Photo: Raoul Fornezza (AP)
Ana Delfosse’s rebellious spirit was visible from the time she was a child. With a father who was always joking about how men can do anything, young Ana would reply that she was “going to show that a woman can do it, too”.
Growing up on a sheep farm in Argentina, Delfosse was no stranger to getting her hands dirty. She was out there with her sister each day, putting in long hours taking care of animals. Her spare time was punctuated with riding her black horse, Blitz, around the large farm as fast as she could and ogling the even faster cars that would speed down the road.
See, her family lived in Balcarce—the town where Fangio was born. It was on the quiet highways through the farmland that Fangio would test his race cars. It just so happened that that highway bordered Delfosse’s family farm.
Intrigued, Ana made her way into town to check out Fangio’s General Motors dealership. She’d peek through doors and windows (it was improper for a woman to be in the garage), but in 1947, her presence no longer went ignored. Even while being tucked away in the midst of a large crowd of onlookers, Ana was called over—one of the mechanics needed a hand.
Whatever that small repair was, it’s been lost in the annals of history. But the crew was so impressed with her performance that they asked her that night to join the team. They’d outfit her and train her, and she’d be off jetsetting with the rest of them.
Delfosse’s father was reportedly not pleased, but Ana loved working in the paddock so much that she stayed there for eight years, doubling both as a mechanic and as Fangio’s public relations manager. Being a woman in a sport that was, at the time, inhospitable to their working in the scrum, Delfosse gained some fame for the simple fact that there was no other woman out there doing what she was doing.
It’s difficult to know if Delfosse was truly the first woman to ever work on a pit crew—but, given her start date in the late 1940s and the awe that surrounded her at the time, it is incredibly likely that she was. And it’s even more likely that she’ll be the only sixteen-year-old to be getting her hands dirty in the garage of Grand Prix racing.
An amusing anecdote is her first meeting with her husband. According to Delfosse, her future husband Curt had just joined the team and was having a problem with the car he was working on. Fangio referred Curt to his mechanic: Ana. The two married in 1955, retiring from the pitlane and opening a garage in Buenos Aires that specialized in custom-built racing Porsches.
That, coupled with the fact that her name was well-known in South America as a source of national pride for Argentina’s women, meant that Ana was able to start racing. She and her husband teamed up to compete in 3000-mile road races over the Andes, where she once admitted to crashing her car and had to rely on the native folks to help her put it back together.
She found it very difficult to gain traction in the racing world, though. She was the first ever woman to win the pure speed race in the Kacecuatro—but the race officials refused to give her a trophy during the official ceremony. They must have quietly tucked it away in her husband’s car instead, because it was during a restoration of that vehicle that the trophy was discovered nearly fifty years later.
In ‘61, Ana and Curt moved to San Diego to open Delfosse Racing, one of the first automotive shops in the US that would import German-made Bilstein car shocks. Ana dabbled behind the wheel for a short while longer, but she officially retired in 1963 after testing a Formula Four car that her husband had designed.
The couple retired in 1977, but were forced to sell their home and open a gas station in Ashland. After that, they lived a relatively quiet existence, but it was said that friends could always count on them to extend credit if they couldn’t pay for gas or repairs.
Both Ana and Curt were diagnosed with scleroderma and a whole host of lung problems. Back in the old days of racing, when the chemicals involved were even more dangerous than contemporary ones, mechanics didn’t take the precautions we see in the garage today. Delfosse admitted to having her hands slick with leaded gasoline all hours of the day, having foregone gloves. The two were prone to breathing in asbestos from brake dust and all kinds of other toxic fumes.
We remember the retro eras of racing as dangerous ones, but we often don’t realize that that extends to the folks in the garage as well as the racers on track. Many drivers died doing what they loved—but even more mechanics lost their lives due to the chemically toxic environment.
Curt died of scleroderma in 1998, with Ana holding out until 2017. Despite being revived multiple times, she eventually passed away in a San Diego hospital while visiting her sister.
Despite her inability to really make it behind the wheel, Ana Delfosse was part of the team that brought home all five of Fangio’s World Drivers’ Championships. It was rare for a woman to be on a race team, let alone a mere teenager, but Delfosse was a quick learner who was able to prove she was as capable of doing anything a man could do, just like she had promised she’d do as a child.
While it’s important to remember female drivers, it’s just as important to recognize the women who kicked ass behind the scenes back in the day. It was almost more inhospitable to change tires than it was to race a car, and yet there were women out there like Ana Delfosse, paving the way for themselves and for other women to follow their footsteps.