42 years ago today, Kitty O’Neil proved to be one fast cat

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Kitty O'Neil Sports Illustrated

Kitty O’Neil never heard her fans’ applause. Perhaps she can now. O’Neil, a 5-foot-3, 98-pound thrill seeker who overcame deafness to work as a Hollywood stuntwoman, died of pneumonia on November 2. She was 72.

O’Neil etched her name in the record books 42 years ago today, December 6, 1976, when she shattered the land-speed record for a female driver—not long before she became a stunt double for Linda Carter in the Wonder Woman television series. Piloting a hydrogen peroxide-fueled, three-wheeled machine called the Motivator, O’Neil averaged 512.71 mph on a stretch of clay in Oregon’s Alvord Desert. The mark still stands.

In January 1977, Sports Illustrated writer Coles Phinizy described the nervous tension—and exhilaration—surrounding O’Neil’s record-setting run.  

“Stan Schwanz relayed the count to her by hand signals,” Phinizy wrote. “When Schwanz signaled ‘zero,’ Kitty said a short prayer, depressed the throttle and kept it down. During a sliver of a second, the howling machine stood motionless, as if stuck in time. In the next instant it was gone, a shrinking blur lost in its own trailing noise.”

According to Phinizy, within five seconds O’Neil was traveling 180 mph. Ten seconds later she hit 500 mph and had already covered a mile. O’Neil eventually reached a speed of about 600 mph—200 mph faster than any woman had traveled on land—and was clocked at 514.120 through a one-kilometer speed trap. She had a slightly slower return run, accounting for her two-run average of 512.71 mph.

O’Neil’s reward? Fame alone. Of course, Phinizy correctly predicted it would ultimately result in at least a modest payout. “As a result of her record-breaking run, she will reap… a modest bundle from various endorsements and promotions—probably enough to keep her laughing halfway to the bank,” he wrote.

No holding back

O’Neil was born on March 24, 1946, in Corpus Christi, Texas, to an Irish father (John) and Cherokee mother (Patsy). She contracted measles and smallpox at the age of 5 months, and a high fever claimed her hearing.

O’Neil’s mother refused to coddle her daughter and was determined to make her life as normal as possible. That meant learning how to read lips, not learning sign language. Kitty did the rest.

“My mother pushed me to read lips, but she didn’t push me in sports—I did that myself,” O’Neil told People magazine in 1977. “Because I was deaf, I had a very positive mental attitude. You have to show people you can do anything.”

O’Neil excelled as a swimmer and diver, and she even trained with noted coach Sammy Lee in preparation for a spot on the 1964 U.S. Olympic Team. A broken wrist ended that quest before a bout with spinal meningitis ended O’Neil’s competitive diving career altogether. She filled her time with plenty of other activities, however: hang gliding, water skiing, scuba diving, skydiving, and racing of all kinds—cars, boats, dune buggies, and motorcycles.

Fearless thrill seeker

Stockard Channing and Kitty O'Neil in Silent Victory: The Kitty O'Neil Story
Stockard Channing and Kitty O'Neil in Silent Victory: The Kitty O'Neil Story CBS

After meeting stuntman Ronald “Duffy” Hambleton in the 1970s, and eventually moving in with him, O’Neil also began performing stunts in movies and on television. One of her most famous stunts was a 127-foot jump from a hotel balcony for Wonder Woman. She also flipped a dune buggy as Lindsay Wagner’s double on The Bionic Woman.

“She seemed never to have fear,” friend Ky Michaelson told The New York Times. “I’d never say to her, ‘Kitty, are you scared?’ Not Kitty. But I’ve been in a car with her many times, and she scared the heck out of me.”

O’Neil also worked on a number of movies, including Airport 1975 (1974), Two-Minute Warning (1976), Airport ’77, Damien: Omen II (1978), Foul Play (1978), The Blues Brothers (1980), and Smokey and the Bandit II (1980). She became so famous, in fact, that she had her own action figure.

CBS turned O’Neil’s life story into a TV movie with 1979’s Silent Victory: The Kitty O’Neil Story. Stockard Channing portrayed O’Neil.

O’Neil said on numerous occasions that she regretted not getting the opportunity to break the male-driver record of 630.388 mph, set by Gary Gabelich at Bonneville Salt Flats in 1970. She not only knew it was within her reach, but she even thought she could break the sound barrier (767 mph). Speculation was that sexism came into play.

In 1993, O’Neil relocated to Eureka, South Dakota, to escape the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. Memorabilia from her career as a racer and stuntwoman is in the Eureka Pioneer Museum.

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