona Beach while Bugs McGowan transferred himself from the car to the plane.

Here was the perfect team to get Joan high-profile races and access to the best cars available. She began to race where the men did, with tremendous success.
Her trophies piled up, and so did her notoriety.

In 1926, Joan was proclaimed "the fastest woman in the world". She was given the use of the record breaking "Wisconsin Special", the speedster designed by Sig after the Tommy Milton car, and with which he had set the unofficial world speed record of 180-mph.

Sig Haugdahl in his "Wisconsin Special", setting the world speed record of 180-mph in 1922

 It was a monster of a car, with an 836 cubic-inch Wisconsin Special Airplane engine.
  She went through the flying mile at Daytona Beach at 145 miles-an-hour, and this wasn't the paved track; this was the washboard beach, on the sand, where the twin goals were "Go as fast as you can", and "Survive".

On April 14th, she nearly didn't make it to option number two. The speedster burst into fire and black smoke, and she jumped from the flames just in time...

According to one newspaper account, "While traveling 130 m.p.h. in attempt to hang up a feminine speedway mark, the gasoline line suddenly broke and the car, fanned by the terrific pace, became a flying comet. Nothing daunted, a few days later she secured another machine and shattered three world's records, traveling 138 miles an hour."

This was the same year that competing driver Louis Disbrow and a few other good ol' boys lodged a protest against Joan racing at the Atlanta Lakewood track. Joan pointed out that her 145-mph speed record was faster than almost all of the men drivers, and thanks to that and the support of several Women's Rights Associations in the area, she competed.

"If you can't lick 'em, try and beat their skirts off", seemed to be Louis's next tack. He raced against her twice that Summer on two different tracks.
He lost both times.

It was bang-up box-office. Their "rivalry" extended to Toronto, Canada, where they met in another "grudge match". Joan set a track record at that three lap event, turning in a time of one-minute, 38.6-seconds in a mile-and-a-half race for the win.

There was even an offer put on the table to have her race a masked driver (presumably, the mask would serve to spare the humiliation of the male driver if he lost).
She wanted to race at the legendary Hawthorne Race Track in Chicago. There were immediate protests filed against the inclusion of "the premiere French woman driver". 
It was great press, and the public lapped it up. She barnstormed in 1926 and 1927, appearing in State Fairs and local tracks throughout the US and Canada, breaking records everywhere she was booked.
She even made a joint appearance with the most famous athlete in the world, Babe Ruth...

1927 Iowa Davenport Democrat, August 19th edition
She was fearless, exotic, beautiful and famous. 
The fastest woman in the world.

 Then came Memphis.

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