Ana Delfosse, the Argentine woman who broke speed records and social barriers, was memorialized in her adopted hometown of Ashland, Oregon on June 4 after dying of debilitating lung disease at age 85.
She was a famous racecar driver in Argentina after WWII and the South American country’s first woman Formula One mechanic.
Delfosse was so respected in a male-dominated industry that five-time Formula One world champion Juan “The Maestro” Fangio hired her for his pit crew.
She was also the first woman to win a pure speed race in Argentina, driving the “Kacecuatro,” a Grand Prix Simca-Gordini T15 modified by her husband Curt Delfosse and fitted with a Porsche 550 RS 4-cam competition engine.
During decades of driving fast and smart, Delfosse pushed through physical and mental exhaustion while maneuvering souped-up racecars, sometimes caked with mud and with broken windshields. She survived a crash in a Fiat Abarth during a long-distance race in the Andes.
After she retired to Oregon, she took long hikes along the Pacific Crest Trail carrying a 60-pound backpack and operated a gas station in Ashland.
“I love fast cars and nature, both sides of life,” Delfosse said in May 2015 after she was diagnosed with scleroderma, which doctors at Oregon Health and Science University explained came from her exposure to leaded fuel and other chemicals.
Ana Delfosse died in her sleep on April 23, while visiting her sister, Hella Czernea, in San Diego County, California.
Keith Martin, publisher of Sports Car Market Magazine, a widely circulated publication based in Portland, said in the early years of racing, manufacturers knew how to make cars go fast before they learned how to make them handle or stop. The death rate of drivers was high.
“Brave men and women were needed to pilot the thundering Maseratis, Ferraris and Mercedes-Benz in races that were long and dangerous,” he said. “But the exploits of the cars and drivers of that time are the things that legends were made of. Ana was right there, and watched it all unfold in front of her.”
He said Ana Delfosse represents a world of competitive, dangerous motor sports “that we will never see again.”
Ana Delfosse was born Anne Hartenau near Punta Arenas, Chile in 1931. Her parents were of German descent who had moved to South America before WWI. Her mother had broken barriers herself by working in a bank to earn money to study classical piano in Switzerland.
Starting as a teenager, she defied social conventions—and briefly, her dad’s wishes—to become Argentina’s first female racing auto mechanic and driver.
At 16, she was part of the pit crew for legendary Formula One winner Juan Fangio.
“El Maestro’s” fabled red racing coupe flying past her family’s sheep ranch first lured her to the sport. Eventually, she traded her mechanic’s coveralls for a racing helmet.
Over her successful career, Delfosse piloted cars given to her by sponsors wanting to ride along with her climbing celebrity status.
Still, she faced prejudice. After winning the pure speed race in the Kacecuatro, she was never presented with a trophy, which was traditional among the men.
A half century later, a man in Belgium found her trophy while restoring her husband’s racecar. The man reached Ana in Ashland to see if she wanted the trophy, but she said it was enough to know her trophy existed and she wanted it to remain with the car, her sister said.
Ana Delfosse witnessed other drivers’ fiery crashes and survived a disastrous wreck when her Fiat Abarth lost a back wheel on a winding road 12,000 feet high in the Andes. Each time the car rolled, she scrunched further down into her seat to avoid the caving roof from smashing her head.
When she pulled herself out, bruised but “not hurt,” she noticed the steering wheel was twisted into a figure eight and the car body was beaten and bent, but not irreparable. She nursed the car to the finish line.
“I was lucky,” she said in the living room of her Ashland home in May 2015. “Many times.”