Mary Connor is crying softly to herself. She and her nine-year old brother Jim had spent the last couple of days riding by themselves on a train filled with young soldiers who would go on to fight the Nazis in Europe or the Emperor in the Pacific. In the dark, early morning hours in a small train station somewhere in Iowa, five-year old Mary fought her own small battle with fear. Maybe their grandparents forgot them. Where would she and Jim go if they did?
Mary and Jim Connor in Juneau, Alaska before moving to Iowa.
Eventually, the sound of the train pulling away from the station awakened Mary and Jim’s grandparents and aunt who'd fallen asleep in their car in the nearby parking lot. The two children would be taken home, learn how to do farm chores, and be reunited with their mother months later.
As a nurse in Alaska at the beginning of WWII, she was required to stay in Juneau. But the Navy had ordered all other women and children to leave the coastal areas. So Mary and Jim’s mother decided sending them to Iowa would not only get them to safety, but also away from their father who had found his happiness at both ends of a bottle.
It’s hard to imagine putting two unaccompanied small children on any kind of transportation today. But life in the 1930s and 40s was different. You did what you had to do, and in Mary’s case you learned it early and often.
“We eventually moved with our mother to Phoenix to live with my aunt and uncle. There were eight of us in a one bedroom place. My aunt and uncle slept in the bedroom, my aunt and cousin from Iowa had the couch, my grandmother slept on a daybed on the neighbor’s porch and my mother, two cousins, brother and I slept outside. We didn’t think much of it at the time.”
Mary and her family stayed in Phoenix and that’s where she eventually met Don McGee. He and Jim had met in the military and both shared a fondness for sports cars. The two would periodically grab a drink at Don’s Tap Room (no ties to Don McGee), a hangout for the local sports car club. One night, Jim urged Mary to go with him and Don happened to be there. The two would later marry and soon after found themselves in Mexico City.
“There was a foreign service program at Mexico City College that Don had enrolled in. I met a lady who had a private school there and she needed someone to teach English to second graders. I took the job and was paid 95 pesos a month. This was in 1957.”
When word got out that the school had hired a tall, blonde Yankee teacher, every mother showed up to have a look. Mary was clearly an anomaly.
But living in Mexico didn’t agree with her. She became sick and ended up returning to the US to recuperate. Meanwhile, her brother had gotten himself more connected in the Phoenix race scene, and one of them was Stan Sugarman, an established owner/driver in Arizona and California.
“About the time I got back to Phoenix, Stan was putting together a time trial to show off his new stable of cars. I’m at my brother’s and Stan comes over and asks me if I want to drive one of his cars. Well, I’d never driven a race car before but I said, ‘why not.’ So he asked Jack McAfee to take me around the track. He scared me so bad, I nearly peed my pants!”
(Note: Jack owned the Porsche dealer where James Dean bought the car he would later crash and die in.)
Mary got into one of Stan’s cars anyway and went on to beat Ginny Simms, a well-known female racer in the 50s and early 60s.
“The whole time I’m thinking I hope I don’t hurt the car!”
But the experience taught Mary a few things about racing. You focus on the line, not on the other racers you’re trying to beat. She also learned she loved racing.
She went on to race with the Sports Car Club of America and California Sports Car Club with cars owned by George Rice and later with Vasek Polak, a Czech-born motorcycle racer with connections to the Porsche factory.
Over a six-year period, Mary racked up several seconds and a few 3rd place finishes, along with one first place finish at tracks scattered throughout California, Arizona and Texas. Cars she raced included a litany of what were some of the most popular sports cars in the day: an AC Bristol, a Ferrari Berlinetta and Testa Rossa, a Corvette, a Jaguar, a Lotus 18, and a Porsche Spyder.
“I loved the Ferraris, even though I raced Porsches for a longer period of time. I just liked the way they handled and how smooth they were. The Berlinetta was so smooth. You could roll up the window, turn on the stereo and have a ham sandwhich!”
While her skill on the track made Mary a standout among the other male and few other female drivers, at nearly six feet tall she literally stood heads above all of them. In a sport where height and weight can be debilitating, she said being thin and limber helped make it easier for her to get into cars built for much smaller drivers.
At the same time, her brother Jim was building his own racing resume. But a horrific crash in 1964 ended Mary’s career, as well. It was time to concentrate on something different.
A couple of years earlier, Mary had taken up motorcycle racing. At the time, it was common to see a motorcycle and car race on the same track and on the same weekend. Having owned a Triumph and a Honda, Mary was no stranger to riding a motorcycle. But just as she hadn’t known a lick about racing a car, her entry into motorcycle racing was at the urging of someone else.
“I was getting ready for a race, while Vasek and Don were watching a motorcycle event from one of the turns. Vasek told Don that he thought motorcycle racing would make me a smoother driver. So Don told me after the race what Vasek said. I thought they were both nuts.”
Vasek repeated the suggestion directly to Mary, so now the motorcycle racing wheels were in motion. But there was just one problem. The group that oversaw professional racing in the US, the AFM, had never been approached by a woman who wanted to road race.
“I called Wes Cooley, Sr., head of the AFM, and when he got back to me he told me I had to ‘audition.’ So I needed a bike and a set of leathers. I went to Tom Hinegar and Neil Holt of Webco to get my leathers, but because I was a woman they were too embarrassed to measure me. So I went direct to Cal Leathers, even though Webco carried them, and they had one ready in three days.”
The audition was with a group of other racers at Willow Springs, and Mary was riding a Honda CB92 – a parallel 125 cc twin. Noted desert and road racer John McLaughlin volunteered to give her some pointers about turn 9 and what to keep in mind.
“Once I was on the track, I didn’t even think about the other guys going around me. I was just focused on where the track was and where I needed to be. When I finished, Wes Cooley, Sr. came out, and all he said was that it was fine and that I was cleared to race. And he kept walking.”
