R.I.P. Betty Skelton – Champion Aviatrix, Speed Record Holder, Advertising Executive, & Corvette Racer
A Genuine American Hero and Roll Model For Women
It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of another Corvette legend, Betty Skelton. The Corvette community first met Betty in January 1956 when she was part of the three-driver team of Duntov-modified ‘56 Corvettes that were on a hunt for speed records on the sands of Daytona Beach as part of Speed Week.
But Betty was already a champion – a champion of the air. She was the U.S. Feminine Aerobatic Champion in 1948, 1949, and 1950. Betty started flying when she was just 16-years old and in 1948 bought a Pitts Special experimental, single-seater biplane that she named, “Little Stinker.” She tried to join the military’s Women Air Service Pilots (WASP) but it was disbanded before Betty reached the minimum age of 18-1/2. Undaunted, Betty got her commercial rating when she was 18, instructor rating at 19, and became an instructor with the Civil Air Patrol. As if that wasn’t enough, she started aerobatic flying in a Fairchild PT-19. This gal definitely had “The Right Stuff.”
While all this high-profile flying got Betty a lot of attention, it didn’t pay well. She landed a job with Campbell-Ewald as a liaison between Chevrolet and racers that were given R&D parts for “field testing.” She was petite, cute, charming, and formed bonds with everyone she worked with. With her background in flying, and her champion credentials, plus her good-looks and charm, she was a shoe-in for the ‘56 Daytona Corvette team.
For the three-car team, Duntov drove his ‘55 mule Corvette dressed with ‘56 body panels, while Betty and John Fitch drove the specially prepared ‘56 Corvette. For the top speed part of the event, Fitch came in 1st place in the production-sports car class with a speed of 145.543-MPH and Betty came in 2nd place with a speed of 137.773-mph. It should be noted that there were very strong head winds that kept the Corvettes from running over 150-mph.
Four years later, Betty shocked the world by being the only woman to undergo and pass all of the physical and psychological tests given to the Mercury astronauts. There were 7 Mercury astronauts and LOOK Magazine put Betty on the cover in her silver space suit and helmet, with the headline, “Should A Girl Be First In Space?” (pardon the sexist “girl” reference, that just how people spoke then)
While Betty wasn’t a “out on the track dicing it up with two dozen other cars” kind of a racer, she did love speed. She was the first woman to drive at the Indy 500 and in 1956 she broke the transcontinental speed record driving from New York to Los Angeles, 2,913-miles in just 56 hours and 58-minutes. That’s an “average” speed of 51.14-mph. While that speed might not sound all that fast, consider fuel, personal stops, and traffic. On September 27, 1965 Betty drove Art Arfon’s Cyclops jet car to a Woman’s Land Speed Record of 277.62-MPH, besting the previous record by 51-MPH, held by Paula Murphy. Paula went on to a successful career professionally drag racing Funny Cars.
Betty did well at Campbell-Ewald and in 1969 was promoted to VP of Campbell-Ewald’s Women’s Market & Advertising. Betty was a member of the Corvette Hall of Fame (inducted in 2001), the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Motorsports Hall of Fame. Once when asked about her red 2002 Corvette (that matched her hair color) she simply said, “I just like to go fast. I enjoy it, I really do.” Betty died on August 31, 2011 at the age of 85.
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