Betty Skelton Erde is 82 and lives in a retirement community where many are content to putter about in golf carts. Not Erde: She drives a blazing red Corvette to match her red hair and really means it when she says: ”I like fast cars.”
An auto racing pioneer, Erde once was the fastest woman on Earth, setting female speed records at Daytona Beach and Utah’s Bonneville salt flats half a century ago. This week, she reached a new milestone as only the fifth woman inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in suburban Detroit.
She also becomes the 174th person honoured; Erde will attend the ceremony in which Champ Car driver Michael Andretti and five other racing legends also are being inducted.
Dozens of firsts are attached to her name: the auto industry’s first female test driver, in 1954; the first woman to set a world land-speed record in 1956 (233km/h at Daytona Beach); and then the world land-speed record for women in 1965, hitting 508,1km/h at Bonneville.
Oh, but did she tell you she really started out as a female stunt pilot?
”To me, there’s hardly any feeling in the world that can equal the feeling of an airplane when the wheels leave the ground,” Erde said.
Born in 1926 in Pensacola, Erde was smitten by the aviation bug early.
Spellbound, she watched landings and takeoffs at the Naval Air Station, took lessons as a child and soloed at 12. ”Unfortunately, it was kind of illegal, so I had to wait until I was 16 to tell anybody,” she said, laughing.
As a teenager, Erde flew when she could. After graduating from high school in 1944, she worked a night job and rented planes by day.
One day, a man organising a local airshow invited her to perform. She didn’t know any aerobatics, but learned to roll and loop a plane in two weeks.
”You really learned what excitement was then,” she said.
She mastered dozens of tricks. Her signature move: cutting a ribbon strung between two fishing poles with her propeller, while flying upside down 3m off the ground.
In 1948, she bought a rare Pitts Special — a lightweight, red-and-white biplane suited for aerobatics. But while Erde was soaring in popularity, she also was a rarity — a young, beautiful woman in a male-dominated world of death-defying stunts.
”She’s one of the women who really pushed the boundaries,” said Dorothy Cochrane, curator of general aviation at Washington’s National Air and Space Museum.
By the 1950s, she was wowing audiences worldwide, though her aviation future was limited. Had Erde been a man, an entire world of opportunity would have opened.
”I wanted very much to fly in the navy,” she says. ”But all they would do is laugh when I asked.”
In 1953, the man who began the Nascar circuit asked Erde to fly some auto racers from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. She and Bill France became fast friends.
In February 1954, at France’s invitation, Erde went to Daytona. She climbed into a Dodge sedan, went 170,4km/h on the beach — that’s when folks still raced on sand — and set a stock-car record.
Erde had found her second love.
Automakers also discovered a great spokesperson: Erde became a Chevrolet employee and set records with Corvettes, owning 10 in all.
In the 1950s, she raced across the South American Andes, down Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and set records at the Chrysler proving grounds in Michigan.
”I would venture to say there is no other woman in the world with all the attributes of this woman,” France once remarked. ”The most impressive of them all is her surprising and outstanding ever-present femininity, even when tackling a man’s job.”
In 1959, at 33, she was the first woman to undergo Nasa’s physical and psychological tests — the same that seven original male astronauts were put through. ”I complained that Nasa wasn’t giving more thought to women pilots,” she said.
But if Erde was aware of how different she was for a woman at the time — unmarried, without children — she didn’t show it. ”I had to do what I wanted,” she said.
At 39, Erde married a Hollywood producer named Donald Frankman. They retired in the 1970s to Florida, where Erde kept a seaplane docked outside their lakefront home.
Frankman died in 2001, when Erde cut back on flying. ”I just felt I wasn’t as safe as I used to be,” she said.
In 2005, she married Dr Allan Erde, a retired navy surgeon. She also was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
Now living for a year in her retirement community, Erde still longs for the cockpit of a plane. But she gets her speed fix by watching Danica Patrick in the IndyCar Series and lives with the satisfaction that she helped open aviation and motorsports to young women.
Said Erde: ”It’s been quite a ride.” — Sapa-AP