Betty Skelton was pilot, race car driver, woman in gold Corvette photo
Betty Skelton was America’s real-life Wonder Woman. Described by the news media at the time as the fastest woman on Earth, she set countless speed records in the air and in motor sports.
Born a generation ago, she flawlessly moved from dominating one industry to another, her impact resonating today as she helped pave the way for women to follow her. Her journey is captured in “Betty Skelton: Boundless, The First Lady of Firsts,” a new documentary that recently aired on Fox Sports 1.
“She was the perfect woman to feature first in our ‘Left Behind’ series to promote women in motor sports who made an impact and were forgotten,” said Pam Miller, one of the executive producers and director of the film. “Betty’s name was at the top of the list because of her broad reach across aviation, auto racing and advertising. No person had influenced those industries more than Betty. She held her own with the titans of those industries — whether it was through what she did in public or behind the scenes. She had glamour, skills and credentials to back everything she did. They listened to her. We had to tell her story.”
Skelton, who died in 2011 at age 85, was inducted while she was alive into 12 Hall of Fames for auto and aviation accomplishments. She might have been the first female astronaut, too, had it not been for the times.
She was nicknamed “Mercury 7.5” after Look magazine featured her on its cover in 1960 with the headline, “Should a Girl Be First in Space” after the seven Mercury astronauts, including John Glenn, had been announced by NASA to eventually fly in space. No women pilots were allowed to try out, not even respected ones like Skelton. Look then arranged for Skelton to go through NASA’s rigorous training, which she did and passed with flying colors, and captured it for the article.
Buoyed by her God-given talents, moxie and beauty, Skelton overcame countless obstacles put forth because of her gender. She was born in Pensacola, Florida, and was flying small planes by age 12 — thanks to her parents who encouraged their only child to reach for the stars, according to the film.
She went on to dominate aviation and won flying contests, doing daredevil stunts like the inverted ribbon cut in, in which she flew her single-seat, open-cockpit plane upside down at 150 mph 10 feet above the ground, and sliced through a ribbon stretched between two poles, one of many highlights in the film.
In a race car, Skelton set women’s land-speed records in the 1950s (she topped 145 mph in a Corvette at Daytona Beach in 1956). She established a Women’s Land Speed Record in a race car powered by a J-47 jet engine at the Bonneville Salt Flats and drove 2,917 miles from Los Angeles to New York in just shy of 57 hours — breaking record after record.
Skelton was involved in advertising, too, as vice president at Campbell Ewald in the 1950s. A Detroiter then, she helped GM entice more women to get behind the wheel of a car.
Jay Leno, an entertainer and car enthusiast, is among the folks who talk of Skelton in the film. “She did narrations for GM, and it was pretty progressive of them to have a female talking about the technical side, too.”
In her oral history obtained for the film, Skelton says: “It isn’t that I’m trying to compete with men or invade their world. I’ve chosen the type of work I enjoy and seem qualified for. I just can’t stand sitting still.”
Skelton displayed other talents, too, as she helped write scripts for hit TV shows like “Bonanza” and “My Three Sons,” commercials and various movies, alongside her husband, producer Don Frankman.
Despite her accomplishments, few people today have heard of her.
Racing legend Lyn St. James, who will be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in July, is also among those trying to shine a light on Skelton’s life. She told me it’s important for people, particularly young women, to know her story.
St. James met Skelton in 2010 at a Women in the Winner’s Circle Foundation celebration when Skelton was honored with that organization’s Pioneer Award. It was about six months before she passed away.
“I became aware of her when I was working with the Henry Ford Museum traveling exhibit on the history of women in racing,” St. James said. “I did not know of her before that, which emphasizes the importance of sharing information about Betty. I considered myself an expert on women in racing, so if I didn’t know about her, many others likely didn’t either.”
St. James and Beth Paretta, CEO of Paretta Autosport, just launched Women in Sports North America, an organization to help women network and learn about opportunities in autos and motor sports.
They held their first event June 1 at the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn. As part of it, they held a panel discussion about Skelton, and the documentary was shown to the captivated audience.
“I learned much about Betty from this movie,” Paretta told me. “What an amazing, pioneering, driven woman. … I smiled when I learned that Betty would step out of a plane or car well-coifed and looking like a lady. I could take a page out of her book. It’s important to remember that we don’t have to pretend to be one of the boys to work side by side with men. We can still have our nails painted and talk about handbags if we want. We do on my team, and I think Betty would have fit right in with us.”
The documentary was a labor of love for Miller, Cindy Sisson, CEO of GSEvents who also served as executive producer, and Lindsey Mandia, vice president of production for Fox Sports.
As Miller began her research, she hit pay dirt with a photo she found of Skelton and a gold Corvette. “We found it going through GM Archives. The photo was iconic, but no one knew who the woman in the photo was,” Miller said.
Miller uncovered the story. Seeing how famous Skelton was back in the day, the legendary auto designer Harley Earl, along with Bill Mitchell of General Motors’ design staff, commissioned a striking pearlescent gold 1957 Corvette for an advertising tour featuring Skelton.
As a spokeswoman, she worked on the Corvette account as a test driver and became the first woman to drive a pace car at the annual Daytona 500.
Skelton was known to always drive and fly barefoot, so that she could feel the vehicle’s movements. She kept her high heels nearby to put on before she stepped out.
Miller told me Skelton was competitive but knew how to manage her image and message at a time society was only going to accept a woman going so far.
“The most surprising thing about Betty was her incredible savvy and fearlessness,” said Miller. “This woman didn’t swim, but still did stunts in speedboats and passed the water tests at NASA.”
In the documentary, Skelton is shown taking part in that Look magazine shoot as she goes through rigorous tests for NASA. Diminutive (barely 100 pounds and 5 feet tall), she wore medical scrubs, as the usual outfit worn by the astronauts were too big. She also appears in scrubs wearing high heels as they didn’t have shoes or slippers, either.
“That’s when I knew I didn’t fit in,” she says in the film.
How was she able to move from industry to industry with such ease?
“Betty dominated so many fields because she worked hard and tried everything,” Miller said. “She had the self-awareness to know when she had pushed hard enough to reach the limits of what society would let her achieve in an airplane or car and when it was time to find a new challenge, which she did.”
She knew she might not get to do exactly what she wanted, but she still found a way to excel.
“For instance, she couldn’t be in an oval race with the other NASCAR drivers — but she would break records on speed runs and invent creative ways for women to follow her path and take what she did to the next level, which they finally did as women eventually were allowed to race with men at Daytona and Indianapolis — and pilot a space shuttle,” Miller said.
One has to wonder, with so many amazing accomplishments, why isn’t Skelton a household name?
“One theory is that she was so important to so many parts of the transportation industry — there wasn’t one category that could own her story outright,” Miller said.
Miller and her team hope this documentary changes that. They are planning films on other female trailblazers in motor sports, too.
“Making sure everyone knows the story of women like Betty Skelton is the start of giving the proper credit to the women that allowed this generation to have limitless opportunities,” said Miller.
“We owe so much to Betty,” she added.
Contact Carol Cain: 313-222-6732 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She is senior producer/host of “Michigan Matters,” which airs 8 a.m. Sundays on CBS 62. See Sen. Gary Peters, Detroit Riverfront Conservancy’s Mark Wallace and Wreaths Across America’s Renee Worcester on this Sunday’s show.