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Mary McGee: A Trailblazer in Motorsports

Mary McGee’s life and career stand as a testament to determination, skill, and the breaking of gender barriers in the male-dominated world of motorsport. Born in 1936, McGee’s journey from a car racer to a pioneering motorcyclist is a story of passion, resilience, and the relentless pursuit of excellence. Her legacy is not just in the races she won or the records she set, but in the doors she opened for future generations of female racers.

Mary McGee riding into history | Rider Magazine

Mary McGee’s fascination with speed and machinery began at an early age. Growing up in the post-World War II era, she was captivated by the burgeoning automotive culture. This period was marked by rapid technological advancements and a growing public interest in cars and motorcycles. McGee’s family was supportive of her interests, allowing her to explore her passion for mechanics and speed.

In the 1950s, McGee took her first steps into the world of racing. Unlike many of her peers, she did not have a background in go-karting or dirt bikes. Instead, she started in the realm of sports cars, a domain that was itself still developing. Her first car was a Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, which she drove with great enthusiasm. She would later recall how driving that car ignited her passion for racing.

Her first foray into racing was through the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). McGee’s talent quickly became evident as she competed in various local and regional events. Her skills behind the wheel earned her a reputation as a formidable competitor, even as she faced the additional challenge of being one of the few women in the sport. Despite the male-dominated environment, McGee’s performances were consistently strong, earning her respect and admiration from her peers.

McGee’s transition from car racing to motorcycle racing came about almost serendipitously. Encouraged by the legendary actor and racer Steve McQueen, she decided to give motorcycle racing a try. This decision marked a significant turning point in her career. In 1960, she became the first woman to compete in motorcycle road racing with the American Federation of Motorcyclists (AFM).

Her Initial experience on two wheels was not without its difficulties. Motorcycle racing demanded a different set of skills and a new approach to racing strategy. However, McGee’s adaptability and determination saw her through. She quickly mastered the nuances of motorcycle racing, from understanding the mechanics of the bikes to developing the physical stamina required for the sport. Her first motorcycle was a Honda CB92, which she rode in various club races. Her learning curve was steep, but she embraced the challenges with enthusiasm.

In the 1960s, McGee’s presence on the racetrack was a bold statement in itself. She competed in races at a time when female participation in motorsports was virtually unheard of. Her success on motorcycles earned her accolades and further established her as a trailblazer. Her races at the Willow Springs International Raceway are particularly notable, where she competed fiercely against seasoned male racers and often finished in impressive positions.

Mary McGee’s entry into motorcycle racing was groundbreaking. At a time when societal norms and industry standards did not favour women in motorsports, she persevered. Her participation and success in races challenged the status quo and inspired other women to pursue their passions in racing.

One of her most notable achievements came in the form of off-road racing. McGee competed in the gruelling Baja 1000, one of the most challenging off-road races in the world. The race covers a thousand miles of treacherous terrain in the Baja California Peninsula. In 1967, McGee became the first woman to finish this demanding race, a feat that cemented her status as a trailblazer in the sport. The Baja 1000 tested not only her riding skills but also her endurance and mental toughness. The race was filled with hazards such as rocks, sand dunes, and extreme weather conditions, making her accomplishment all the more remarkable.

Mary McGee racing in the Baja 500 in 1975 aboard her Husky 250 | Rider Magazine

McGee also participated in the Barstow to Vegas race, another legendary off-road event. Her performance in these races was a testament to her versatility as a racer. She wasn’t just competing; she was excelling in some of the most challenging conditions imaginable. Her ability to navigate the rugged terrain and maintain high speeds over long distances showcased her exceptional skills and determination.

Mary McGee’s contributions to motorsports have been widely recognised. In 2018, she was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame, an honour that acknowledges her significant impact on the sport. This recognition is a testament to her pioneering spirit and her role in breaking down barriers for women in motorsports. The Hall of Fame induction highlighted her numerous contributions and celebrated her as a role model for aspiring female racers.

Beyond her racing accolades, McGee’s legacy includes her advocacy for women in the sport. She has consistently used her platform to encourage and inspire young female racers. Her story serves as a powerful reminder that passion and perseverance can overcome societal limitations. McGee has been vocal about the importance of mentorship and support networks for women in racing, emphasising that success in motorsports is achievable with the right guidance and encouragement.

McGee’s influence extends beyond just her on-track achievements. She has been an active participant in various motorcycling events and organisations, sharing her experiences and knowledge with newer generations. Her involvement in events like the Women’s Motorcycle Conference and her support for organisations that promote women in motorsports demonstrate her commitment to fostering a more inclusive environment in racing. She has also been involved in educational programmes, giving talks and workshops to inspire and educate young riders.

Throughout her career, Mary McGee has remained humble about her achievements. She often reflects on the camaraderie and support she received from fellow racers, both male and female. This sense of community has been a significant aspect of her racing experience, and she continues to cherish the friendships and connections she has made over the years.

In interviews, McGee frequently emphasises the importance of perseverance and resilience. Her advice to aspiring racers is simple yet profound: to pursue their passion relentlessly and not be deterred by obstacles. This mindset has not only defined her career but also serves as a guiding principle for many who look up to her. McGee’s life is a vivid example of how overcoming adversity can lead to remarkable success.

Even in her later years, McGee remains active in the racing community. She participates in vintage motorcycle events and continues to ride, demonstrating that her love for the sport is as strong as ever. Her presence at these events serves as an inspiration to both seasoned racers and newcomers alike. McGee often shares her racing stories, offering insights and advice that only someone with her extensive experience can provide.

McGee’s ongoing involvement in motorsports highlights her lifelong passion for racing. She has been featured in documentaries and interviews, where she discusses the evolution of the sport and her personal journey. Her reflections provide valuable lessons on the importance of innovation, adaptation, and perseverance in the face of challenges.

Mary McGee | Mary McGee Collection

Mary McGee’s life and career are a remarkable example of what can be achieved with passion, determination, and a willingness to challenge the status quo. From her early days in car racing to her groundbreaking achievements in motorcycle racing, McGee has left an indelible mark on the world of motorsports. Her legacy is not only in the records she set and the barriers she broke but also in the inspiration she provides to future generations of racers.

Through her achievements and advocacy, Mary McGee has shown that motorsports can be a domain for anyone with the skill and determination to succeed. Her story is a powerful reminder that the pursuit of one’s passion can lead to groundbreaking achievements and lasting change. As we look to the future of motorsports, Mary McGee’s contributions will undoubtedly continue to inspire and guide aspiring racers for years to come.

Mary McGee aged 87 being interviewed on the grid at the Canadian Grand Prix 2024 | Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team

Mary McGee’s journey from a trailblazing racer to a revered mentor encapsulates the transformative power of determination and passion. Her life story continues to motivate countless individuals to break barriers and pursue their dreams, regardless of the obstacles they may face. As an enduring figure in the history of motorsports, Mary McGee’s influence will be felt for generations, encouraging a more diverse and inclusive racing community.


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