She confounded the 1950s machismo of US motorsport and the business world, went her own way and rose above it all. Words Giles Chapman. Photography Art Evans Collection.
Racing Driver Mary Davis is an overlooked feminist icon. Her appearances on the racetracks of Southern California in the 1950s were often reported at the time in the patronising language of that male-dominated world, especially as she was petite and buxom with a flowing mane of blonde hair. She smilingly went along with being asked about driving in high heels (she always raced in thin-soled, grubby and well-worn Indian moccasins) but was capable and competitive in almost everything she drove. One of the less-cringeworthy descriptions of her was as one the nations leading lady leadfoots’.
Of mixed Indian, Scottish and English ancestry, she was just 15 in 1943 when she ducked out of high school in California to join the Womens Marine Corps. The fact she’d lied about her age was soon uncovered while she was busy repairing diesel engines in San Francisco, and she was sent home with at least an honourable discharge. She moved on to manage a soda fountain and two cigar stores, and bought herself a 1937 Ford Coupe.
In 1950 she went to watch a sports car road race at Pebble Beach. T made the mistake of standing at a good corner where down-shifting and driving techniques were displayed at their best – and worst. I knew I was hooked.’
The self-made woman bought herself a new MG TD and sought some competition driving coaching from her friend (and later husband) Bob Drake. On her first event, the Costa Mesa Time Trials, in 1951 her standard MG brought her first prize in the Ladies’ Division.
By 1959 she’d taken part in almost 40 sports car races in which she achieved 15 class wins, 12 second places and a clutch of thirds against male and female competitors, along with many victories in women-only races. Her most formidable rival in these was often Ruth Levy.
In the opening sports car race at Riverside in 1956, there was a thrilling battle between Ruth in her Porsche 550 Spyder and Mary driving an Aston Martin DB3S belonging to Joe Lubin, which saw them roar over the finish line neck- and-neck. It was the most exciting race of all’, said Mary, the loser that time. ‘One one-hundredth of a second behind after 15 laps.’
She competed in all sorts of two-seaters, including a Porsche 356 Speedster, her own Triumph TR2 and a borrowed TR3. In 1957, Plymouth was said to have interviewed 100 women drivers before offering Mary the chance to drive its Belvedere on the Mobilgas Economy Run. She beat all ‘Low-Price V8’ comers on the 1568-mile contest between LA and Sun Valley, Idaho, achieving an amazing (considering the parameters) 21.3907mpg. In the following year’s run, she led for four-fifths of the way before using just a few drops of petrol too many, and losing to a male Plymouth driver.
‘They called me the world’s greatest woman driver at the time’, she said in a 2005 interview. ‘How about that? I liked the title. I was the first woman who ever won it, and I got more famous for doing that than for going fast.’
In 1957 Mary opened a restaurant called The Grand Prix on Beverly Boulevard in LAs West Hollywood. The motor sport community of Southern California would meet there to break bread and talk cubic inches. Proving herself an astute businesswoman as well as a much-loved host, Mary was able to afford a Mercedes-Benz 300SL W198 in which she competed with her typical assuredness. She also drove it as a racing driver extra in the 1959 movie On The Beach, in which Bob Drake was Fred Astaires stunt double. However, it wasn’t long before her insurance company got wind of her love affair with the track, and told her it had to end.
This was because, in 1960, Mary took out a $1.8m loan to develop a hotel and marina on eight acres of Redondo Beach waterfront. She was 32. Again she confounded stereotypes and make a huge, single-handed success of the Portofino Inn. Opened in 1965 and inspired by an Italian coastal village, it had moorings for 225 small boats and included everything from a gourmet restaurant and beauty salon to on-site yacht brokerage and a fuel dock.
Although her racing days were well behind her, she let Brock Yates and the organisers of the strictly unofficial New York-to-California Cannonball Run car ‘race’ have its finishing post at the Portofino.
She sold her hotel, and a bank she’d founded, in 1986, then bought a yacht and sailed around the world. Eventually she settled back at La Quinta in Palm Desert, California. There she passed away aged 86 from heart failure in 2014, after a mercifully short struggle with dementia.
‘I started with nothing, literally, and I fought my way to the top’, she once said. ‘I was very determined to make it go and I did [at a time when] because you were a woman, you just couldn’t do it. I got a lot of doors open, but I made sure I knew what I was talking about before I walked through them.’