Mark Glendenning, Australia
The issue of gender imbalance in motor racing is pretty much as old as motor racing itself. It's always lurking in the background somewhere, waiting to be launched back onto the front pages by something like the Danica 500 back in May.
This isn't the time to explore why the inability to pee while standing up should be any barrier to going motor racing, other than to say that there is all sorts of research into the issue going on all of the world, and some of the results that I have been privy to make interesting reading.
But if reading survey results and so forth doesn't qualify as 'interesting reading' for you, then maybe a book about some girls who have already made their mark on racing will. As skewed as the ratio of guys to girls in motorsport undoubtedly is, there are nevertheless a lot of women who have served in the driver's seat - some with considerable success. John Bullock has taken a look back through history at some of the more distinguished girl racers, and collected their stories into this book.
Bullock's focus very much remains on his side of the English Channel, so if you are looking to find out information about some of the quick women that made their names racing in Europe or elsewhere then you will be disappointed. But providing that you are happy to keep your focus within the UK - and generally before WWII - you will find some good stuff here.
Other than Key Petre, who was a bona-fide star of her era, virtually all of the names in this book were completely new to me. From that perspective, it was encouraging to read in the author's biography on the dust jacket that Bullock had known a lot of women featured in the book personally. After all, when you are entering new territory, it's always useful to do it with someone who has been there before. I was a little disappointed, then, to find that Bullock's relationships with the drivers was rarely reflected in their stories.
His accounts of the lives and careers of these women are certainly not bad, but there is a distinct formula. Other than Petre, the drivers are generally covered in individual chapters that average around eight or ten pages. And too many of them follow a pattern of woman's early life, woman discovers cars, woman goes racing, woman dies peacefully at home at the age of 85. You frequently get the sense that you are reading newspaper obituaries rather than histories of racing careers.
The short chapters also make for a fairly quick reading experience. I took 'Fast Women' with me on a day that I had to travel to work by public transport - a journey of a little over an hour - and it was finished before I arrived home that night. If you are looking for something to occupy you for a couple of weeks, this book is not going to do the trick.
But despite all of that, I enjoyed reading this book. The stories of some of these women run parallel to other great events in racing history. I learned more about the construction of Brooklands through this book than I knew before, which was something I had not expected. And there really are some great stories tucked away here, both in the tales of these women's racing careers, and in some of the incidental anecdotes that you encounter along the way. I particularly liked this one:
"Watt was a flamboyant character and flying as his passenger took considerable courage, particularly as he enjoyed doing stunts, such as diving under the Byfleet Bridge at Brooklands. On one occasion he climbed out of the cockpit and on to the wing of his plane to prove to his terrified passenger that the aircraft could fly quite well by itself.
"Watt and Bummer were due to lunch together at Brooklands one day, but when Watt arrived he explained that before they could do so he wanted to fly over to his father's house and drop an important message, which he'd wrapped around a brick. The message was to explain that there had been a change of plan and he wouldn't now be returning home until later that afternoon. Unfortunately, however, the brick went through one of his father's greenhouses and the old man seized his 12-bore shotgun and peppered the aircraft with buckshot. The holes in the wing canvas were clearly visible when Watt landed and bore witness to the truth of his story and his father's accurate aim.
"'Wouldn't it have been easier and less expensive to telephone?' Bummer asked as they sat down to lunch." (p. 69)
Capping the whole thing off are some nice photographs, many of which I'd imagine you'd be hard-pressed to find in print elsewhere.
Those with an interest in female racers over the past century will find some nice stuff in this book, although the brevity of the chapters might be a bit frustrating. Still, there are some stories here that have not been told before, and that alone warrants a space for this book on your shelf.