Schoolteacher Arlene Hiss Is First Female Indy Car Driver

LADY RACER: Arlene Hiss (left) became the first female driver to compete in a USAC national championship race in 1976. (NSSN Archives Photo)

LADY RACER: Arlene Hiss (left) became the first female driver to compete in a USAC national championship race in 1976. (NSSN Archives Photo)

The Jimmy Bryan 150 USAC National Championship race on March 14, 1976, at FasTrack Int’l Raceway in Phoenix marked a major milestone for women in auto racing.

Arlene Hiss, a 35-year-old schoolteacher and Showroom Stock racer from Tustin, Calif., became the first woman to compete in an Indy-car race. She started 21st in the 22-car field and drove the Copper State Racing Eagle to a 14th-place finish.

But Hiss’s performance was met with an outpouring of protest after she finished 22 laps behind winner Bobby Unser and was called into the pits once for going too slow.

“This is a man’s business and she has to be measured by a man’s standards if she is going to compete. By those standards, she didn’t measure up,” said Gary Bettenhausen, who didn’t make the race due to mechanical trouble prior to qualifying.

Other drivers reported after the race that they had complained to USAC officials about Hiss going too slow.

“I would prefer to make no comment at this time,” said USAC Executive Director Dick King, who granted Hiss her conditional license.

Despite the controversy, Hiss was overjoyed with her finish and the fact that she was among those running at the checkered flag.
“I just wanted to be smooth, to stay out of trouble,” she said. “It went pretty much like we planned. I’m not even tired.”

About the incident that resulted in her being black flagged, Hiss said, “I went up high on the track to let faster cars past. I guess the officials were concerned I was tired, so they brought me in to check.

“I told them I wasn’t and went back out.”

NSSN’s Chris Economaki was at the Phoenix race and wrote the following for his March 17 column: “Arlene’s appearance generated much bitterness among young drivers who have been supporting USAC for several seasons hoping for an Indy ride; and among those who faced her on the track — particularly the top finishers in the race. It was not erratic driving to which they objected — she was smooth and steady — but rather her slow speed.”

In preparation for her champ-car debut, Hiss logged more than 1,000 miles of testing at Ontario Motor Speedway and FasTrack Int’l Raceway under the watchful eye of crew chief Mike Devin. Her ex-husband Mike Hiss, an Indy-car regular since 1972 and a four-time Indianapolis 500 starter, also served as a mentor.

Despite making history, the Phoenix race turned out to be Hiss’s only Indy-car start.

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Keith Waltz
Keith Waltz has written about auto racing since first joining the SPEED SPORT staff in January 1983. He has worked alongside racing legends Chris Economaki, Darrell Waltrip and H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler during his career.