Exactly 100 years before Danica Patrick zoomed into auto racing history as both the
2005 Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series rookie of the year, a New York socialite
named Joan Newton Cuneo was catapulted to fame as the first and only woman to enter
the prestigious 1905 Glidden Tour.
Slipping under the radar of rules that never even imagined a woman entrant, Cuneo
broke barriers when she drove her brand new steam-powered White along the grueling
870-mile round-trip tour on mostly unpaved roads between New York City and mountainous
northern New Hampshire. Despite that daring debut and a storied touring and racing
career spanning 10 years, Cuneo was essentially lost to history.
In “Mad for Speed: The Racing Life of Joan Newton Cuneo,” history professor Elsa Nystrom
combines her love for auto racing, her scholarly interest in social and cultural history
and her fascination with Americans’ love for moving fast to produce the first biography
about the enigmatic Cuneo. The book was released in 2013 from McFarland.
A NEED FOR SPEED
Shifting gears from earlier scholarly research and writing on the “dying art” of newspaper
comic strips, Nystrom returned to a subject that played an important role in her own
coming of age: speed.
“As a sports fan growing up in Chicago, I went to stock car races and went on dates
to race tracks when I was in high school,” she said. “I eventually married a guy who
really liked to drive fast. We had some pretty fast cars but we never really raced
— not legally.”
When she moved to Georgia in 1987, NASCAR great Bill Elliot of Dawsonville, Ga., was
earning a reputation after winning a record four consecutive times at Michigan International
Speedway. Nystrom began following his career, writing articles and meeting him on
a few occasions.
“I was very interested in writing a biography on him, but two other biographers were
already working on one,” she said.
Nystrom threw herself into research about auto racing history instead, writing articles
about early race tracks and the people who drove on them. Underlying her research,
she says, was a desire to answer: “Why do Americans love racing so?” She produced
a series of papers, publishing “Our Need for Speed before NASCAR: Racing in America
from 1660 – 1940” and presenting “Altars to Speed: The Construction of the First Purpose
Built Banked and Paved Auto Race Tracks …” during the 2009 conference of the North
American Society for Sport History.
AN INTRIGUING DISCOVERY
Nystrom stumbled upon Joan Cuneo while researching auto racing history, beginning
a four-year quest to piece together the life story of the woman who became the nation’s
premiere woman racer just after the turn of the century.
“I didn’t find much about her except repeated references to her as the woman who got
women banned from racing in America,” Nystrom said. “That was enough. I was intrigued.”
The research into Cuneo proved difficult, Nystrom found. “There were no easy ways
to learn about Joan’s life — no cache of letters, no diaries, no manuscripts. I knew
it was going to be a long slog.”
Nystrom’s experience researching comic strips and the move to digital records made
easier the task of sifting through hundreds of newspapers and other periodicals from
1895-1920 to unearth significant history of Cuneo’s racing career. By 2011, Nystrom
had written, published and lectured on Cuneo’s career in motor sports.
Cuneo owned and raced more than 15 different cars when the auto was still a novelty,
and the dangerous sport of racing, especially among women, was the domain of the wealthy
and well-to-do. She competed in dozens of races — always properly coiffed and wearing
a dress. Her career reached its pinnacle in 1909 during the Mardi Gras races in New
Orleans, where she finished second in the finale, beating all but one of the all-male
contestants. During her short career, Cuneo endorsed auto parts in advertisements,
became an advocate for women drivers and a spokeswoman for good roads.
MAKING RACING HISTORY
A Google search led Cuneo’s cousin, Dick Newton, to Nystrom. A competitive racer and
enthusiast, Newton’s “bucket list” included writing a book about his cousin’s racing
exploits. Nystrom’s published articles represented the most significant research he
had seen. After a series of e-mails, the two collaborated over the next two years,
with Newton helping substantially in developing the story of Cuneo’s early life, her
marriage to wealthy New York banker Andrew Cuneo, her life as a mother of two and
“Joan was equally at home with celebrities like Enrico Caruso and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson
and with tough race drivers and mechanics,” Nystrom writes. The diminutive Cuneo maintained
a garage at her Long Island mansion and often worked on her own cars, always wearing
a dress, jewels and an apron. She eventually divorced amid infidelity and scandal,
moving to Michigan, where she remarried and disappeared from the public record.
For her part, Nystrom has made a major contribution to racing history. The final chapter
of “Mad for Speed…” documents the participation of dozens of Cuneo’s female contemporaries
and rivals in auto touring and racing from 1900 to 1920.
The book also sets the record straight: Cuneo did not cause women to be banned from
racing. Rather, her victory in New Orleans provided fodder in the ongoing struggle
between the American Automobile Association (AAA), the Automobile Club of America
and the Automobile Manufacturers Association for control of sanctioned auto racing.
In the end, the AAA gained control and banned women, a move ostensibly for their own
“Being banned probably saved Joan’s life because she was utterly fearless and daring,”
Nystrom said. “I’m glad to be a part of telling her story, which is not just about
her career but also about the development of both the automobile and auto racing in
America, as well as changes in the nation’s family and social life.”
- Sabbaye McGriff