Google Doodle celebrates Kitty O’Neil, the fastest woman in the world
Legendary stunt performer set a record-breakingly high bar for racers around the globe
Kitty O’Neil isn’t a name known in every UK household, but perhaps one that should be. O’Neil, who would have turned 77 years old today (24 March) was a legendary stunt performer and racing driver. The Texan was crowned the ‘fastest woman alive’ when she smashed the women’s land speed record by almost 200mph in 1976 – though she could have been the fastest human.
Getting into the cockpit of the SMI Motivator, a hydrogen-peroxide powered three-wheeler, O’Neill’s speed across the Alvord Desert, Oregon, peaked at 621mph, and reached an average speed of 512.7mph. That wasn’t her first record-breaker though.
Deaf from a series of childhood infections, O’Neil was taught lip-reading and speech from the age of two. Although starting her daredevil antics in diving and swimming, she also gave water skiing, scuba diving, skydiving and hang gliding a go - apparently declaring that ‘diving wasn’t scary enough’.
Building a career for racing on water and land - in two-, three- and four-wheeled vehicles - O’Neil was introduced to stuntwork by friend, Ron Hambleton. Despite appearing in The Bionic Woman, The Blues Brothers and that long-standing sequel Smokey and the Bandit II, she was more famed for breaking the high-fall stunt record - a drop of 39m - on the 1979 set of Wonder Woman.
Wonder woman, indeed. Not least because O’Neil went on to break her own record, jumping 80 metres from a helicopter. Barbie-creator Mattel would go on to make a Kitty O’Neil action figure in 1978. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing (excuse the pun).
During the 1976 land speed attempt, the courageous dame reckoned she was only using 60 per cent of available thrust and could have exceeded 700mph if on full power. O’Neil was gunning to set the world’s land speed record, but she was restricted by her contract. Friend and colleague Hal Needham was pencilled in to set the overall record. Apparently his sponsors - a toy company with a male action figure due for production - thought only a bloke should set the overall record. Funny that.
O’Neil would attempt to legally challenge this restriction, but would ultimately fail. In 1979, Grease star Stockard Channing played the role of Kitty in a biopic called Silent Victory.
Giving up stunt work in 1982 following the death of two colleagues, O’Neil died in 2018 at the age of 72, leaving behind a racing legacy some can only dream of.
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