She was born in frigid Juneau, Alaska in the midst of December, 1936. Sent off alone to rural Iowa before she reached her double digits, Mary McGee (neé Connor) learned what fear was. She and her brother were shuttled by train along with soldiers destined to be shipped off to World War II. But conquering fear? That came naturally to her.
Mary and her older brother lived with their grandparents for a few years until her mother, a nurse, was released from her duties tended to wounded soldiers. The family moved off to Phoenix in 1944, when Mary was just seven, and there they stayed.
Her brother, Jim, introduced her to a military friend and east coast mechanic named Don McGee. Jim and Don were both fans of sports cars, and Jim managed to talk Mary into coming out for drinks with them. Next thing you know, Mary and Don were married and moved out to Mexico—which turned out to disagree with Mary.
McGee moved back to Phoenix to recuperate from an illness to find that her brother had gotten into the local racing scene—and when Don came back, it became a whole family affair. At 5'11", Mary was something of an anomaly, but it actually gave her the confidence to compete in racing knowing that she was of a comparable physical build to the rest of the guys.
She started off with motorcycle racing, buying a 1956 Triumph Tiger Cub before switching to a Honda C110 that she used to commute to her job as the parts manager of a foreign auto shop. McGee could take them out road racing, swapping between two wheels and four.
But by the end of 1957 she was racing a Mercedes 300SL in the Sports Car Club of America. She’d been successful on bikes, but she really hit her stride when she got behind the wheel of a sports car. McGee started winning races, and it was just about impossible to get her to stop.
This woman was unstoppable. She found success behind the wheel of just about everything, including a Corvette, Jaguar, Porsche Spyder, Ferrari Testa Rosa—and that’s just for starters. She picked up desert racing and California Sports Car Club racing. She was third place in the Cal Club 1600cc class in 1958 and ‘59. She was second in the modified class of the Cal Club in 1960 and the ‘62 SSCA modified class, and second in both the 1962 and ‘63 Pacific Coast Championship. And, finally, her most success won the 1961 SCCA modified championship.
Interestingly, despite all of her success on four wheels, McGee still had to go out of her way to prove herself to the American Federation of Motorcyclists through an audition. She passed with flying colors in 1960 and became the first woman in the United States to both road race and hold an FIM license.
Her career there was successful but short-lived. There was talk of changing rules for women racers that would make things more difficult for her in the coming 1963 season—even though she was the only woman racing at the time. Those rules didn’t end up going into effect—but most likely because McGee had decided to retire as a result of them.
But one Mr. Steve McQueen had heard of her retirement and at a New Year’s Eve party ringing in 1963, he advised McGee to “get off that pansy road-racing bike and come out to the desert.” It took a few months before she was fully convinced, but she took part in her first desert race, an AMA District 37 Enduro in Jawbone Canyon, California.
Her friends—Bob Drake, Bobby Harris, and Al Tinker—convinced her that it would be an easy ride. But McGee recalled being absolutely exhausted, especially when snow started falling.
Still, she entered plenty of races in the desert, especially in Baja California events—which she recalled as being some of the most difficult racing of her life. McGee knew that she was risking her life every time she hit the road, which was barren of everything from doctors to phones, and she had her fair share of spills off the bike, but that never stopped her.
Her career didn’t end so much as it began to peter out. Her brother died in a race in 1964, and she gave birth to her first son a year later before divorcing her husband. It was a difficult few years, where she was racing more for fun than she was professionally, but that didn’t make her any less successful.
McGee is one of the most successful female racers of her time. She was the first woman to race in a US MC/FIM sanctioned motorcycle race, the first woman to finish the Baja 1000, the first woman to road race motorcycles in the US, the first woman to race motocross in the US, the first woman to compete with the Europeans in international motocross in the US, and the only woman to ride the Baja 1000 solo.
She’s been honored and recognized countless times in recent years for her successes, but Mary McGee can’t be talked about enough. Successful in ways that even some of her male counterparts at the time could only dream of, she pushed herself to the very limits of human endurance just for the hell of it and proved for the rest of us that women sure as hell can kick ass alongside the guys.