Screenshot: Corvette Hall of Fame (YouTube)
Pink is a controversial colour in the racing world. It’s a girl’s colour — and we all know girls don’t race, right? Pink liveries for men are apparently emasculating, and women who drive pink cars? Well, they’re just shoving their femininity in everyone’s faces and subscribing to a stereotype.
But Donna Mae Mims just simply preferred pink.
Mims, born in 1927, didn’t always dream of becoming a racing driver. It was something that simply fell into place as her life began to flourish, a passion she only realised when she got up close and personal with a race car.
Throughout the 1950s, Mims was the executive secretary at Yenko Chevrolet in Pennsylvania. She and her husband Mike both fell in love with a 1957 Corvette that they spotted at a dealership lot. According to the National Corvette Museum, neither Mims nor her husband had ever seen a car like that before, and they bought it immediately. An added bonus, according to Mims, was that her in-laws couldn’t ride in it with them.
Thankfully, Yenko Chevrolet wasn’t just a dealership. They also had a division in racing. When her friends at the dealership realised the high-performance vehicle Mims had in her garage, they started inviting her out to friendly races that slowly turned more and more competitive throughout 1960. Her natural talent shone through as she defeated driver after driver and carved out a name for herself as one of the most sought-after amateur drivers in the United States.
And the next year, in 1961, Mims was invited to take part in a sports car meeting sponsored by the Sports Car Club of America. It’s easy to see how she might be seduced by the opportunity to take the next step and try her skills in organised racing against people who were looking to do this for a living.
Mims was a true Corvette devotee, since it was the car that eased her into the racing world. The only thing she didn’t like about the car though? The colour. Mims was desperate to make her mark, but her husband was adamant that she would not be painting this piece of machinery pink. She had to be content, instead, to paint “Think Pink” on the side of the car (a name that all of her subsequent cars bore) and to invest in pink racing overalls, a pink helmet, and even a pink wig to wear behind the wheel.
Thinking pink was a strategy that worked for Mims, too. She won the B Production national race in Cumberland that year. After that, she was a regular participant at Cumberland, where she didn’t always win but proved to be consistently competitive against other SCCA drivers which saw her celebrating on the podium.
So, in 1963, Mims decided she wanted to try her hand at the SCCA championship as part of the Yenko/Chevrolet team. She bought an Austin-Healey 1959 Bugeye Sprite from Dr. Jonas Salk — y’know, the guy who developed the first polio vaccine. Finally, she was able to paint her car pink. And her results were as striking as her car.
She placed first in two of the ten races that season and placed second three times. The SCCA had existed for twenty-two years at that point, and with Mims they made history: she was the first woman to ever win a national racing championship when she took home the Class H title.
LA Times columnist Jack Smith wrote about Mims and asked the question a lot of people wanted to know: how does she handle racing as a woman? What does she do before a race to prepare for the adrenaline, the danger, the excitement? Well, Mims had quite the answer for him:
“I psych myself. I remove all my makeup. I think stern. I bristle. I don’t talk to anybody. You cannot think nice. Chivalry is dead on the racetrack. You’re out there only for one thing. To win. Nobody remembers second place.”
That mindset served her well during her fourteen-year racing career. After her championship, Mims raced a pink Corvair, Triumph TR3 and MGB, taking part in a wealth of SCCA events and earned the nickname “The Pink Lady”. As someone who loved the colour pink as a child, she embraced the name and the associated femininity, but was careful to note that she wasn’t on a mission to prove that women were better than men. Above all, she was a racer who wanted to win. She just so happened to be a woman competing against a lot of men.
Being a woman, though, was as much a detriment as it was a factor that could open doors. For example, Mims was able to team up with Suzy Dietrich and Janet Guthrie to take part in both the Daytona 24- and Sebring 12-Hour endurance events — but their car, a Sunbeam Alpine, left a lot to be desired because people were still hesitant about the prospect of an all-female team, especially at endurance events. Remember, this was still an era when women were seen as being weaker than men; despite plenty of other women who had competed in endurance events throughout the history of motorsport, no one really expected Mims and company to complete a twelve or twenty-four hour event.
Photo: Jim Kerlin (AP)
And she wasn’t just racing to have fun; Mims was hard at work. She had upgraded from secretary at a Yenko dealership to Manager of Hi-Performance at Yenko Sports Cars. It enabled her to get cosy with the race car business inside and out, since she was responsible for helping other racers find parts for their cars and even hunt down some sponsorships.
You might have also been able to find her name adorning the byline of different racing publications. People wanted to hear what a lady racer had to say about her experiences, so she served as a freelance writer over the years, publishing articles with Competition Press, Corvette News, SCCA’s Sports Car, and Sports Car Graphic.
But possibly Mims’ most iconic race was when she participated in the last-ever Cannonball Run in 1979 — although, not because she won. She competed with an all-female team composed of Judy Stropus and Peggy Niemcek who drove a 1968 Cadillac limousine outfitted with racing tires.
Yeah. You read that right. Imagine running across three women speeding across the country in a limousine sponsored by “The Right Bra”, decked out in a regalia of tight shirts and pants and… no bras. Apparently, she and her teammates had asked their sponsor for free bras and didn’t receive any. So, no bras for them!
That’s exactly what happened. Mims was pulled over during the race, which she described rather colorfully:
“We were pulled over by a Barney Fife look-a-like who claimed he’d been chasing us for 15 minutes at 185km per hour. No bribe could corrupt this pure-hearted Don Knotts, and we were doomed to follow him to the magistrate.”
Unfortunately, Mims’ run ended in disaster. One of the other drivers lost control of the limo near El Paso, and their absurd choice meant that the thing rolled completely over, where they wiped out a port-a-potty and were covered in its horribly noxious green fluid. They managed to sell it for enough money to buy three plane tickets home.
It wasn’t a particularly stunning end for Mims, but it did earn her a place in pop culture. When the film The Cannonball Run came out two years later, she was portrayed by actress Adrienne Barbeau.
Still, Mims decided that this was a good send-off for a racing career that she had undertaken mostly out of the desire to live her life to the fullest and see what she could accomplish. She decided to retire that year, but that didn’t mean she still couldn’t be found at the race track; Mims was a frequent volunteer with the SCCA and often worked the starting grids and race control.
Donna Mae Mims passed away on October 6, 2009 after complications from a stroke. One of her final requests was that her body be placed in the driver’s seat of a 1979 pink Chevrolet Corvette for visitation at her funeral, a testament to her undying passion for all things automotive. Her funeral procession was accompanied by over 60 Corvettes. It was an incredibly touching memorial for a woman who had accomplished more behind the wheel than many others and a fitting send-off for the lady in pink.