Someone once said that if women could lay asphalt, lift the bar, fly into space and even serve the people as the First Lady of the United States, why couldn’t one of them become the planet’s fastest woman driver… Indeed! These prophetic words were reflected in a true story that has become a legend.
In 1976, the American driver Kitty Hambleton piloted the 48,000-hp rocket-powered SMI Motivator at the sensational speed of 843 km/h!
Kitty O'Neil (known as Kitty Hambleton after her marriage to Duffy Hambleton) was born in Corpus Christi, Texas to an Irish father and a Cherokee mother. She lost her hearing at the age of 4 months, when she contracted measles, mumps and smallpox that attacked her weak body all at the same time. After Kitty’s birth, the family moved to Wichita Falls. Her mother taught her to read lips and Kitty was able to finish a regular public school.
In spite of being deaf and small in stature (5 feet 3 inches or 160 cm tall) and going through two cancer surgeries back in the 1960s, Kitty has always been interested in risky hobbies.
She started with testing parachutes and then moved to California in 1964 to train for the Olympics. Her life full of diligence and achievements resulted in her competing on the USA Diving National Team. However, the rug was pulled from under her feet again. A bout of spinal meningitis prevented her from competing in the Olympics.
A few years later, in 1979 Kitty got married to a stuntman, Duffy Hambleton, and also became a stunt performer. She featured in famous movies like “Airport '77”, “The Blues Brothers” and “Damien: Omen II”. She was fond of motor sports and drag racing in particular. In 1970, she set an official water skiing speed record by a female — 168 km/h. In 1980, she set the record for the highest stunt fall by a woman (127 feet or 38.7 m, equal to a twelve-storey building). Kitty is the holder of 22 speed records on land and water, her name is in the Guinness Book of World Records for several accomplishments as a stuntwoman.
Her life story was portrayed in a TV movie “Silent Victory: The Kitty O'Neil Story”, nominated for two Primetime Emmy awards for Outstanding Directing and Outstanding Supporting Actress. As she said in an interview in 2005, when the movie came out (featuring Kitty as a stuntwoman only), she was surprised to see that half of the events described there did not correspond to reality. The Kitty O’Neil dolls were produced in the USA, which were excellent gifts not only for kids but also for all daredevils.
But how did the famous Kitty become a woman's record holder? A woman who became a legend?
Back in 1976, William «Bill» Fredrick built a rocket dragster SMI Motivator aimed at breaking the land speed record and the sound barrier as well. Being short of funds, he sold an exclusive right to drive the dragster for $50,000 to two drivers and stunt performers. Those were Kitty, who put up $20,000, and Hal Needham, who paid $30,000 for the chance to steer the car.
The runs began in summer 1976 on the dry lakebed of El Mirage located to the north of Los Angeles. They later continued at Bonneville. But the most successful runs were performed on the Alvord Desert in Oregon. At that time, Hal Needham was participating in filming a movie and was not getting behind the wheel of the dragster. In the meantime, Kitty was setting new speed records for women with each new run. One of the newspaper articles reported that on December 6, 1976 Kitty said a short prayer before the start (as she always did being a good Christian) and topped 524 mph (843.323 km/h) on her way to a two-way average of 512.710 (825.120 km/h) mph.
However, right after this sensational event there came a tricky twist of fate! In one of the runs, Kitty topped 618 mph (around 994 km/h), while she was still only using 60 percent of the Motivator's power. In her next run she was ready to beat the then existing record of 630.478 mph (1,014.656 km/h) set by Harry Gabelich. But! The sponsors, who invested money in building the rocket dragster, and Hal Needham started pressing Fredrick to stop Kitty’s runs. As a formal cause, Fredrick was accused of allegedly neglecting the contract signed with Needham that was couched in terms which gave Kitty an exclusive right to beat the land speed record set by a woman, while Needham was the one who could beat the man’s speed record. But you wouldn’t believe what the actual reason was — infringement of manhood of Needham and all the men in the world. It was just unthinkable for a woman to become the planet’s champion.
Just imagine that one of the sponsors was reported to have said that it would be “unbecoming and degrading” for a woman to set a “man’s” land speed record. Even though Sport Illustrated assured that it had been a misquoted statement, Needham still received quite a number of phone calls accusing him of being a male chauvinist pig. Other sources report that the sponsor was afraid of low sales of Needham dolls in case he hadn’t turned out to be the world’s fastest driver. In the face of a lawsuit filed by Needham and a money loss threat, the next day Fredrick pulled Kitty out of a ready-to-start dragster at the last moment and suspended her from further runs. Unfair but that’s how it happened.
In July 1977, Needham got behind the wheel of the dragster. During the third attempt, none of the three parachutes deployed and the vehicle ploughed a long furrow to be completely destroyed. The driver escaped almost uninjured. As it turned out later, one of the company’s employees, responsible for the parachutes, poured some acid into the parachute containers at the instigation and for the money of some competing team that was also engaged in record-setting attempts. The dragster was dolled up and sold to a private collection of a widow of Austrian driver Jochen Rindt.
The record set by Kitty hasn’t been beaten ever since, however, it has not been recognised by the FIA as the car had only three wheels instead of having four or more wheels set by FIA’s requirements. On the other hand, some sources claim it to be certified by the FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme), which deals with three- and two-wheel vehicles that are usually motorcycles. However, there is no trace of this record on the FIM’s official website either.
Even though this record was not set during an official drag competition and was not repeated with 1 percent accuracy within the same competition, in her interview given in 1979 Kitty said she owed all her achievements to the help of God and her deafness, which helped in better concentration on vibration without being distracted by any noise: “I can concentrate better and my equilibrium is better”. In 1982, Kitty retired and is now busy growing flowers, giving parties, and playing computer games at her home overlooking Lake Eureka together with Raymond Wald, her companion since 1989, who grew up in these places.
This fascinating story tells about a regular woman, who was able to withstand all blows of fate and hardships and unravel all twists of fortune to become a legend. Stay strong in spirit, ladies and gentlemen, and you will get your just desserts. In our next story, we will tell you about the first ever speed record established in 1895.