Mares Stellfox
The Lady Outlaw

Since she was just four years old, Mary Susan (now know as "Mares") wanted to drive race cars. In this paper I'll examine some of the gender issues that she faced as she as she competed--engine roaring, mud flying, around the dirt tracks of the east coast--against other races, all of whom were male. Her petite stature, and lots of male prejudice against women racers, affected the cars she drove and the prizes she won. An unexpected pregnancy, something that male drivers don't have to worry about, had a big impact on her racing career. Finally, I'll discuss how Mares expanded the role that women play in the (mostly) all-male world of dirt-track racing.

She is the fourth of five daughters in a family with no father. As a young girl, she enjoyed driving a go-kart around a small track. When she was attending Springfield High School, she wanted enroll in the auto mechanics course in the voc-tech school, but her guidance counselor wouldn't permit it. This was her first exposure to prejudice against a woman who wanted to invade the "male" world of the automobile.

Her interest in fast cars continued after school, and she often attended the drag races at Maple Grove, Atco and Englishtown. She married Mark Stellfox who shared her interest in drag racing. He drove a '64 Chevelle with several racing modifications, and he would sometimes let Mares drive it. Mark and Mares began to attend the sprint car races across the river in Bridgeport, NJ. Sprint cars are raced on dirt tracks, some of which can be as short as 1/10th of a mile. The cars are almost always turning left, and the turn is accomplished with a controlled skid. You actually steer the car using the throttle, with the wheel turned to the right but the car turning to the left.

Mark was very surprised when, after a big race, Mares told him "I want to do this. I really want to do this. I want to race a sprint car." When it became clear that Mares was serious, Mark traded his '64 Chevelle for a race car for Mares. It wasn't the big, powerful sprint-type car that she had dreamed of, but rather a small, almost whimpy, "micro-sprint" car. It wasn't a real sprint car, but at least it was a start.

In 1984, Mares made her debut with her micro sprint car at Delaware's Airport Speedway. She only ran four races in 1984, but liked racing so much that she bought a new car for the 1985 season. She set as her goal to finish in the top ten in points that year, and she finished out the year in 10th place. Then next year, she set her goal on being in the top five, and she finished 4th. The following year she won the championship--1st place!

There are some subtle differences between male and female race drivers. One difference is how they are treated as novices. There is no school for race car driving. You join the club, show up for the race, and then it's "learning by doing." The rules state that for the first three races you must start at the back of the pack. After completing three races, the club officials will decide if you are ready to take your normal starting spot, as determined by qualifying time. A man, just starting out on the race circuit, will be assumed to know what he's doing (even if he has never raced before). He will be "accepted" by the racing community even before he has driven his first race. In contrast, a woman who attempts to enter this male-dominated sport will find, as Mares did, that the other racers would not accept her as one of their own until she had "proven" herself on the racetrack. Even after she had shown them that she could drive and race as well as they could, the sexual discrimination continued.

An example of how some other drivers treated her differently was evident one night after a crash. Earlier in the race, a driver named Steve and Mares had bumped briefly. Later, when Mares' car was on the other side of the track, Steve had a crash. During the resulting delay, Steve came over to Mares and started yelling at her. "What are you doing here? You don't belong here. You should be home in the kitchen playing with your pots & pans," he yelled. This tirade brought Mares to tears. "I'm not racing any more. I can't take it. I quit!" she said.

Her husband, Mark, wasn't about to let Mares quit. He pointed out that Steve's crash was not her fault, and that she was doing what she wanted to do since she was four years old. These arguments were persuasive enough, and Mares continued racing. Agressive emotions that often come with cars are also present in the racing world. Mares showed courage in continuing to race with such men. As racers compete, most of them are "good sports" and don't use their car to damage or destroy the other cars. But with all those cars running around so close together, accidents are unavoidable.

Mares was not crash-free. In fact, she had a crash about one race in ten. These crashes would often damage the car and motor, and it would be up to Mark to put them back together. Even if he had to stay up all night, Mark would always have the car ready for the next day of racing. Mares never missed a start due to a broken car. An interesting difference between male and female racers is how they are treated after a crash. For a male racer, a crash is taken in stride, a "these things will happen..." kind of attitude from the other racers. But whenever Mares would crash, the other male racers would rush to make a big deal out of it. They would hold it as an example of why women should not be allowed to race cars.

