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Racing Commentary

Email Lew at lewboyd@coastal181.com

Coastal’s Choice.  From The Harriet Quimby Scrapbook,
by Giacinta Bradley Koontz. (Carrie Vanderbilt Collection)



Not long ago someone asked me to name someone – anyone, from any period in history – whom I’d put in my race car if we were into superspeedway racing.

Interesting question. It’s quite apparent that success in that arena these days involves a lot more than athletic talent with a super-sized side of bravery. The key ingredients seem to include comfortable access to money and the media, and a pleasing physical appearance.

So here’s our candidate: the glamorous and gutsy Harriet Quimby.

Ms. Quimbly was born on a Homestead Act farm in Michigan in 1875. It was just too early for her to become a race car driver, but she sure bounced along that wall along the way.

Uncommonly beautiful and adventurous from the start, Harriet was intent on becoming a silent-screen actress after her family moved to California in her early twenties. She did manage a film role here and there, but settled in as a screen writer – and a prodigious photo journalist for Leslie’s Weekly Illustrated. Her popularity soared and, by the time she moved to the Big Apple, she was an aspiring socialite, best friend of Carrie Vanderbilt, and a fixture in Bohemian and artistic circles as well.

Harriet traveled far and wide with her note pad – Cuba, Egypt, Iceland, Mexico. She really became mobile, though, following an assignment to cover the Vanderbilt Cup Races in October of 1906. And, wouldn’t you know, she got a ride…as a passenger in Herbert Lytle’s Pope-Toledo. It captured her, hook, line, and sinker. She wrote of her adventure:

You will remember many a day how the automobile seems to fly…at a trifle over 100 miles an hour. Although every nerve in your body is quivering, you manage to shout an answer to Lytle, who asks with exquisite sarcasm, at the top of his voice, ‘Was that fast enough?’ and you enjoy the satisfaction of seeing him nearly fall over with surprise as you fire back, ‘Twasn’t very fast; can’t you make it 120?’

In no time she was tootling all over hither and yon in her own car, penning articles about automobiles and their repair. The only exercise she seemed to find a challenge was mounting tires.

But it was actually at another assignment that Harriet really took off. That was covering the 1910 Belmont Air Show and its airplane race around the Statue of Liberty. Determined to learn to fly as well as any man, she breezed through her training and became “America’s First Birdwoman,” our first licensed female pilot.

She quickly rose to meteoric fame and a huge draw at fairs nationwide. With characteristic feminine flair, she would fly with a colorful scarf trailing behind. Soon, though, she had to design new clothing to overcome such obstacles as revealing an ankle as she climbed into the fuselage. The result was a daringly fashionable purple flying costume.

In 1912 she boarded a steamer for England for a stunt foretelling Evel Kneivel. Lifting tentatively out of an aerodrome in Dover on April 16, she became the first woman to fly the English Channel. Though publicity for her accomplishment was muted by word of the Titanic’s sinking the previous day, Harriet was on top of the world. The only unsettled issue may have related to rumors of two devastatingly failed affairs. She never married.

Harriet preps for her flight across the Channel. Note the pontoon that plane
builder Louis Bleriot strapped on inside the fuselage in case of a  “watery
landing.” From The Harriet Quimby Scrapbook, by Giacinta Bradley Koontz.
(Carrie Vanderbilt Collection)

And then came Boston. On July 1, 1912, Harriet, as the grand attraction, came to the third annual Harvard Aviation Meet. In a pre-show exercise, she went aloft with the promoter, William Williard, for a ride around Boston Light in the harbor. All was well until suddenly, still over the water but in full view of the spectators, the two-seater Bleriot pitched forward violently. There were no seat belts, and Williard was tossed out. Moments later, Harriet followed, her purple suit arcing helplessly against the blue summer sky.

The remains of the plane were recovered from a mud-bog and rest today at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in New York’s Catskill Mountains, across the river from Accord Speedway.

She could have driven our car anytime.

Leslie’s Weekly Illustrated’s publicity illustration of their journalist, Harriet.

© 2012 Lew Boyd, Coastal 181

If you were interested in this Tearoff, you might enjoy the books below:

The 1912 Milwaukee Races: Vanderbilt Cup and Grand Prize

by Joel Finn
Vanderbilt Cup Races of Long Island

by Howard Kroplick

Stop by our Book Store Directory for a look at our book and DVD selections:

Book Store

.: Previous Tearoffs :.

8/2/12 - Andy Does Dixie

7/14/12 - Charlie


© 2007-12 Lew Boyd, Coastal 181



























































































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