An Appreciation: Vicki Wood

Barrier-breaking, car-loving racer

Peter Stevens is one of the world’s best-known and most sought-after automotive designers. He is a consultant designer who is committed to the vital importance of design education. Alongside his consultancy, he lectures internationally and was until recently Visiting Professor at London’s Royal College of Art. Professor Stevens is well known as the designer of the acclaimed McLaren F1 road car which marked a paradigmatic shift in high performance car design. Produced between 1993 and 1997, the car remains extraordinarily influential.


With so much going on in the summer of 2020, it was all too easy to miss the passing of an extraordinary woman who was a ground-breaker in the very male-dominated world of Short Track and Daytona NASCAR racing.

But when you meet a sparkling, smiling, and talkative lady of ninety-two, you tend not to forget her – particularly when she is a race driver. My wife Melanie and I met her at the Daytona Winter Turkey Run in November 2011. She was leaning against the front fender of a late model Pontiac NASCAR racer ready to talk to anyone who stopped by for a chat.

Vicki Wood sitting on the door of her Ford with sister Gladys (right) at a Toledo, Ohio dirt oval race in 1955. Photo: Detroit Free Press.

The fourth of seven children, Victoria Rose Raczak was born in Detroit on March 15, 1919. After graduating from high school, she married Tom Fitzpatrick, who served in the Army during World War Two. Sadly, he was killed in Germany when he picked up a live grenade. In 1947, she married Clarence “Skeeter” Wood, a furniture salesman who had four children from a previous marriage. Vicki was instrumental in raising the three youngest, Ed, Donna, and Wayne. In later life she cared for her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Vicki Wood never intended to become a well-known and successful racer. In 1953 her husband took Vicki, who grew up in Detroit, to the Motor City Speedway, a quarter-mile dirt track close by their home. Typical of those times, there was a women only, “powder puff” race. Vicki Wood was not impressed — she thought the driving was awful, saying, “Those women were all over the track, running into the walls and all that sort of stuff.” Skeeter suggested another trip to the races the following weekend, but to her surprise he took her into the pit area and introduced her to a race car’s owner, suggesting that she should show what she could do!  “I was terrible,” she said. “I was the slowest qualifier. I think I finished the race ninth. I had never been in the car before, never even been on the track.” However, the next night she and her husband went to the Mount Clemens track where she won the powder puff race. The next week, they went to Flat Rock, and she won there, too. “It just kept on going well,” she said.

Vicki Wood in 1959 on the beach at Daytona with her 1958 Pontiac. Photo: Autoweek; NASCAR Archives and Research Center.

The 1955 Detroit Free Press ran a story about Vicki. “The fastest woman in racing,” their headlines said, “A ‘Lady Speedster’ who slipped into stock cars for a kick while raising her stepchildren in Detroit.”  Shortly after that she was invited to race with the men at some of the Detroit-area short tracks. “I was a better driver than half of the men they had,” Wood said. Clearly Skeeter was a well-connected and savvy operator because he then arranged a meeting with the head of public relations at Chrysler, who organized for a factory Chrysler 300 to be entered in Vicki Wood’s name for the Daytona Speedweek race on the beach.

“We went to Daytona,” she said. “I had never been there. Never dreamed you could drive on the sand. They had a Chrysler 300 ordered up for me for the time trials. I had never been in a Chrysler and had never driven on the sand. I was thinking, ‘How in the world can you drive on sand?’ There were at least one hundred cars on the beach for the trials. I drove Brewster Shaw’s car. He got first place. I got second.”

She raced for ten years, between 1953 and 1963. In 1959, Wood set a women’s record for fastest lap (130.3 mph) as the first woman to drive at race speed at the then-new Daytona International Speedway in her Pontiac. Wood was the first woman to turn a timed lap at Daytona International Speedway.

“In ’59, when the big track opened up, I had a ’59 Pontiac,” Wood said. “Skeeter talked to Bill France and got him to okay me so that I could set a record there. When I got to the track, I got stopped by someone who said women weren’t allowed in the pit area. Bill France comes up and says, ‘Vicki Wood is not a woman. She’s a driver, and she’s allowed in the pits.’”

Vicki Wood in her factory Chrysler 300 on Daytona Beach, 1955. Photo: Autoweek; NASCAR Archives and Research Center.

Wood says the Daytona racing community welcomed her.

“I started to get out on the track at Daytona with my Pontiac and one of the men drivers—Johnny Holman—says, ‘You can’t take that car out on the track. Those tires will never hold up.’”

Holman loaned her a set of race tires, and Wood turned in that 130.3-mph lap on the 2.5-mile oval. Also among her many speed records was a one-way mark on Daytona Beach of 150.375 mph in 1960.

When asked which of the many cars she drove did she like best, she would always say, “Why the fastest of course”, and when asked whether or not she worried about having an accident, she said, “I love speed and the race track is the safest place for it. Sure I got bounced around a little bit but never got hurt too bad.”

Vicki gave up racing in 1963 because too many male race drivers resented being beaten by a woman; they seem to have felt belittled by that situation. “One night, we went back to Flat Rock Speedway in Michigan, and this guy that I passed said, ‘If you’re going to keep on racing with us men, we’ll go on strike.’ I decided to quit. I could have still driven with the women, but that’s not what I wanted. I’d had enough.”

Vicki Wood in the pit area at Daytona race track in 1959. Photo: Autoweek; NASCAR Archives and Research Center.

Said writer Mike Pryson recently, “There’s one thing racing pioneer Vicki Wood was never be able to fully accept. In 2018, when she was living in Port St. Lucie, the state of Florida deemed her unfit for the road.”

In the state’s defense, Wood was ninety-nine.

“Somebody wrote a letter to the police department that they didn’t think I’d make a good driver out on the public highway,” Wood told Autoweek in a May 2019 interview at her apartment in metro Detroit. “They took my license away. That was the worst thing they could have done to me. I had a nice car, and I had no trouble driving whatsoever. In eighty years of driving, I had one ticket and one slight accident.”

If you want to remember Vicki Wood in the way she would have liked, then grab a “Vicki Wood Cheese Steak,” the sandwich named in her honor on the menu at Racing’s North Turn Bar & Grille in Ponce Inlet, Florida.

Vicki Wood at 100. Photo: Steven Pham.