For several years, Mary raced both motorcycles and cars, often on the same tracks and on the same days. She and Don were living in California at the time, and she was the only woman at the time racing in two different events, let alone the only one racing motorcycles. Not too many men were trying both events either. It would be something akin to an athlete playing baseball in the morning and football at night.
“I never really thought about what it took. The only women racing then were in expensive sports cars, often owned by their husbands. I may have been a little standoffish at the time, so I never really got to be friends with many of them. The only one who would really talk to me was Paula Murphy, and we became friends.”
By 1963, Mary had amassed enough points racing motorcycles to wear the number 20 racing plate. At the same time, proposed rule changes within the AFM would basically force Mary to start her motorcycle racing career from scratch. Mary would later find out that one of the guys who was driving the change was a guy she’d beaten earlier that year.
Then along came dirt.
“I was at a party in Manhattan Beach and Steve McQueen was there. He said, ‘Mary, you have to get off that pansy road racing bike and come out to the desert.’ My immediate reaction was 'Ew, and get dirty?'"
Don liked the idea, and since he worked for Honda at the time, he said he could get her a bike. Mary later responded to the idea of dirt bike riding in what seemed to have become typical fashion for her, “Well, I guess I can give it a try.”
She took McQueen up on his suggestion and went trail riding with a group of actors, stunt riders and friends in the Tehachapi Mountains, north of L.A.
“I loved it. We went out riding in the morning, had lunch, then went back out in the afternoon.”
Soon after, Bobby Harris invited her to participate in an Enduro at Jawbone Canyon as one of four racers on his team. To entice her to agree to the ride, he told her it was the easiest Enduro race of the year. Mary later found out that wasn’t the case.
“I’m in the race and the route is climbing up and up and up, and I stopped at the top and looked down and I saw these little trucks down there. Dave Eakins came up and said, ‘Mary did we forget to teach you how to go downhill?’ He tells me to just put it into third gear and go. I probably fell at least two to three times on the way down. But I did make it.”
But it got worse before it got better. She hit snow in one part, plus her bike ended up stopping on her. Bobby Harris was waiting for her at one point with a down bike and he knew Mary had some tools.
“He said if he couldn't fix it, I could tow him. I let him know there would be no towing, he'd have to fix his bike."
If Mary didn’t have enough firsts under her belt already, her foray into dirt bike racing meant that at one point she was the only woman who was racing cars, road bikes and dirt bikes during the same season. But when the death of her brother caused her to leave car racing, and the proposed changes to road bike racing made her question an ongoing career in that event, she started concentrating on dirt bike racing.
But a near fatal accident would nearly put an end to that.
“I was carrying a bike through New York in the back of an El Camino when an oncoming driver jumped a median and hit me head on. The bike came into the cab and shoved me into the steering wheel so hard it broke. I had a punctured lung, broken nose, broken occipital ridge, and a completely broken left wrist. When I was in the hospital, I found out I was also pregnant.”
Mary said the muscles she’d built up around her core from racing helped protect her unborn son. When he (Chris) was born he weighed over 10 pounds, and had a bump on his head that was later removed and legs that were off kilter. The doctor straightened them immediately and put casts on his legs to avoid any surgeries as Chris got older. Chris later went on to race, too.
By the time Mary was healed from her accident, Wes Cooley, Sr. invited her to try a new sport – motocross. Forty-five people showed up for that first event and Mary said she just fell in love with the sport. It would become the sport that would define her racing career.
While continuing to race motocross, she also became the first woman to finish in the Baja 1000, and in 1975 she became the first woman to race a motorcycle solo in the Baja 500 and finish.
Anyone who’s raced or even watched cars, trucks and bikes race in the Baja know how brutal that event can be on the vehicles and drivers. But Mary is fairly nonchalant about what it took for her to finish on both four wheels and two.
“At one point, I lost one of my shocks in that motorcycle race, and I fell off a couple of times. By the time I got to one of the checkpoints, I had two spokes left. I was so happy to finish.”
While Mary’s racing career continued to progress, her marriage to Don eventually would end in divorce. As a single parent, Mary found herself lacking the time or money to continue racing, so she hung up her leathers and left the dirt and rubber behind.
Mary became the western sales manager for Motorcyclist magazine, and when her son was old enough, she bought bikes for him and his friend so they could all go off-roading together. Then in 2000, she was invited to participate in a vintage race, and she responded with “Well, why not?”
For nearly a dozen more years she would continue to race until in 2012, when at the age of 76, she threw a leg over her 1974 Husqvarna 250 and ran the bike in the women’s class in a vintage AHRMA race. In that same event, she also raced in the over 70 class, which was all men. While that was her last race, she still continued to take that bike out on the trails.
In 2012, the International Motorcycling Federation (FIM) named Mary their Woman Legend. And it’s no wonder. Along with her firsts in the Baja 1000 and 500, she was the first woman in the United States to race in an FIM sanctioned motorcycle race, the first to road-race motorcycles, the first to race motocross, and the first to compete with Europeans in international motocross.
When most people would be content to claim just one of these, Mary can claim them all. They’re accomplishments that people outside of racing may not fully appreciate, but keep in mind, Mary was competing at a time when women were expected to stay at home. They certainly weren't expected to race cars or motorcycles.
But what’s not on the list, and more than likely contributed to Mary’s successful career, is her attitude. She harbors no ill will toward anyone. If she does, it’s not evident. Her energy and passion for life belie her years, and her willingness to try something new and do what she had to do at the time a need or opportunity presented itself are inspiring. While Mary may have had to learn those lessons at a very early age, she’s never forgotten them. And in an age where it’s too easy to complain about the smallest matter, neither should we.