Woman relives auto racing days at Winchester Speedway for 94th birthday

Firestone tires at IMS before the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 in May 2016. (Photo: WTHR)

Long before Danica and Janet and all the other celebrated women in auto racing, there was Thelma.

It was the late '40s to early '50s the last time Thelma Hartley rounded the half-mile oval at Winchester Speedway. It was a different time, but the memories are still vivid. And today, thanks to the folks at Rosebud Nursing Home in Richmond, she got to relive them for her 94th birthday with a ride around the racetrack.

A lot has changed since the last time Hartley raced the track. "I don't remember all the seats here," she said after she was wheeled out of the nursing home transport bus she arrived in. "I think they were added."

And the cars she raced? "Rough," Hartley said with a hearty laugh. But "the guys were good enough to let us drive these cars." Even if it was during intermission, she recalled.

From Johnny Parson to Jeff Gordon, the Winchester Speedway has been home to a lot of big name racers.

"That's Tony Stewart," said longtime track owner Charlie Shaw, pointing to a photo.

Hartley's picture isn't at the speedway, but a woman her age riding around the track is still a momentous occasion.

"It's absolutely fantastic for a 94-year-old woman to round the racetrack," Hartley's son said. "It's got to bring memories back of her younger days."

Hartley didn't get behind the wheel today. That task went to Shaw, who is 81 years old. While they didn't get to race, Hartley was still impressed with her birthday transportation, a white Chevy Impala.

"This is much nicer than what I drove," she said.

But some things never change, and Hartley questioned how she would hold up on the track today.

"I asked the guy if he was going to let me drive and he said 'no, I'm driving," she said with a shrug. "I wonder how I would feel getting out there to drive today."

Auto racing was just a hobby just for the boys. But Thelma Hartley was one of the first to change that more 60 years ago.

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