In 1905, Joan Newton Cuneo hopped into her brand new car to drive from St. Louis to New York City. The Glidden Tour, as it was called, was a challenging event that the most skilled drivers struggled to compete in. With rough roads not meant for the newly invented automobile, no clear road signs, gas stations or repair shops, the event required great strength and stamina.
She was the only woman to enter the event that year but Cuneo vowed to complete the run, and do it better than all the male drivers. On the second day of the Glidden, she got into an accident that erased her chances of winning yet made her an overnight celebrity, jumpstarting her racing career.
“In the early 1900s, most of the early women drivers were women of means,” Elsa Nystrom, a history professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia and author of the new book “Mad for Speed, The Racing Life of Joan Newton Cuneo,” said.
Cuneo, who lived in Port Richmond, Staten Island before moving to Richmond Hill with her husband and two children, was immensely interested in cars.
“Mad for Speed” tells the story of Cuneo’s short-lived fame between 1905 and 1912, when she was nationally known as one of the greatest female racers as well as the woman who was responsible for the American Automobile Association banning women from racing in their sanctioned events.
Nystrom discovered Cuneo while working on another book on racing. When she came across the story, she dropped her original topic and began working on “Mad for Speed” with the help of Cuneo’s friends and family, news clippings and Richmond Hill and Mapel Grove Cemetery historian Carl Ballenas.
“I used to come across articles of her speeding across Coney Island and I have always been fascinated with this woman and her adventures,” Ballenas said. “Fortunately, Elsa got in contact with me.”
“She took every opportunity to set a speed record on a track,” Nystrom said. “There were a few women who were doing the same thing and there were a few promoters trying to get them together to race one another. A lot of them did set speed records but didn’t get too involved, but Joan, she was hooked.”
One of her most infamous races was one held in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. The co-ed event featured several other women, none of whom did as well as Cuneo, who came in second overall.
“Mardi Gras was her greatest triumph but also her swing blade, nobody wanted her to compete,” Nystrom said.
It was assumed by most that the reason Cuneo was not allowed to race was due to her gender, but Nystrom said she isn’t so sure.
“The main thing I address in my book is that I didn’t buy into the men not wanting to race against women,” she said. “Joan always got along with the men she raced with. They’d even let her use their cars some of the time.”
But Cuneo being a woman was not the only thing being held against her. She divorced her husband, who went off and married a showgirl, and moved up to Vermont before moving again to the upper peninsula of Michigan where she died fairly young in the 1930s.
“She dropped out of the public eye namely because she wasn’t in New York anymore and had been involved in a messy divorce from her husband, who was an extremely wealthy Italian banker,” Nystrom said.
Today, Nystrom, who is an avid NASCAR fan, said women have a much easier time racing.
“The very best women drivers can compete with everybody,” she said. “It’s not a question of strength but more of vision, coordination and strategy because you can’t be distracted. Part of the problem is that women just haven’t been encouraged. But the two sports where I think women can be just as good as men are shooting and racing, and Joan was proof of that.”
“I’m a school teacher and I see that the girls don’t always have the best role models,” Ballenas said. “In the Victorian age, women are in the background and here we have this woman race car driver who is competing, and I love how my girls can have her as a role model.