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EXCERPT: Mad for Speed: The Racing Life of Joan Newton Cuneo


A New York Evening World reporter interviewed her at her large Victorian home on a tree-lined Long Island street.  He spoke to her just hours after she had completed the tour, with cracked lips and sunburned, peeling nose.  However, she had taken time to bathe and change the dusty, travel-stained clothing for “an elaborate gown of white lace.”  According to the Evening World, Mrs. Cuneo complained that the Ranier now had a sprung frame, busted springs, leaky tires and a spliced front axle after its rough treatment during the tour, “but it never phased the engine.”  Commenting that the dust they drove through “could have made another Egyptian Plague … we had dust and little else for breakfast, dust for lunch and dust for dinner … and then it rained and there was mud, mud, mud, nothing but mud, all through the Allegheny mountains.  I counted 10,000 ‘thank-you ma’ams’ in one day on the road to Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania.  You can imagine the effect on our springs.”  When queried about the scenery, she replied that she had little time to look around.  She was forced to concentrate on the “long brown ribbon of road that stretched endlessly ahead and deal with the constant bumping of the car over the dips and water breakers.”  According to Joan Cuneo, “the men couldn’t stand it, and for miles they stood out on the running board,” while she drove doggedly ahead.”

Although she had commented earlier on the friendly reception she received from her fellow tourists, Mrs. Cuneo got some strange looks from the locals who lined the roads to watch the tourists drive by.  “All along the way the village people stared at me as if I had been a monster of some kind.  In one town a young man with his best girl on his arm came up to the car and gazed at me searchingly, ‘Say Bess, it is a woman all right,’ he remarked reassuringly.”

According to Mrs. Cuneo, their main trouble on the road had been tire failure, not surprising, considering the roughness of the roads.  “Our right rear wheel was smaller than standard size,” she commented, “and the tires we used kept slipping.  We lost a lot of time fixing them, and then there was that accident when we skidded into a fencepost.”

Andrew Cuneo, who was present at the interview, then suggested she tell the reporter how she had helped the village smithy fix the axle.  His wife laughed and said, “Good gracious, people will think I am a regular crank if you make me a female blacksmith, too….I love my home and my children but you may say I am speed mad too.”  (In 1907, the word “crank was commonly used to describe an annoyingly eccentric person or one who indulged in unusual activities with excessive enthusiasm.)

Finally, the reporter asked Joan Cuneo to explain why she found driving an automobile so compelling.  “What’s the fascination of a trip that you don’t see anything of?” he asked.  She replied, “That’s hard to answer.  I suppose it’s the sense of mastery of a powerful force.  The feeling that the great mass of energy carrying you along at express speed is obedient to the twist of your finger … sometimes.”

Excerpted from Mad for Speed: The Racing Life of Joan Newton Cuneo by Elsa A. Nystrom, Transportation Catalog p. 3. Click here to order the book and click here to view the transportation catalog. Through August 1, 2015, get 30% off your order of two or more transportation books. Use coupon code TRANSPORTATION on the McFarland website, or call toll-free 800-253-2187 (Mon-Fri 8:00 am to 4:30 pm Eastern Time) to order and ask your customer service representative for your discount.