Kaye Petre: racer and writer

Lady racing drivers became a fairly notable aspect of Brooklands during the post-war years. One of the more prominent was Mrs Kaye Petre, who first appeared in the 1930s driving a Daytona Wolseley Hornet Special, bought for her by her husband.

Her racing successes came in her first two events in 1932, the first being the Novices Handicap in which she came third with a best lap of 75.80mph, behind G Moncrieff in an MG Magna, and the Duchess of York’s lady drivers’ race in which she finished second, five yards behind Eileen Ellison in her T37 Bugatti.

In 1933, driving a 2.3-litre Bugatti in the Women’s Mountain Handicap, Kaye Petre came in just 5.5sec behind winner, Rita Don, who won at 60.34mph in her brother’s Freddie Dixon Riley. He rode as passenger to Rita to ensure that she improved her speed.

At the opening meeting of 1934 there were two-mile and half-mile Sprint Handicaps, as frost had hindered repair work to the Track. Mrs Petre, in her Bugatti, won one of these short sprints with an average speed of 71.15mph. At the Whitsun Meeting she won the Merrow Senior Short Handicap in her 2-litre Bugatti, with a lap speed of 106.42mph, one fifth of a second ahead of Staniland in Mathieson’s scratch Bugatti. In the Light Car Club’s Relay race Mrs Petre’s team, consisting of herself, Mrs Tolhurst and Eileen Ellison, came home fifth, averaging 71.53mph.

In July of that year, in a Scratch Sprint race, driving an Appleton Special, she took second at 50.77mph. In the Kingston Senior Long Handicap she came second, due to a plug cutting out on the 2.3-litre Bugatti, lapping at 117.74mph. At the end of the year she achieved the Ladies lap record, first in Thomas Fotheringham’s 2.3-litre Bugatti, getting round at 124.14mph but finally in Oliver Bertrams’s V12, 10.5-litre Delage. On a windy track and almost dwarfed by the car, she got up to 129.58mph.

In 1935 driving Shuttleworth’s Bugatti on the Outer Circuit, in a Junior Long Handicap, from scratch, she not only won at 118.62mph but made it a new woman’s record. At the August Bank Holiday Meeting, Mrs Stewart and Mrs Petre were to have a ladies match-race but when in practice Mrs Petre, in the Delage, put in a 134.75mph lap, it was decided that the cars must run separately. On the day it was Mrs Stewart at 135.95mph who retook the Ladies’ Lap Record. On scratch, in a five-lap Woman’s Mountain Handicap race, Mrs Petre managed to come third in a Riley. In a supercharged Riley she finally recaptured the Class F Mountain lap record, at 77.87mph, but lost it a week later to A F P Fane who was driving a Shelsley single-seater Frazer Nash at 78.30mph.

For the JCC 250-mile International Trophy Race of 1936, Mrs Petre drove one of 13 ERAs but spun at the Fork and had to go in search of two mechanics to restart her. In the LCC Relay Race, due to Mrs Petre coming off the Track on the Railway Straight and having to run back to the pits for help, her team of Mrs Hedges and Lady Makins came in eighth and last. She experienced more mishaps in the 500-Mile Race with the 2-litre Riley, needing the entire valve rocker gear changed. Finally she had a win in a 1½-litre blown Riley in the ordinary Mountain Handicap race, by 6.4 seconds in front of G Hartwell’s blown MG Magnette. She was lapping at 74.95mph and was the first woman to win an ordinary Mountain handicap race.

By 1937 Kaye Petre had joined the Austin works team and in the LCC Relay Race that year, with Bert Hadley and Charles Goodacre, won at 105.63mph, lapping constantly at 95mph. While practising in a side-valve Austin for the BRDC 500-Mile race (which that year was reduced to 500 kilometres) and lapping fast in the rain, Parnell’s MG Magnette, overtaking her on the Byfleet Banking, slid downwards and the cars met. Parnell’s car went through the railings. He was hardly hurt whereas the Austin turned over several times. Kaye was thrown out and was taken to hospital unconscious. She suffered serious head injuries. In time she recovered but was left with some permanent damage down one side of her face. This put a stop to her successful motor racing career. However, she never blamed Parnell for the calamity.

In 1938 Kaye was again involved in an accident at Brooklands: this time she was knocked over while walking back to the pits, when Percy Bradley’s Delage and Lace’s Darracq collided and the Delage burst into flames and came off the banking.

In addition to her success at Brooklands, Kaye also took part in the 1934 24-hour Le Mans race as a Riley works driver, partnering Dorothy Champney, in a 1.5-litre touring Imp. They took the Rudge-Whitworth Cup and finished in 13th place overall, averaging more than 60mph for the full 24 hours. At Donington, in the 1937 Coronation 100-mile Handicap race with Hadley and Goodacre, works drivers for Austin Motor Company, Kaye came in sixth. Goodacre took the trophy. In the JCC Nuffield Trophy Race all three Austins retired. She also took up rallying and drove with the Singer team in the Alpine Rally.

Kaye became a successful motoring journalist for the Daily Graphic and was the first woman member of the British Guild of Motoring Writers. While reporting the 1939 Monte Carlo Rally, with Major Reggie Empson, she was again involved in an accident, when a lorry hit their car. Epson was killed outright but luckily Kaye only had minor injuries. Another of her exploits was as a colour consultant for Austin.

Her husband died in 1962 and she returned to Toronto, her home town, but she returned to London in the mid-1960s and lived there until her death on August 10, 1994 aged 91.

There was an occasion I remember very well, when I was invited to an important lunch for journalists and was asked to bring an appropriate personality. My wife and I took as our guest Kaye Petre. Being introduced to the organisers, they remarked that it was a pity I had not brought a racing driver, thinking I had gate-crashed a friend. Whereupon I was delighted to say the lady we had brought with us was the most successful woman racing driver they were ever likely to meet.