Professional stuntwoman Kitty O’Neil sets the record for land-speed female drivers on December 6th, 1976 in southeastern Oregon at the Alvord Desert. Her two-way average speed was 512.710 mph while the old record was roughly 400 mph. According to the rules regarding land-speed records, a driver on a measured course makes one pass out and one in return; then, officials average both speeds. Observers stated that Kitty’s vehicle astonishingly achieved a speed of over 618 mph during her initial pass; however, she was forced to coast to the course’s end because she exhausted her fuel.
The extent of O’Neil’s bravery is unheard of as she has been deaf since birth, then worked tirelessly to become a champion platform diver as well as a champion three-meter swimmer but her goal to be in the Olympics were crushed when she contracted spinal meningitis that her prognosis was that she would be permanently paralyzed and survived two unimaginable sets of treatments for cancer; she did all of this before turning 28 years old!
Her next accomplishment came in the form of a Hollywood stuntwoman in 1976 and appeared on TV programs like “The Bionic Woman, “ “Quincy” and in “Baretta.” Also, she made appearances in movies such as “Airport ’77, “The Blues Brothers” and “Smokey and the Bandit.” After achieving the highest stunt fall by a woman’s record of 105 feet, O’Neil decided to go for the record for land-speed.
Her husband was himself a stunt performer and through him met jet-car builder Bill Fredrick who created a car called the “Motivator.” This vehicle was a hydrogen-peroxide fueled car and was searching for an individual to drive it and make it famous. Eventually, O’Neil got into the small three-wheeled rocket car at Oregon’s Alkali Flats in early December of 1976. The Alkali Flats, or known as salt flats, are waterless lakebeds whose hard and smooth surfaces are ideal for low-slung vehicles to be driven extremely fast. This is the main reason individuals who want to set land-speed records often go to areas such as Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, Alvord and Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats.
O’Neil’s practice runs were successful in that she easily raced at top speeds and when she officially established a new record, the Motivator was only being used at 60 percent power! Sports Illustrated reported that “There is no doubt that by dialing in more power…Kitty would have gone still faster” exceeding the total land-speed record and possibly surpass the sonic barrier; Gary Gabelich from California set the previous record in 1970 at 638.388 mph.
Sadly, O’Neil had no say in adding more power because the contract limited her use of the “Motivator’s” power to only break the woman’s record. Movie director Hal Needham had given $25,000 for the opportunity to drive the car to a new total world record; he was determined not to blow this opportunity because of a female. Once she set the new record, Needham rather rudely insisted O’Neil get out of the driver’s seat. Needham’s spokesman declared to reporters that it would have been “degrading” for a female to secure the “man’s” record. Ironically, it started to snow while the lawyers were bickering back and forth in which Alvord closed for the season; Needham never even sat in the car. O’Neil’s overall speed records she accomplished over water and land reached 22 by the time she retired in 1982.