Historicist: "Canada's Raciest Blonde"
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Historicist: “Canada’s Raciest Blonde”

Diana Carter was regarded as Canada's top female racecar driver during the 1960s.

"Phil Lamont, head of Diana's pit crew of four, gives her a pep talk before the race. Car trouble during practice left her nervous." Photo by Robert Ragsdale. Canadian Weekly, September 19, 1964.

Touted during her career as “Canada’s Raciest Blonde,” Diana Carter faced numerous hazards during the race and rallies she drove throughout the 1960s. Yet the road that frightened her most was one many Toronto motorists dealt with daily. “If I really wanted to get killed,” she told Canadian Weekly in 1964, “I’d just go for a spin on Highway 401 at rush hour. That’s when I really feel scared. On a track, you know everyone can at least drive. But on highways—boy, everyone’s mad!”

In the racing world of the early 1960s, many female drivers drove their male partners’ vehicles for a lark during weekend “powder puff derbies.” Carter quickly earned the respect of her male peers through her work ethic. Compared to “girls who drive just want to wear a tight driver’s suit and run around town in a crash helmet, and all the boys are supposed to fall down and kiss their feet,” driver Peter Lerch told Maclean’s in 1966 that “Diana Carter is the only girl who goes out there and does a job.”

Advertisement, 1965 Shell 4000 Rally Guide.

Publicity-seekers annoyed Carter. “They’re a joke among the other drivers—and it’s not good to be laughed at at the track,” she noted. “A time comes when you need help, and batting your eyelashes isn’t good enough.” She made some concessions at the track to traditional notions of femininity—Carter kept a wig handy to pose for victory photos so that she didn’t show off her sweaty hair.

Carter took the weekends she spent at Mosport Park (now Canadian Tire Motorsport Park) and other tracks seriously, pouring thousands of dollars per year in entry fees and maintenance for vehicles she owned, not borrowed. She believed that such expenses limited the careers of female drivers, especially when the major car companies showed little to no interest in sponsorships. Carter’s track success attracted some corporate interest, including one oil company who offered free fuel, victory bonuses, and ad appearances. Her knowledge of the sport was furthered through her involvement with the management of Mosport and work as a reporter and circulation director for Canada Track & Traffic magazine.

She admitted that driving was “a tremendous ego booster for me,” even when male drivers reacted negatively when a woman defeated them. “If a woman wins a race,” she told the Globe and Mail in 1965 in an interview alongside American racer Donna Mae Mims, “the men are quick to point out that she made a mess of a corner, or she was lucky, or something else. If a man wins, the other men are ready with a pat on the back for a good race and no post mortems.”

Photo by Robert Ragsdale, Canadian Weekly, September 19, 1964.

Carter’s interest in racing developed while she attended Etobicoke Collegiate Institute, via a boyfriend involved in the sport. Using future husband Jerry Polivka’s Volvo 544, she entered a novice race at the Connor Circuit in St. Eugene, Ontario in 1960 and won. “Because I was a girl,” she later explained, “the whole thing got far more publicity than it deserved—just as if a man were to win a knitting contest. It was the most thrilling thing that had ever happened to me.” That victory was the first of many she experienced over the next seven years. Carter collected trophies, as she once joked, “the way most girls collect sterling flatware.”

Among those trophies were three consecutive victories between 1963 and 1965 of the Coupe Des Dames, the female division of the Shell 4000 road rally. The longest road race in North America at the time, the Shell 4000 challenged its participants on a time-sensitive trek which took them from Montreal to Vancouver. On the eve of the 1965 edition, Carter told the press why she found rallying more dangerous that looping at high speeds around a track:

Because you are on roads where the public are, you’re meeting oncoming traffic—our speeds are well below speed limits but we do have sections which are closed to the public and on these speed is tested. Also there are changing road conditions, it’s not one kind of surface like on a racing track. You have ordinary dirt roads, and twisty roads.

Carter’s hopes for a fourth victory in a row were dashed when she was disqualified from the 1966 race after arriving in Saskatoon. Rally officials ruled that she had driven too slowly through one of the controlled stretches, due partly to car problems. The following year, she was among the drivers held up when an angry cowboy blocked a road near Merritt, B.C. with his horse and a herd of cattle he felt were disturbed by the rally.

"Diana Carter, Canada's top girl driver, chats with mechanic." Photo by Frank Grant. Maclean's, September 17, 1966.

After her retirement in 1967, Carter continued to work for Canada Track & Traffic until she divorced Polivka the following year. She headed south of the border to help launch two new tracks as a PR director: Michigan International Speedway and Texas International Speedway. She left the sport entirely in 1971 to work in advertising in Detroit. She currently resides on Vancouver Island, where she works as an accountant for the Chemainus Theatre Festival.

Reflecting on the current state of racing earlier this year, Carter’s thoughts indicated that many of the challenges she faced in the 1960s still exist. With expenses still high, she feels female drivers still have little chance of breaking into the major circuits “unless they can get major sponsorships, or have the appearance of a Danica Patrick!”

Additional material from the September 19, 1964 edition of Canadian Weekly, the July 16, 1965 edition of the Globe and Mail, the September 17, 1966 edition of Maclean’s, the April 24, 1965 edition of the Montreal Gazette, the May 3, 1966, June 6, 1966, and May 4, 1967 editions of the Toronto Star, and the March 2012 edition of Vintage Racer.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.