Motorsports pioneer Betty Skelton Erde dies at 85

September 13, 2011 - 4:40 PM
Obit Erde

FILE - This July 17, 2008 file photo shows Betty Skelton Erde holding a book with a photo of her driving a 1956 Corvette pace car on the sand at Daytona Beach, Fla., at her home in The Villages, Fla. Erde, an auto racing pioneer who was once the fastest woman on Earth, died Aug. 31, 2011 in The Villages, the central Florida city where she lived with her husband, Allan Erde. She was 85. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

THE VILLAGES, Fla. (AP) — Betty Skelton Erde, an aviator and auto racing pioneer once called the fastest woman on Earth, has died. She was 85.

Erde set female speed records at Daytona Beach and Utah's Bonneville salt flats half a century ago. In 2008, she was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in suburban Detroit.

Dozens of firsts are attached to her name: the auto industry's first female test driver in 1954; the first woman to set a world land speed record in 1956 (145 mph at Daytona Beach); and the world land speed record for women in 1965, hitting 315.72 mph at Bonneville.

Erde began drawing attention as a female stunt pilot as a teenager in the 1940s.

"To me, there's hardly any feeling in the world that can equal the feeling of an airplane when the wheels leave the ground," Erde told The Associated Press in 2008.

She mastered dozens of tricks. Her signature move was cutting a ribbon strung between two fishing poles with her propeller, while flying upside down just 10 feet off the ground.

In 1948, she bought a rare Pitts Special — a lightweight, red-and-white biplane suited for aerobatics. But while Erde was soaring in popularity, she also was a rarity because she was a young, beautiful woman in a male-dominated world of death-defying stunts.

In 1953, the man who began the NASCAR race circuit asked Erde to fly some auto racers from Pennsylvania to North Carolina. She and Bill France became fast friends.

In February 1954, France invited Erde to Daytona. She climbed into a Dodge sedan, went 105.88 mph on the beach and set a stock car record. Erde became a Chevrolet employee and set records with Corvettes, owning 10 in all.

In the 50s, she raced across the South American Andes, down Mexico's rugged Baja Peninsula and also set records at the Chrysler proving grounds in Michigan.

"I would venture to say there is no other woman in the world with all the attributes of this woman," France once remarked. "The most impressive of them all is her surprising and outstanding ever-present femininity, even when tackling a man's job."

She flew planes until she was in her mid-70s; when she was 82, she drove around her retirement community in a red Corvette.

Said Erde in 2008: "It's been quite a ride."

She died Aug. 31 in The Villages, a retirement community in Central Florida, where she had lived with her husband, Allan Erde.