Story by Liz Jansen
Photos courtesy of Mary McGee, AMA, FIM
On December 2, 2012, motorcycling legend Mary McGee stepped into the international spotlight at the FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme) Gala in Monaco, to present the Woman of the Year award to Spain’s Laia Sanz. Modest and never one to seek the limelight, McGee’s legacy is that of an indomitable woman.
Born on December 12, 1936, in Juneau, Alaska, her family moved to Phoenix in 1944, where she later met her husband, Don. An expert mechanic who had wrenched race cars on the east coast, he would introduce her to car racing and motorcycles shortly after their 1956 wedding. Five foot eleven, slender and shy, she described herself as “fast on my feet, fast with my brain, self-conscious and lacking confidence,” although as it would turn out, she “had no trouble with confidence on the race track.”
McGee was never one to shy away from adventure or to concern herself with the opinions of others. From an early age she followed her own compass, establishing herself as a trailblazer and inspiration, a role that continues to this day.
When a friend needed to sell a 200 cc Triumph Tiger Cub, it became her first motorcycle. She knew nothing about motorcycles but was willing to learn, and that Triumph sparked an enduring love for the sport. The only problem was, it didn’t always start. So it got traded for a Honda C110, which McGee used for shopping and commuting to her job as parts manager at Flint British Motors.
In 1957, she began racing cars with the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). Through a series of fortunate introductions, she was offered a variety of cars to race, and consistently won her races. Instantly recognizable in her pink polka-dot helmet, she raced sports cars by Mercedes, Ferrari, Porsche, AC, Corvette, Elva, Jaguar and Lotus, winning races at tracks in Arizona, California and Texas.
Ironically, it was car racing that began McGee’s foray into motorcycle road racing in 1960. It was while she was racing a Porsche Spyder in Santa Barbara, California, that the car’s owner, Czech race-car icon Vasek Polak, suggested to McGee’s husband that she should ride a motorcycle to further hone her car-racing skills. When he told her, she responded with her trademark, “Okay. Why not?”
A female road racer in the United States was a new phenomenon. McGee was already known for her car-racing prowess, but the American Federation of Motorcyclists (AFM) wanted to be sure she could also perform on two wheels, so she was told she’d first have to attend a tryout. She passed the audition and became the first woman to road race and hold an FIM licence in the United States – on a 125 Honda CB92, wearing her pink polka-dot helmet.
McGee was ecstatic in this new world. “I was always a little shy with the adults in car racing,” she recalled, “although I loved talking to the kids that mothers always brought over to our pits. But I loved the bikes. It was just the hottest thing ever.”
Not surprisingly, she caught the media’s attention doing what she does best: being herself and inspiring others. A January 1962 Motor Trend article started with “Housewives revolt!” and ended with “So ladies, if your life is dull and you are bored with freeway traffic, don’t give up. Buy a motorcycle and join Mary McGee.”
A New Year’s Eve party in 1963 attended by Hollywood stars who raced both cars and motorcycles, introduced her to a new form of racing. McGee recalls actor Steve McQueen telling her, “McGee, you’ve got to get off that pansy road-racing bike and come out to the desert.”
“And get dirty?” she responded. Her husband told her it was a great idea, and she was off.
With car racer and stunt guy Bobby Harris as a mentor, it wasn’t long before McGee was tearing it up in the desert on a Honda CL72. Her rite of passage came several months later, when Harris and other celebrity riders convinced her to enter an enduro at Jawbone Canyon, in the Mojave Desert. She was promised that it would be easy; it was anything but. A steep climb to a precipice overlooking a valley far below; a sharp left to avoid going over it, and steep descent got them back for lunch. McGee was so tired she wanted to quit, but her husband convinced her to continue. The afternoon was even more gruelling after some snow fell, but, completely exhausted, she finished and knew she had found another niche.
McGee was finally getting enough riding in. Road racing was partly physical, but mostly mental. Dirt riding was both physical and mental, and it tired her out. Regardless, she found a new love and lost interest in road racing…