BettySLg.jpg (23777 bytes)
Photo courtesy of National Corvette Museum

Betty Skelton, race car driver, at Daytona Beach in 1957.

'First lady of firsts' had drive to achieve

By Lindsey Kingston staff writer
March 19, 2003

Betty Frankman is a woman who likes to meet her challenges head-on.

If sheís breaking a speed record while she does it, donít be surprised.

The Vero Beach resident has often been referred to as the "first lady of firsts" by speed enthusiasts. Known in racing circles by her maiden name, Skelton, she broke into the almost all-male aviation and auto industries to establish a highly-respected reputation.

Frankman, 76, was a well-known pilot and a race car driver in the 1940s and í50s. The first and only woman in the National Corvette Museumís Hall of Fame, she was also the official spokeswoman for Chevrolet and the first auto test driver in the industry. In 1959, she became the first woman to undergo astronaut testing by NASA. "Throughout my life, Iíve been involved with things that were basically all-male fields," Frankman said. "It was an interesting experience, realizing that. But, once you get into a field with cars or planes or whatever, if you can show you can handle what youíre attempting to do, youíre accepted pretty quickly."

Frankman got her first taste of real speed as a pilot. She took her first official solo flight on her 16th birthday, which was the minimum legal age. She became a flight instructor and aerobatics pilot when she was 18. Born and raised in Pensacola, she did much of her flying in Tampa.

"I backed into it," said Frankman about her flying days. "My parents took up flying when I did; I was an only child."
Frankman won the national aerobatics title for women for three years in a row, 1948-50. She also attempted to break the worldís speed record.

By her late 20s, however, Frankmanís interests began turning from airplanes to cars.

A new kind of speed

Frankman was hired to fly three race-car drivers on a one-way trip from North Carolina to Pennsylvania for a race. Another plane, flown by Bill France, carried three more drivers. On the way back, with both planes empty, the two pilots began chatting over the radio.

France was not just a pilot, however. He was the founder of the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR. He asked Frankman to drive a car and then convinced the Dodge division of Chrysler to sponsor her. By the mid-1950s, Frankman was racing cars on Daytona Beach, where "Speed Week" was just becoming a popular racing event.

Drivers used a measured mile along the beach, and Frankmanís car of choice was the Corvette.

"The beach, in those days, was pretty interesting to drive on," said Frankman. "Youíd have the tide come in and develop tide pools youíd have to drive through. Theyíd slow you down.

"What youíd do is youíd make two runs, one in each direction," she continued. "The differences in your speeds were relative to the wind. It was all averaged out."

With a laugh, "Oh, the sand flies."

Frankmanís experiences at Daytona Beach helped make a name for her in the auto industry.

"I hadnít been involved with cars before that," she said. "For a year and a half after that, I set a record on the beach. Then the Dodge division asked me to join them full-time as the first woman test driver in the auto industry."

The press began to take notice as her career continued. Advertising executives paid attention, too, and Frankman joined the advertising agency Campbell Ewald in 1956, at their Detroit office, to work on the Chevrolet campaign. She was with the ad company for more than 15 years, acting as Chevyís spokeswoman.

"I became fairly well-known in the auto industry at that time," admitted Frankman. "At that point, I had driven faster than any other woman in the world. (Chevrolet) gave me a lot of press."

Frankman worked as the first woman technical narrator for General Motors at major shows and also appeared in television commercials with celebrities such as Dinah Shore and Pat Boone. In 1965, she married Donald Frankman, who directed, wrote and produced auto commercials.

In that same year, she broke the world land speed record for women at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, where she was clocked at going 315.6 mph on the famous speed strip. By that time, she was almost 40 years old and still on top of her game in the racing world.

NASAíS INVITATION

With all of the publicity she was receiving, she caught the attention of executives at LOOK magazine. Editors there had made an arrangement with NASA to test a woman for space travel, after LIFE was contracted to cover the training of the first seven male astronauts.

"NASA had just selected the first seven astronauts," said Frankman. "All over the country, there was the question of why they hadnít selected a woman."

At that time, NASAís tests for potential astronauts were conducted all over the country, including at the worldís largest centrifuge in Pennsylvania. The tests took about five months, all before Alan Shepardís first space flight in 1961.

"It was incredible because all of this was before anybody had put anyone in space," said Frankman. "I didnít mind the tests at all. The centrifuge ride was quite exciting. The only thing I didnít really care for were swimming pool tests under water, because I donít swim."

Since astronauts were expected to adapt to physical pressures and weightless environments, NASA used centrifuge and under water tests to check each personís capabilities.

COMING OUT OF THE COLD

After the excitement of the NASA testing, Frankman went back to work at Campbell Ewald. She worked there and lived in Detroit until a 1970 snowstorm convinced her and her husband that it was time to move to Florida. Frankman retired and they moved to Winter Haven in 1971, where they opened a real estate office. After Mr. Frankman died in early 2001, Frankman decided to move to Vero Beach.

One of the first things Frankman did in Vero Beach was join the Indian River Corvette Club, a group composed of Corvette enthusiasts.

"I knew there would be one here," said Frankman, who helped start similar clubs in the 1950s to promote the Corvette. "Thereís almost one in every city of any size in the United States."

Frankman was inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame, located in Bowling Green, Ky., during Labor Day weekend in 2001. Other members include race car driver Zora Arkus-Duntov and Corvette designer Harley Earl.

"It was such a special event for me," said Frankman, who was personal friends with many of the other Hall of Fame members.

Her souvenir of the trip: A 2002 Corvette convertible. Frankman took delivery of the car on the museum floor the same day she was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

"Itís red, naturally," she said with a laugh.

Frankman said sheís a loyal Corvette fans, even though her racing days are over.

"I love the car, but primarily I love it because I was involved with the evolution of it through the years," she said. "Itís one-of-a-kind. Itís been a long time coming to where it is today and itís really Americaís foremost sports car. Itís part of the family."

  lindsey.kingston@scripps.com