The Fast Lane: NASCAR Driver Renee Dupuis

 

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Renee has said some men can be assholes. If the history of female drivers is any indication, she may have a point.

In 1914, Motor magazine sponsored an essay contest to answer the question: “Do Women Make Good Drivers?” In response, one S.P. Foster, of Elmer, New Jersey, wrote that women were no more fit to operate automobiles than they were to pilot ships or command armies. At least it wasn’t their fault. “They were born that way,” he wrote. Chivalrously, he continued:

Believing them to be unfitted mentally and physically to operate motor cars safely under varying conditions of traffic, we would use our good offices to persuade them to keep away from the steering-wheel and, instead, to sit in the machine where they can tell us how to operate the car. They enjoy that better than running a car themselves, and we want them to have the biggest share of the pleasure of automobiling.

Men even had some women convinced. Female Motor columnist Margaret R. Burlingame wrote in 1913 that the average woman’s mind was not “trained to quick action,” unable to deal with speed or to make snap decisions to avoid a crash. (I want to be outraged, and I am, but these descriptions are a little too close for comfort.)

Automobile producers began to realize they couldn’t afford to ignore women forever and began marketing their cars to the fairer sex, but only the models deemed slower and more ladylike. Around 1910, the Anderson Electric Car Company advertised their slow and clunky Detroit electric car as the perfect choice for the well-bred woman. Who needs speed when you can have elegance and comeliness and, as one ad suggested, a car that allows you to keep your “toilet immaculate” and your “coiffure intact”?

Needless to say, female racecar drivers were a rare species. The best-known woman speedster of the early 1900s was the wealthy Joan Newton Cuneo of Long Island. Driving a gasoline-powered touring car, Joan won multiple track races between 1905 and 1909 and then broke several speed records at the Mardi Gras races in New Orleans. But when the American Automobile Association banned women from competing in their races, effectively ending her career, Joan did nothing. “Would that I could cultivate some suffragette tendencies and fight for my rights,” she said. “But I can’t, having instead always tried to keep the woman’s end in automobiling sweet, clean, and refined. I drive and race just for the love of it.”

Fast-forward about a hundred years. Women can drive, vote, and compete in the Indy 500. There have been a whole slew of successful female racers—Janet Guthrie, Shawna Robinson, Danica Patrick—though it seems troubling that a quick Google search for “female racecar drivers” mainly turns up hits like “The Top 15 Hottest Female Racecar Drivers” and “The 20 Sexiest Women of the Racing World.” Women seem to inhabit a liminal space on the track, sometimes legitimate competitors but often sex symbols—or cute props.

In the 1960s, CBS aired a television show called “Wacky Races,” in which cartoon racers competed to become the World’s Wackiest Racer. The lone female, Penelope Pitstop, was a Southern belle who drove a fancy pink convertible—the Compact Pussycat—that doubled as a beauty parlor. She would stop during races to primp her hair or touch-up her mascara, but the men, being gallant, usually allowed her to win anyway.

Renee has not found all NASCAR men to be as courteous. Some offer their help only because they want to ask her out (she usually says no). Others hate that she’s good enough to beat them. Once, she was qualifying for a race at Thompson International Speedway in Thompson, finishing up two solo laps against the clock that would determine her starting spot. When she stepped out of her car, she saw that she was ranked first. The next competitor, an alpha male, turned to his crew chief and said, “If I don’t beat her score, you can take the seat out of my car.” Two laps later, he was seatless—and pissed.

“The funny thing is this sort of stuff happens all the time,” she says. “The attitude really gets to me.”

It is not until much later that Renee reveals she once dated a fellow NASCAR competitor—a long and mostly happy relationship that lasted 12 years. They were engaged to be married for four of those, but he always put off discussing the wedding. One night, he collected all her things from his place and brought them to hers, and that was it.

Now Renee is with Ed Bennett, a 53-year-old man who owns racecars she drives. He lets her take care of the cars as she sees fit; he doesn’t question her expertise. And he knows his stuff, too. The first time they met, he offered her some advice: set up your chassis differently, he said, and your car will run faster. At first Renee was skeptical, she barely knew him, but she took his advice, and her car immediately picked up speed. Months later, they began to date.

 

The Fast Lane: NASCAR Driver Renee Dupuis

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