Louise Smith © South Carolina Museum
NASCAR diehards already have their RVs parked and their lawn chairs set up for the 57th annual Daytona 500 being run this Sunday, February 22. But for non-devotees, mention in recent years of Danica Patrick, a woman competing on the circuit, may have been the first time stock car racing ever blipped into their awareness. As it happens, the groundbreaking success of Patrick -- now thirty-two, and the first woman ever to lead at the Indy 500 -- is precisely what brought an even more fascinating story to the attention of screenwriter Grant Thompson ("McFarland USA"). A few years ago, Thompson was watching a race when an ESPN crawl casually mentioned that Patrick’s performance that day was "the highest finish for a woman at Daytona since 1952." Like any good storyteller, a startled Thompson thought, "What? What happened in 1952?!" he says now and laughs. "It led me down this rabbit hole of finding out about this woman named Louise Smith."
At age thirty, in the mid-’40s, the Georgia-born Smith came to the attention of Bill France, Sr., a promoter who was in the process of building what would become NASCAR in Daytona Beach, Florida, because of her rumored talent for evading law enforcement vehicles in hot pursuit. France desperately wanted a novelty to attract paying customers and convinced Smith to get on the track. A woman sideshow driver proved just the ticket.
The rush lit such a fire under her that she defied her husband’s wishes, stole and wrecked cars, and won dozens of races on the fledgling circuit over the next decade while enduring rampant sexism. Smith retired in 1956, but in 1999 the "first lady of racing" became the first woman inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, a few years before she died.
"It’s a story that dovetails with what our country was going through at the time, in the way that 'Seabiscuit' was a story of a true underdog during the Depression when we needed one," says Thompson. "It’s 1949, the Baby Boom, we had just won the war, people were dreaming big. She was ahead of her time, because at the same time the idea of what it meant to be a woman was June Cleaver, the true women’s rights movement wasn’t around for another twenty years. And this woman was literally hell on wheels. It’s an interesting two-hander between this guy who risked everything he had to try and start America’s first racing circuit, and this woman who had a big part in it."
The story has echoes of "A League of Their Own," which was also based on a true story about a man trying to get a sports organization started and, at least at first, using women like circus attractions to draw fans during a highly chauvinist era. But it also has the potential to aim for the awards-hopeful, first-female niche of movies that includes "Amelia" and "The Iron Lady," which won two Oscars. Thompson ultimately sold his pitch, called "Spitfire," to Lionsgate, and he’s finishing up another rewrite of his screenplay with the hope that the studio will begin showing it to directors and stars in the coming months.
Though racing scenes and period detail make it a film that would be hard to do on the indie-cheap, the commitment of the right bankable actress could secure a greenlight. And the defiant, daredevil nature of the character surely would appeal to a wide array of actors. Since the film would focus on Smith’s twenties and thirties, anyone from fortyish Oscar bait Amy Adams, Hilary Swank, and Reese Witherspoon to mid-thirties powerhouses Michelle Williams and Jessica Chastain to younguns Emma Stone and Jennifer Lawrence -- though only twenty-four, she has the added Southern credibility -- could climb into the driver’s seat. (That Smith was a full-figured woman is easily ignored by Hollywood.) A few agents apparently have, in fact, been tracking the project for clients. "It could be a showpiece role," says Thompson, who, admittedly, has a car in this particular race.