On December 6 1976, professional and deaf stuntwoman Kitty O’Neil set the land-speed record for female drivers at the Alvord Desert in southeastern Oregon,. The record hovered around 400 mph; O’Neil’s two-way average speed was 512.710 mph. (The rules that govern land-speed records require that a driver make two passes across a measured course, one out and one back; officials then average the two speeds.) Observers reported that O’Neil’s car actually reached a top speed of more than 618 miles per hour on her first pass, but she ran out of fuel and had to coast to the end of the course.
O’Neil’s inspiration was wide-ranging. She was born deaf; became a champion three-meter and platform diver whose Olympic aspirations were dashed by a bout of spinal meningitis that doctors said would permanently paralyze her; and survived two grueling sets of cancer treatment, all before her 28th birthday. In 1976, she became a Hollywood stuntwoman and was featured in TV shows like “Quincy,” “Baretta” and “The Bionic Woman” and movies like “Smokey and the Bandit,” “The Blues Brothers” and “Airport ’77.” When she took her shot at the land-speed record, she already held the record for the highest stunt fall by a woman (105 feet).
Through her husband, a stunt performer himself, O’Neil met Bill Fredrick, a jet-car builder who had just put the finishing touches on a hydrogen-peroxide–fueled machine called the “Motivator” and was looking for a driver who could make it famous. So, in early December 1976, O’Neil found herself squeezed into the tiny three-wheeled rocket car on Oregon’s alkali flats. (Alkali flats, or salt flats, are dry lakebeds whose smooth, hard surfaces are perfect for driving low-slung cars very, very fast. For this reason, people pursuing land-speed records often travel to places like Alvord, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.) On each of her practice runs, O’Neil pushed the car up to speed with ease, and when she officially broke the record, she was still only using 60 percent of the Motivator’s power. “There is no doubt,” Sports Illustrated reported, “that by dialing in more power…Kitty would have gone still faster”–past the overall land-speed record (638.388 mph, set by Californian Gary Gabelich in 1970) and maybe even past the sonic barrier.
But dialing in more power was not an option for O’Neil: under her contract, she was only permitted to drive the “Motivator” to a new women’s record. The movie director Hal Needham had paid $25,000 for the chance to steer the car to a new overall world record, and he was determined not to lose that chance to a woman. So, after O’Neil set her record, Needham rather unceremoniously demanded that she be pulled from the drivers’ seat. (His spokesman even told reporters that it would be “degrading” for a woman to hold the “man’s” record.) While the lawyers squabbled, it began to snow, and Alvord was closed for the season. Needham never even got behind the wheel.
O’Neil retired in 1982. In all, she has held 22 speed records on land and water.