As the last of four daughters to a family hoping for at least one son, Joan Newton’s family indulged her in all of the adrenaline-packed activities that were considered wildly improper for a late 19th century Victorian gal. The Newtons couldn’t have known that their tomboy daughter would go on become one of America’s first successful female racers—but that’s exactly what happened.
Newton was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts to a family of self-made millionaires and landholders. She was barely walking before her father, John Carter Newton, was letting her drive a steam train and a six horse team. Those skills proved essential to the young girl, who learned not only how to operate machinery but also how to be independent at a young age.
Now, here’s where Joan is something of an anomaly in the already-sparse world of female racing drivers. In 1898, she married Andrew Cuneo, and the pair had two children within the first three years of their being together. It’s rare to see a woman race after settling down with a family—but for Joan, that was exactly what happened.
They had quite a happy marriage and things may have continued as a matter of course for the era had Andrew not bought his wife a steam car, the 1902 Locomobile. Before he knew it, she had traded it in for the far more powerful 1905 White Model C steam car, which she started taking to the race track. This thing was quite the beast—it was far larger than the Locomobile, making it far harder for the 5'2" Cuneo to control.
Andrew wasn’t into the whole ‘car’ thing. He’d attend events every now and again to support Joan, but he ended up hiring a man named Louis Disbrow to accompany his wife to her races. Disbrow, who had recently escaped a murder conviction, ended up becoming Joan’s riding mechanic.
And it was Disbrow and Andrew Cuneo (along with one of Joan’s sisters) who accompanied Joan on her outing at the first ever Glidden Tour. Put together by Colonel Jasper Glidden and intended to popularize auto racing, the Tour was run on a wild circuitous route to and from New York City. Given that there was, uh, basically no infrastructure back then, roads could easily become slick, muddy bogs. And here was Joan, running a car that she was relatively inexperienced in handling.
It was an event fraught with struggle from the very start. Back then, the AAA served as the sanctioning body for the Glidden Tour, and they initially rejected Cuneo’s application—women weren’t allowed to race, they said. But Cuneo was a certified member of the AAA. She sent her application back with a demand that they search the rule book for where, exactly, it stated that women could not enter. It was only with reluctance that the AAA admitted their mistake.
But she also suffered her first accident there. One of her competitors had stopped in the middle of the road and began to back up—but Joan couldn’t tell what he was doing. She tried to evade his car, but it just so happened that the stopped driver was looking to evade a bridge. The bridge that Cuneo’s White tumbled over the side of. She and her passengers ended up bruised and battered in the bottom of the ditch bed, but the car was still ready to go, so Cuneo powered it out of the ditch and kept on her way. They had it repaired by a local blacksmith overnight, but the car was unable to last for the duration of the race. It gave out on the final day of the event. But her wild outing made headlines across the Northeast. Cuneo was well on her way to becoming something of a celebrity.
In fact, she had just barely arrived back home before newspapers across the country were contacting her to take part in various races. She found herself coming in second at a beach race in Atlantic City. She fell in love with her first-ever track event at the Duchess County Fair in Poughkeepsie, even though her performance in the event left something to be desired.
But organized racing events were pretty difficult for Joan to enter. There were plenty of rules against women competing in sanctioned events. So Cuneo followed in Dorothy Levitt’s footsteps: she started setting speed records. But, unlike Levitt, she did it behind the wheel of her personal cars—not factory-prepped ones. That is, when her male competitors like Ralph de Palma wasn’t letting her borrow his machine to set some records.
The racing scene in the United States was something of a hot mess at the time. While there were some actual tracks in Europe, the US didn’t have any purpose-built courses until the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was finished in 1909. That meant Cuneo was racing at county fairs, dirt road tracks, or gymkhanas. But that didn’t diminish her success. She was frequently placing in the top three overall at big events, and she had the skills to handle just about anything that could mechanically go wrong with her car.
Things were looking good. In 1908, Cuneo had completed the Glidden Tour with a perfect score, set even more speed records, and was on her way to the New Orleans Fair Grounds in early 1909 for the Mardi Gras races—intended to be a perfect way for Cuneo to grow her celebrity.
And she kicked ass. The Mardi Gras races were three jam-packed days of speed, and Cuneo was defeating a long list of popular drivers, like Ralph de Palma, Bob Burman, and George Robertson. The media went wild. A tiny woman behind the wheel of a powerful car seemed absurd—but the fact that she could absolutely demolish the top talents of the day? Joan Cuneo was a force to be reckoned with.
That is, until the Contest Board of the American Automobile Association decided to ban women from any of their sanctioned competitions. Including Cuneo.
This was a wildly frustrating move. Just when she was hitting her peak of success and celebrity, Cuneo’s career was stamped out before her eyes by a group that she knew very well. She couldn’t take the decision to court if only male officials were going to be ruling the case. She couldn’t petition hard enough to get anyone to take her seriously.
But this didn’t mean Joan was done racing. She just couldn’t do any official sanctioned events—but she still set plenty of unofficial speed records. And, to top it off, she capitalized on her celebrity by writing articles on motoring for magazines and was one of the most avid spokespeople for the Good Roads movement, which fought for better roads.
Things went downhill very quickly after that. Andrew Cuneo’s romantic involvement with a showgirl (and the failure of all his businesses) led to a divorce in 1915. Once that scandal was over, Joan was no longer in the news. She kept a quiet life. Joan and her daughter moved to Vermont, then followed Joan’s childhood sweetheart to a small town in the upper peninsula of Michigan. She fought hard to improve the lives of the folks in the area, but she was done racing for good.
Joan Newton Cuneo died in 1935, and by then her racing career had been largely forgotten. Her success behind the wheel wasn’t even mentioned in her obituary.
But that doesn’t mean things should stay that way. It’s frustrating to imagine what Cuneo could have done with her career after the successes of the Mardi Gras races had she not been banned from competition. Hell, it’s frustrating to imagine how many other young girls out there may have been inspired by this woman establishing her dominance over the top talents of the day.
These erasures from history are important to remember. Women have been kicking butt in auto racing since the arrival of the automobile—it’s time we start recognizing how different our future could have been if we’d have let them reach their full potential.