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Women professional racing drivers are becoming more common across the global motorsports landscape. And drivers like Sara Christian helped pave the path. Christian, who competed in the inaugural NASCAR season, remains one of the sport’s most successful female drivers.

Louise Smith and Sara Christian NASCAR 1949
Louise Smith (left) and Sara Christian | Getty Images

NASCAR’s roots can be traced back a century, but the sport as we know it didn’t come to be until 1947 with the formation of the governing body in Daytona Beach, Florida. In the summer of 1949, NASCAR began its first “Strictly Stock” series, the predecessor to the Cup Series.

The inaugural race of the series took place at Charlotte Speedway, a 0.75-mile dirt oval. Not only did it mark the first NASCAR race of what would become Cup, Christian became the first female driver to enter a race, according to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Her driving talents had been discovered a year before when she competed in a “powder puff” race at the new Atlanta Speedway.

Christian immediately found success in NASCAR, placing 13th in the race in a car owned by her husband, Frank. Christian followed up her top-15 by competing in five more races that season (there were only eight for the sport’s initial year). She racked up three more top-15 finishes over the next five races. She placed sixth among a field of 45 drivers at Langhorne Speedway near Philadelphia. Future NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Curtis Turner won the race and was reportedly so impressed with Christian’s performance he invited her to join in the victory lane celebrations.

Already cemented in the NASCAR history books as the sport’s first woman driver, Christian followed that performance with a record that remains 76 years later. She placed fifth at Heidelberg Raceway in Pittsburgh in a field of 23 drivers. To this day, Christian remains the only female driver to score a top-five finish in NASCAR’s top division.

Despite her success, Christian’s racing career was short lived. She competed in one race in 1950 before hanging up her helmet. Still, she has left an indelible mark on NASCAR history. Christian, a Georgia native, was inducted into the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame in 2004.

Though it’s most successful female driver, Christian wasn’t the only woman to race in NASCAR’s inaugural year.

Louise Smith raced in the Strictly Stock Series in select events from 1949-52. Her career best finish was 16th at Langhorne in 1949.

Ethel Flock Mobley also raced in two events in 1949, placing 11th on the Daytona Beach-Road Course. Mobley is the sister of NASCAR pioneers and brothers Tim, Bob and Fonty Flock. Mobley’s other race that year was at Langhorne. As such, Christian, Mobley and Smith all raced in the event, the only NASCAR race to this day featuring three female drivers.

Additional sources: [Georgia Racing Hall of Fame]