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Sara Christian's 13th-place finish in the 1949 NASCAR points standings remain the best by a woman in NASCAR’s premier series.
Christian's fifth-place finish in the October 1949 event at Heidelberg Raceway, a half-mile dirt track in Pittsburgh, Pa., is also the best finish for a woman in the series.
Today, her and her husband and NASCAR team owner Frank Christian are the only couple in the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame headquartered in Dawsonville, Ga.
Decades before the Internet and social media, Sara Christian made her mark in stock car racing, recording accomplishments more than 70 years ago that remain today.
NASCAR was only a year old when it inaugurated its Strictly Stock, now Cup, Series. Thirty-three drivers showed up for the series’ first race in Charlotte, N.C., that hot June day in 1949 and Sara was one of them, the only woman in the field. With her husband Frank Christian serving as her car owner and crew chief, she qualified 13th and was credited with a 14th-place finish even though Bob Flock relief drove for her during the 197-lap race on the three-quarter-mile dirt track. Under NASCAR rules, the driver who starts the race is credited with the finish.
Sara went on to compete in a total of six of the eight races that comprised the Cup series inaugural season. Her 13th-place finish in the 1949 driver points standings remain the best by a woman in NASCAR’s premier series as does her fifth-place finish in the October 1949 event at Heidelberg Raceway, a half-mile dirt track in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Danica Patrick’s fourth-place finish at Las Vegas in 2011 came in the Nationwide (now Xfinity) Series when she drove for JR Motorsports. That is the best finish by a woman in NASCAR’s three national touring series.
Still, Sara’s performance and accomplishments for the era in which she raced were outstanding. Today, her and her husband are the only couple in the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame headquartered in Dawsonville, Ga. She was inducted in 2004 for her driving accomplishments, while he was in the 2013 class for his achievements as a car owner.
Even though Sara competed in the old barrel racing at the Jacksonville, Fla., beaches in 1941, her brief but skillful racing career didn’t begin until shortly after World War II. By 1948, she was racing at several local tracks in the Atlanta area. One of those tracks was Looper Speedway, which now rests under Lake Lanier near Gainesville, Ga.
Mike Bell, the Georgia Racing Hall of Fame’s historian, said Bobby Whitmire competed against Sara in a Modified race at the now-flooded dirt track. That day she won her heat race and the feature.
“Bobby Whitmire told me he had the best seat in the house until his car quit on him and he wound up in the pits, standing on top of his car watching her win,” Bell said.
A “Powder Puff” Division that Bob Flock created when he opened Atlanta Speedway on the city’s west side in 1948 quickly showcased Sara’s talent.
“(It was then) I think they realized that she was good enough to where she could compete with the men,” said Cody Dinsmore, a Georgia Racing Hall of Fame board of directors member and motorsports historian.
Sara showed that to be true in 1949. Less than a month after her top-15 finish in the first-ever Cup race, she and her husband competed in a 40-lap event on the Daytona Beach and Road Course. That made the Dahlonega, Ga., residents the only husband/wife racing team in NASCAR history to compete at the old Daytona Beach and Road Course, which was replaced by Daytona International Speedway in 1959. That day Sara finished 18th in a Ford, while her husband placed sixth in an Oldsmobile. Ethel Flock Mobley, from Atlanta, finished 11th in a Cadillac and Louise Smith of Greenville, S.C., finished 20th in a Ford, making the event the first NASCAR race to have three female drivers.
By the season’s third race, Sara was described as “the highly regarded lady driver.” However, when her 1947 Ford lost a right-front wheel on the one-mile dirt Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsboro, N.C., she was involved in a vicious crash with Felix Wilkes’ Lincoln. She had to settle for 23rd in the 28-car field.
In the premier series’ inaugural season’s fourth race, Sara’s superb driving talent caught everyone’s attention. On the one-mile dirt track in Langhorne, Pa., she piloted her 1949 Oldsmobile to a sixth-place finish behind winner Curtis Turner, who would later be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Her performance in the grueling 200-lap event prompted race officials to escort her to victory lane to join Turner in the ceremonies, according to Greg Fielden’s book Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Beginning 1949-1958. Forty-five drivers participated in the event, the most to start a race during the 1949 season.
Sara skipped the next two races at the half-mile dirt tracks in Hamburg, N.Y., and Martinsville, Va. She returned to competition on Oct. 2, 1949, at Heidelburg Speedway, becoming the first woman to crack the top five in a NASCAR premier series race.
By the time the new series rolled into North Wilkesboro, N.C., in mid-October for the 1949 season finale the souvenir program for the 200-lap race touted her as “America’s No. 1 woman driver.”
“Sara, wife of Frank Christian of Atlanta, has established herself as the woman driver of the year—and a threat to the best of male competition,” it was written in the souvenir program beside her photo.
The photo accompanying the biographical data, shows the 30-year-old Sara standing in front of a 1949 Ford wearing sandals, shorts, a white blouse with short-ruffled sleeves and a cap. The article beside her photo noted her accomplishments that season, that she would drive the No. 71 Oldsmobile 88 in the race and her teammate would be Bob Flock.
Sara’s 1949 accomplishments in NASCAR’S premier series resulted in the United States Driver’s Association voting her “Woman Driver of the Year.”
In 1950, Sara competed in only one premier series event, that coming in August in Hamburg, N.Y., where she finished 14th. Unfortunately, her career was cut short due to a back injury. She died in March 1980 at age 61. Her death came 11 years after she lost her husband, Frank, who died in December 1969 at age 59.