Joan Newton Cuneo, who played a trailblazing role for female race car drivers, was born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, in 1876. She was the last of four daughters born to Leila Vulte and John Carter Newton. Joan’s strong interest in transportation took root early on in her life. As a child – and under her indulgent father’s supervision – she not only managed to operate a steam train but also drove a coach pulled along by a six-horse team. In addition, Joan enjoyed riding both horses and bicycles.
In 1898, Joan married a banker named Andrew Cuneo. The couple had a son named Antonio in 1899 and a daughter named Maddalena (Dolly) in 1901. Joan’s enthusiasm for automobiles began in earnest in 1902, when her husband bought her a car manufactured by the Locomobile Company of America.
In an article that she wrote for the January 1914 issue of Country Life in America monthly magazine, Joan described that first automobile of hers somewhat nostalgically but also accurately as “a steam runabout, with only kerosene lamps to light the road at night (and such roads!), the one drive-chain which always slipped at the wrong time and place, and little bicycle tires.”
Louis Disbrow, a mechanic who was a neighbor of the Cuneos, helped familiarize Joan with the inner workings of the Locomobile and how to drive it. Disbrow, who likewise became a well-established race car driver (even participating in the first four Indianapolis 500 competitions), would serve as a mentor for Joan as her love of automobiles continued to grow.
Joan recounted in her article in Country Life in America, “In 1903 I graduated to a four-passenger steam touring car, with rear entrance and stationary top, side baskets over the mud guard, carbide generators for light, and shaft drive instead of chain.” She also wrote, “I’ll never forget the sensation of driving that car for the first time. It seemed like handling a huge ferry boat.”
Not long after that, Joan set her sights on a career as a race car driver. The first major competition in which she took part was the 1905 Glidden Tour, which involved having drivers cover about 1,350 miles (2,172.6 kilometers) via an indirect route between St. Louis and New York City. Also known as the National Reliability Runs, the Glidden Tours were sponsored by the American Automobile Association (AAA) to promote both the benefits of motor vehicles and the need for better roads.
Joan’s pioneering bid to participate in that year’s Glidden Tour nearly ended before she could even get behind the wheel. Her application to compete in the race was initially rejected by AAA on the grounds that only men could take part. Joan, who was already a member of AAA, resubmitted her application with a note stating that nothing in the association’s rules explicitly prohibited women from participating in the Glidden Tours. With a great deal of reluctance, the AAA officials allowed her to enter the race.
On only the second day of that competition, however, Joan – with her husband, one of her sisters, and Disbrow as passengers – had an accident that almost ended the race for her. The accident happened when a driver just ahead of her began speeding in reverse to avoid a dynamite blast that was about to be set off by a road construction crew. In trying to get out of the way of that other automobile as it was fast approaching her, Joan inadvertently caused her own vehicle to plummet down an embankment. Her automobile ended up in a stream.
Joan and her passengers were not seriously injured, though, and nearby spectators were able to help them get the automobile out of the stream and back on the road to continue the race. While that now-battered vehicle ultimately gave out altogether before Joan was able to finish the race, she did receive widespread attention and praise for her bravery and resilience in the face of that high-risk mishap. The incident, in other words, did much to launch what became a hugely successful racing career for her.
Over the next few years, Joan earned renown as a formidable race car driver on roads and tracks throughout the United States. Her more notable accomplishments included completing the 1908 Glidden Tour with a perfect score. In 1909, she prevailed over such leading male drivers as Bob Burman and George Robertson at the Mardi Gras races at the New Orleans Fair Grounds.
Unfortunately for Joan, it was also in 1909 that the Contest Board of AAA decided to ban her and other women from competing in future racing events sanctioned by the association. For several years after those rules took effect, Joan still distinguished herself behind the wheel by taking part in other racing competitions instead. In 1911, for example, she set the record as the fastest female driver up to that time when she traveled up to 111.5 miles (179.4 kilometers) per hour on a half-mile (0.8-kilometer) stretch of the Long Island Motor Parkway.
Along with establishing a trailblazing role as a race car driver, Joan also carved out a niche for herself as an advocate for improved roads nationwide. One of her contributions in this regard involved being part of a 47-car caravan in a Good Roads Tour between New York City and Atlanta during the fall of 1909. This expedition of more than 1,050 miles (1,690 kilometers) was jointly sponsored by the New York Herald and Atlanta Journal, and at the time it was the largest event of its kind to be organized specifically to highlight the importance of good roads.
Other celebrities participating in that tour included major-league baseball champion Ty Cobb, but even he was ultimately upstaged by Joan. After all the drivers had arrived in Georgia’s state capital, for example, many of them competed in an unofficial race at the Atlanta speedway. Joan emerged as the winner, completing the two-mile (3.2-kilometer) course in a minute and 45 seconds. Headlines in the next day’s edition of the Buffalo Times proclaimed, “Cobb Outdone by a Woman Driver – Mrs. Joan Cuneo Easily Takes Honors in Run in Which Ty Participated.”
Joan died in the village of Ontonagon, Michigan, in 1934 at the age of 57.
For more information on Joan Newton Cuneo, please check out Mad for Speed – Joan Newton Cuneo | The Old Motor and Browse Collections | DPL DAMS (detroitpubliclibrary.org)