Driving a race car is very hard work. It takes strength and stamina to wrestle a 1200 lb. car around a dirt track, often several times a night. Since Mares is a small woman (about 100 lbs.), the exertion required during the race was, at first, a problem. The G-forces were so great on her helmet that at times she felt "as if my head was being torn off." Most things about these cars, built for men, would not fit Mares' smaller frame. Mark had to create almost everything custom to fit his wife's features. For example, a standard steering wheel is 15" wide, the same width as a man's shoulders. In Mares' race car, the wheel was reduced to 13", the same width as her shoulders. This smaller diameter wheel, in turn, required that the power-assist on the steering be boosted. Her seat had to be smaller, her flame-resistant suit had to be custom made to her size. To counter the extreme G-force on her helmet, Mark installed a bar beside her right ear, so that the helmet would be supported when she went around a turn at 90 MPH.

Even the air was a challenge at times. Once, coming down the back straight-a-way at a racecourse, Mares reached up with her right hand to tear away a "tear-off" lens cover from her helmet. As her hand came up toward her helmet, it was struck by the air rushing by at 170 MPH. Mares said that the force of the air was so strong that she couldn't hold her hand still enough to get to the tear-off.

To prepare for the physical effort of racing, Mares started an intense workout program to develop her upper-body strength. For three hours a night, three nights a week, she would work out at the gym, building muscles. When the racing season started, her new strength helped a lot, and she was much more successful. She saw the challenge of physicality, and she met it.

Mares loves to drive fast. When she steps out of the race car and gets into her pickup truck, some of the effects of racing come along with her. She says that before she started racing, she never considered the other cars on the road. After becoming a race driver, and going through a few crashes, she no longer felt that way. Now, when she drives on the road, she feels unsafe because she isn't wearing her helmet.

One thing that male racers will never have to worry about: racing while pregnant. Mares and Mark were very careful, and took plenty of precautions to avoid this condition. However, sometimes accidents happen. In 1994, at the peak of her career, Mares became pregnant.

Things were really starting to look up for Mares and Mark. The racing season was about to start, and they had been getting offers from around the country for Mares to drive other cars. One deal involved her driving a stock car in the Winston circuit, and another deal in the works had her racing a midget racer that was owned by a woman. Mares was not racing at the time (the season had yet to start) but she was working out a lot to build her strength. Then they found out she was pregnant. They had to call off all the deals that they'd worked so hard to arrange.

There were many problems, most of which seem to have been caused by stupid doctors. Mares was in and out of the hospital, at one time suffering with congestive heart failure. The baby stopped developing at 21 weeks, and at 27 weeks was delivered. He was only 11 inches long, 15 ounces. He only lived for two days. Mares has not raced since.

In the years since then, Mark and Mares have worked together to recover from their loss. Now, in October 1996, they are again expecting a child. With a new doctor, and no stress of racing or working out, they are hopeful that soon they will have a healthy baby.

Mares continues her work as an office manager, and looks forward to the day that she can return to racing. She feels that her experiences as a race car driver have made her a more focused, productive worker in an office environment. At work, she is dressed up in nice clothes, looking very feminine and ladylike. She wants everyone to know that even though she is a racer, she is still a lady. Which brings me to her name...

Back in 1988, when she was still struggling to gain acceptance as a driver, she joined a racing club called The Outlaws. There were 97 men in the club, and she was the only woman. Because of this, she became known in the racing world as "The Lady Outlaw."

From my interview with Mares, I conclude that even though car racing is 99% male, a woman can, with lots of work and a stubborn determination not to be stopped, race and sometimes win. A female racer has to overcome problems of strength and size, as well as deal with male racers who think her place should be in the kitchen. Mares is a pioneer in the field, and now there are a few other women racers, who consider themselves "Mares Stellfox wannabees." Despite the crashes, discouraging remarks and setbacks, Mares rose to be the champion in an almost exclusively male sport, and along the way challenged our stereotypes about competitive athletes and women drivers. Mares draws power from her racing experience, and has been able to apply some of her driving talents to the everyday world of an office manager.