May 10 2012

A Pioneering Woman Race Driver on the Long Island Motor Parkway: Joan Newton Cuneo

One of the great achievements of a pioneering woman race driver was setting a world speed record on the Motor Parkway in 1911.  Above photo courtesy of the Pettee Memorial Library/Wimington Historical Society, Wilmington, Vermont.


Howard Kroplick

Dr. Elsa Nystrom, Professor of History at Kennesaw State University, has researched the first successful female auto racer in the United States: “Joan Cuneo was the daughter of a wealthy entrepreneur and received the education considered appropriate for women in the Victorian era. Despite her upbringing, she developed a peculiar interest in cars, including collecting, repairing, and racing them. As shocking as it was for racing fans in the first decades of the twentieth century to see a woman competing in the sport, it was inconceivable that she might actually win. Yet she did just that in a series of races in 1909 in New Orleans, beating her male counterparts. The sport's authority (AAA) responded by banning women altogether from competition.” On April 17, 1911, Cuneo became the fastest women driver by going 111.5 miles per hour on the Long Island Motor Parkway in a Pope Hummer over a half mile. Louis Disbrow, who finished fourth in the 1910 Vanderbilt Cup Race, served as her mechanician and mentor. Photo courtesy of Dr. Elsa Nystrom. In the January 1914 issue of Country Life in America, Cuneo reflected about her racing history, the AAA ban and the future of automobiles. "During the three-day Mardi-Gras meet on the dirt track in New Orleans in 1909, competing with the greatest men drivers, I was fortunate to break some records, winning the gold trophy for the American amateur championship, two silver cups, a Rockwood vase, and a gold Klaxon horn. The surprise was a shock for too much of the men, and the American Automobile Association ruled that no more women would be allowed to compete in their sanctioned events." "..on the Motor Parkway in 1911 drove a half mile in 16 1/10 seconds, which is a rate of 111.5 miles an hour." "Living over the trials and tribulations as well of the joys and triumphs of the eighteen automobiles that I owned, I cannot help wondering what the next ten years may bring forth- for surely it seems that the car of to-day has reached nearly the top notch of comfort in every respect, and we wonder how some of them can be improved upon." Photo courtesy of Honored with Two Webby Awards


May 13 2012 JeRita 10:50 AM

Joan Cuneo was also a member of the Ladies 4 in Hand Club Driving 4 horses to a large coach before the advent of auto racing. She along with Marion Hollins, Mrs. Hastings and other women formed thier own club because the men had their own Coaching Club open only to gentlemen.

May 13 2012 Howard Kroplick 12:43 PM

From Janet Guthrie:

“Hi Howard—

Was delighted to find the piece about Joan Newton Cuneo. I knew she existed, but had never found any hard data about her.

Congratulations on taking the Black Beast back to Indianapolis! Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll make it this year—

Best regards,
Janet Guthrie”

May 13 2012 Howard Kroplick 8:03 PM

Joan Newton Cuneo was the Janet Guthrie of her day! If you do make it to Indy, please let me know.

May 14 2012 racerjon 8:58 AM

Joan Cuneo was also a winner driving her White Steamer at the beach races on the Longport, NJ Speedway in 1905. She would come to the races and challenge “any male” drivers to a match race.

May 14 2012 Charley Powell 1:45 PM

Also like Shirley Muldowney in breaking barriers.

May 14 2012 Elsa Nystrom 6:09 PM

Actually she did a lot more than that. McFarland will publish a book on my research on Joan and other women racers of the era (there weren’t many)sometime in 2013. Always wondered why no one had written about her before, now I know. It has taken two years of digging and would certainly not been possible with the increasing digitization of newspapers and automotive journals.

May 18 2012 Alan Clendenen 2:29 PM

If anyone is interested I have copies of photos from the White Sewing Machine Co. (White Motors) of Joan Cuneo driving a Model “E” White steamer in the 1905 Glidden Tour when she had her famous accident.  Photos of before, with the car on its side in Brothers Creek next to the Trolly Car bridge, and with her driving the car after it was pulled out.  Also of her driving a new 1906 Model “F” White 7 passenger

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