‘Before there was a Danica Patrick. Before there was a Lyn St. James or a Janet Guthrie. Before there was a Denise McCluggage or a Louise Smith. Before all of them, there was Joan Newton Cuneo, whose success racing cars in the early days of the American automobile made her a national celebrity.”
I wrote those words in 2013 as part of a review of Elsa A. Nystrom’s book Mad for Speed: The Racing Life of Joan Newton Cuneo. Nystrom, a college professor, had started research on a book about why Americans love to race cars when she stumbled across Cuneo, who became a national sensation, racing against and beating many of the best men racers in the country, in the early days of American motorsports.
Nystrom not only wrote about Cuneo’s accomplishments in racing, but about how she worked on her own cars, was a mother and social advocate for orphans as well as for women drivers, and for better roads and for cars for them to drive (Henry Ford asked her to help redesign the interior of his cars).
Oh, and she also wrote about the scandals in Cuneo’s life as well.
What brings all of this back is news that trophies won by Cuneo will be up for auction August 18 in Seattle.
Two trophies are from the 1909 Mardi Gras Speed Carnival held in New Orleans, won just before Cuneo was other women were barred from competing against men. Another was won in 1911 for setting the world half-mile speed record for a woman; Cuneo did 111.5 mph in her Pope Hummer on the Long Island Parkway.
But most impressive is a Gorham sterling silver plaque presented by the Ranier Motor Company for Cuneo’s perfect score — the first by a woman entrant — in the 1908 Glidden Tour. The shield is 16 x 13 1/2 inches and has an estimated pre-auction value of $40,000 to $60,000
Grant Zahajko of MBA Seattle Auction House said the trophies are being consigned by one of Cuneo’s granddaughters. They are perhaps the only ones remaining the Cuneo won.
“Her granddaughter figures somebody must have melted down the sterling silver trophies because there are a bunch of trophies in pictures that no one can account for,” Zehajko said in a news release. “What we have now are a few fabulous silver-plated trophies (and a sterling plaque).”
For additional information, visit the auction’s website.
If you’re interested in the book about Joan Newton Cuneo, here’s the link.