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Celebrating LGBTQ+ Pioneers throughout Motorsports History

Celebrating LGBTQ+ Pioneers throughout Motorsports History - News

Like most sports, Motorsports has come a long way in recent years to champion inclusivity and celebrate diversity within the industry. However, the LGBTQ+ community still faces barriers within the racing world, which is reminiscent of a slight hangover left from the twentieth century world of 'macho' racing.

However, there have been some incredible initiatives from the world of motorsports in recent years, such as Racing Pride, set up by Richard Morris, Zandvoort trophy of the Dunes winner, in 2023, to promote inclusivity within the industry. Race with Respect was also relaunched in 2022 with a set of programs aiming to promote positive and progressive behavior on and off the track.

As June is the month of pride, we thought we'd take a slight delve back into the past to celebrate some of the LGBTQ+ racing sport pioneers from history and how they helped to shape the sport today.

  • Lella Lombardi - 1941-1992

Starting off strong, let us introduce Lella Lombardi. If you're not familiar with her already, she was an Italian racing driver who competed in 17 Formula One World Championship Grand Prix. She grew up in Italy and developed an interest for driving when she learned to drive a delivery van for her family business. 

This would soon stem into a passion for racing as she became the only female driver who scored points in F1. She was also the first woman to qualify and compete in the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch where she raced in a Lola-Chevrolet and finished in 14th place. 

Aside from her incredible career in racing as a woman fighting against the male-dominated industry of the day, she was also openly gay and when she died in 1992, aged just 50, she was survived by her partner, Fiorenza. Although she is celebrated as being a pioneer of women in motorsports, she was one of the first female racers who was openly in a same-sex relationship throughout her career.

She's not only a trailblazer for women, but a symbol for being unapologetically yourself in a world that can sometimes want to silence that. She was asked by the media in the 1970s how it felt to handle such big cars as a woman, and she said: “I don't have to carry it, I just have to drive it.”

  • Roberta Elizabeth Marshall Cowell - 1918-2011

Born in April 1918, in London, Roberta Elizabeth Marshall Cowell is known for being the first known British trans woman to undergo gender-affirming surgery in 1951, as a successful British racing driver.

After studying engineering in 1936, she went onto serve in the Royal Army Service Corps as a second lieutenant. She served throughout the war but experienced a crash landing in Germany and was captured by troops. Despite making two escape attempts, she was taken into Germany into solitary confinement and was a prisoner of war for five months. In 1945, as the Red Army was approaching, the Germans evacuated the camp, and she was flown back to the UK.

In the post war period, she competed in the Belgian Grand Prix and won the Shelsy Walsh Hill Climb in 1957. Her engineering studies led her to develop a passion for motor racing and Cowell even founded a motor racing team and competed across Europe, including the Brighton Speed Trials and the Grand Prix at Rouen-Les-Essarts.

Unfortunately, her eventual change of legal gender not only meant her business went bust, but she couldn't continue in Grand Prix Racing. Cowell soon fell into financial difficulties because the dominant social views at the time meant it was difficult for her to get employment. She drastically dropped out of the public eye, and her own children didn't know she had passed away until it was reported in the UK media in 2011.

  • Mike Beuttler - 1940-1988

Although enjoying a successful racing career as a British F1 driver, similar to Cowell, Mike Beuttler disappeared for the final 14 years of his life from the public eye. After his death in 1988, it was learned he died in Los Angeles from AIDS, aged just 48.

He is celebrated throughout the world of motorsports by being the first openly gay male driver to compete at the highest levels at a time when the industry wasn't particularly accepting. It has to be remembered, that in the UK, it wasn't until 1967 that homosexuality was legalised between two consenting adults - but this was only in private.

Mike Beuttler raced in Formula 1 for three seasons between 1971 and 1973 and had a reputation for being a tough racer. He didn't like being overtaken on the track and would block people who got in his way, which earned him the nickname of 'Blocker.' This method seems to have paid off, as in 1973, Beuttler achieved his best-ever finish, seventh in the Spanish Grand Prix. In total, he scored five top-10 finishes in his career.

Beuttler's career was cut short by the UK being plunged into financial turmoil by the 1973 oil crisis where his team no longer had the money to stay in the sport. He spent his retirement in relative isolation but is widely celebrated today as being an LGBTQ+ motorsports icon.

Matt Bishop, a Racing Pride ambassador spoke to the BBC in 2021 about Beuttler:"It is really interesting to look at Beuttler's story now - it shows LGBT+ people have always been part of motorsport and they have been really successful, [but] it also reminds us of the challenges faced."

The motorsports industry is making great progress to promote LGBTQ+ inclusivity in and out of the track, and during pride month it pays to remember some of the trailblazers who helped get us to where we are today.

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19 June 2024
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