Louise Smith, first lady of racing, dies at 89

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GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) – Louise Smith, the first woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1999, has died. She was 89.

Smith, remembered as “the first lady of racing,” was on the NASCAR circuit from 1945-56. Known for her fearless style, she won 38 modified events.

“It was hard on me,” she told The Associated Press in an interview in 1998. “Them men were not liking it to start with and they wouldn’t give you an inch.”

Smith died Saturday, and the family was to receive friends and hold funeral services Monday, according to the Westville Funeral Home in Greenville. Smith had battled cancer and been in hospice care, one of her nieces, Dora E. Owens, told The Greenville News.

Smith, a native of Barnesville, Ga., lived in Greenville for most of her life. She got her start in racing when young promoter Bill France was looking for a way to get people to the track. He asked about female drivers, and someone mentioned Smith.

France started NASCAR on the road to its dynasty in part by sending Smith to tracks in the Northeast and Canada.

“We didn’t think this was going anywhere,” Smith said. “If we went out of state, it was like we went to heaven.”

Benny Parsons, a longtime NASCAR star, former series champion and now a TV analyst, said Smith’s death was like losing a piece of history. Parsons said it’s been hard for racing to find female drivers, noting the hype Danica Patrick brought to open-wheel racing last year when she became the first woman to lead a lap at Indianapolis and was the race rookie of the year.

“If we could find a Louise Smith here in 2006 to get in there and finish fourth in the Daytona 500, imagine what that would do for NASCAR Nextel Cup racing,” Parsons said.

Smith was married to the late Noah Smith, a junkyard owner who didn’t approve of her job. Her father and brothers were mechanics. She never had children of her own.

Smith was a barnstormer who ran for $100 to $150 in first prizes and some extra appearance money. She mixed with Curtis Turner, Ralph Earnhardt, Bill Snowden, Buddy Shuman and Buck Baker.

“We traveled in a gang. If one of us had a hot dog, we’d all get a bite as long as it held out,” she told AP.

Smith was remembered for some spectacular crashes, too.

In 1947, she went to watch the beach races at Daytona in her husband’s new Ford coupe, but when she arrived, she had to race. So she entered the shiny new car – and you guessed it – wrecked.

Parsons called it “the greatest story of all.”

“Her husband said, Where’s the car, Louise?’ And she said, That ol’ trap broke down in Augusta (Ga.),”‘ Parsons said. “He showed her the newspaper. The wrecked car was on the front page.”

Smith quit racing in 1956, but stayed close to the track, working with Darlington Raceway’s pageant before she resigned as grand patron in November 1989 after serving more than a decade.

“It’s still hard for me to leave a race track,” she said. “I could stay forever.”

AP-ES-04-17-06 1314EDT

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