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Betty Skelton tribute

How one female enthusiast lived life to the fullest.

Andy Bolig - November 10, 2011 10:00 AM

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Betty Skelton driving her ’56 Corvette at Daytona, February 1956.

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 Before there were land speed records, Betty was winning championships in her Pitts Special biplane called “Little Stinker”. 

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Betty stands in front of a 1959 Chevrolet 348 CID V-8 with Tri-Power. This first-generation big block is in a cutaway show car. 

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Betty served as GM’s first woman technical narrator at major shows. Here she shares the spotlight with the new 1956 Corvette wearing the optional 2-4bbl engine. 

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Betty behind the wheel of the 1956 Daytona Speed Week pace car; the first time a Chevrolet Corvette was the pace car for NASCAR racing. She was also the first woman to drive a NASCAR pace car. 

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NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. once noted about her, “…ever-present femininity, even when tackling a man’s job.” GM recognized this as well and chose Betty to “brighten up” this new for ’57, full-size Chevrolet. 

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When not blazing into the record books, Betty worked at Campbell-Ewald and was one of the founders of Corvette News, later re-titled Corvette Quarterly. 

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Betty joins John Fitch and Zora Arkus-Duntov on the sand at Daytona in 1956. Betty later pointed out how her Corvette utilized no streamlining tape and John’s Corvette (right) still wears less than Zora’s. Speeds were 137.77mph for Betty, 145.54mph for Fitch while Zora stole the show at 147.30mph. Coincidental or by design?

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Betty spoke during an interview once that she only worked at Campell-Ewald for a few weeks when they told her to report to Daytona for work. She stated that she didn’t know she was going to drive one of the cars until she got there and needed to borrow a helmet from Chevrolet Performance consultant (and Indy 500 racing legend) Mauri Rose. 

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Betty Skelton poses in front of her image that resides in the National Corvette Museum Hall of Fame in Bowling Green, Kentucky. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001.

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Betty flying over a 1955 Dodge at Cypress Gardens during a Dodge publicity stunt. 

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Winning a championship in any field of interest or being inducted into a Hall of Fame would easily be considered a lifetime achievement for a typical individual. For Betty Skelton Erde, that’s just a small part of the honors and experiences that she has enjoyed over the past 85 years of her life.

Growing up, Betty Skelton was fascinated by the airplanes that flew over her Pensacola, Florida, home. At the age of eight, she started reading books on aviation and at the age of 12, she soloed for the first time, albeit, illegally. On her 16th birthday, she obtained her private pilot’s license and at age 18, she received her commercial pilot license and was certified as a flight instructor the following year. In 1945, she was asked to perform some basic stunts at an air show. The problem was that she hadn’t ever done any. Clem Whitteneck, a famous aerobatic pilot from the ’30s, taught Betty how to do various loops and rolls and within two weeks, she had perfected the maneuvers for the air show.

Because the commercial airlines and the military wouldn’t accept a female pilot, Betty began chasing air time by participating in various air shows. Her first professional aerobatic gig was in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1946. Another scheduled act participating for the first time was the Navy’s precision flying team, the Blue Angels. Betty’s most impressive feat was to cut a ribbon with her propeller while piloting her 1929 Great Lakes 2T-1A Sport Trainer biplane upside down, approximately 10 feet off of the ground.

Betty competed in aerobatic events and won her first International Feminine Aerobatic Championship in 1948. She then purchased a Pitts Special biplane named “Little Stinker”. She continued to compete, and won the IFA championships for both 1949 and 1950. Winning three consecutive aerobatic championships made Betty Skelton and her Pitts Special famous. Even so, she retired from aerobatics and sold the airplane in 1951. She, along with her first husband, Don Frankman, would purchase the plane back and donate it to the Smithsonian in 1985.

In 1949, Betty set the world light-plane altitude record of 25,763 feet in a Piper Cub. Two years later, she broke her own record at 29,050 feet, again, in a Piper Cub. She also went after the world speed record for piston-driven aircraft in a P-51 Mustang racing plane. She surpassed the then-current record by travelling at 421.6 mph but because of an engine fire, the attempt was nullified because she had to make an emergency landing.

In 1953, Betty was asked by Bill France Sr., founder of NASCAR, to pilot racers from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, and she and Bill became good friends. In 1954, Betty was hired by Dodge as Detroit’s first woman test driver and hopped into a Red Ram, Hemi-powered 1954 Dodge and set a new class record of 105.88 mph that year at Daytona. In 1955, Betty headed to the salt lakebed of Bonneville as part of the Dodge team that set 395 new records during a 14-day endurance test and she became the first woman to pilot a jump-boat when she rode “L’il Miss Dodge” over a 1955 Custom Royal Lancer at Florida’s Cypress Gardens as a publicity stunt.

Betty’s relationship with General Motors began in 1956. She became an advertising executive with Campbell-Ewald and was GM’s first woman technical narrator at major auto shows, where she would talk about and demonstrate automobile features. She helped found the publication Corvette News, which would later be called Corvette Quarterly. She mostly drove Corvettes during this time, in which she set numerous records. One of her most notable endeavors is when she teamed up with Zora Arkus-Duntov and John Fitch in February 1956, and they all drove white and blue Corvettes during NASCAR’s Speed Week trials. Betty kicked up the sand and still averaged 137 mph for her flying mile, despite a strong headwind on her return run. Throughout her lifetime, she would come to own a total of 10 Corvettes. Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell, making good use of her looks and notoriety, designed a special pace car for Betty to drive during the NASCAR race at Daytona in 1957.

In 1959, Betty was the first woman to undergo the physical and psychological testing for NASA’s astronaut program — the very same protocol given to the Mercury Seven astronauts. She was featured on the February 1960 cover of Look Magazine and the Navy even awarded her a set of honorary wings. Betty, understanding the climate at the time, predicted that it would be another 20 years before a woman astronaut would become a reality.

Betty returned to Bonneville in September 1965 to pilot Art Arfons’ jet-powered Green Monster Cyclops to her fourth land speed record, making her the first woman to go faster than 300 mph.

After 15 years at Campbell-Ewald, Betty retired and she and her husband, television director/producer Donald Frankman, moved to Winter Haven, Florida, where they opened up a real estate business together and she published her book, Little Stinker. When her husband grew ill from heart trouble, Betty retired for good to care for him. She lost her beloved husband of 35 years in 2001, only a month after learning of her nomination into the NCM Corvette Hall of Fame.

In 2005, she married Dr. Allan Erde, a retired Naval surgeon. While living in “The Villages”, a retirement community known for golf carts as transportation, Betty continued to drive her Corvette convertible everywhere she went.

On August 31, 2011, Betty Skelton Erde ended her race. The woman who it seems effortlessly overcame gender barriers, speed barriers, height limitations and death-defying feats had finally met her equal — cancer — at the age of 85. This “First Lady of Firsts,” who earned 17 aviation and automotive records, is honored in 10 different “Halls of Fame” and helped open opportunities for women in both land and air, will long be remembered for her accomplishments.

Her life will stand as a tribute to what one person — anyone — can accomplish if they set their mind to it. It proclaims the vitality by which she set out to overcome and exceed expectations and most of all, illustrates how one’s enthusiasm can indeed co-exist to create a life worth living.

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