Kitty O’Neil: the incredible story of the fastest woman in the world

Last Update: November 8, 2018 at 1:16 pm

Kitty O’Neil: the incredible story of the fastest woman in the world


SOURCE:  The Guardian
DATE:  Nov 8, 2018

Everything incredible that Wonder Woman did on screen, Kitty O’Neil did for real.

The legendary stuntwoman, who died last week aged 72, doubled for Lynda Carter in the 1970s TV show, while away from the set she also established new world records on land, water and in the air. “The speed gives me goose bumps,” she once said. “I love it.” Withstanding fires, falls, crashes and explosions, she did stunt work on TV, and in films including Smokey and the Bandit II, Airport ’77 and the Blues Brothers, and she was the first woman admitted into the Hollywood daredevil team Stunts Unlimited. In many ways, her life was far more extraordinary than the stories of the stars she doubled for.


On 6 December 1976 O’Neil became the fastest woman in the world. She set a land-speed record in a 48,000-horsepower hydrogen peroxide-powered three-wheeled rocket car called the Motivator. She burned through the Alvord Desert in Oregon at an average of 512.710mph – and that record still stands. On water, she set world records for speed in a jet-powered boat called Captain Crazy at 275mph and on water-skis at 105mph. O’Neil set a high-fall record of 127ft dressed as Wonder Woman when she jumped off the top of the Valley Hilton hotel on to an airbag on the terrace below (“If I hadn’t hit the center of the bag, I probably would have been killed,” she told the Washington Post) and then broke that record when she plunged out of a helicopter at 180ft. At that height, she said, the airbag looked like a postage stamp.


In 1978, driving a rocket-powered car in a segment for a show called Super Stunt, O’Neil suffered a nasty crash – probably the closest call of her career – but lived to race another day. In fact it was illness, not injury, that posed the biggest threat to her progress, but O’Neil had a way of withstanding any kind of knock, and turning it to her advantage. O’Neil was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1946. Her father died in a plane crash when she was a child, and O’Neil was raised by her Cherokee mother. She lost her hearing as a baby after high fever following measles and mumps, but being deaf gave her a spur to achieve more, not less – pursuing sport and learning piano and cello.


“My mother pushed me to read lips,” she told People magazine in 1977, “but she didn’t push me in sports – I did that myself. Because I was deaf, I had a very positive mental attitude. You have to show people you can do anything.” That’s why she took up diving, with great success: her coach Sammy Lee said she snapped up trophies “like hungry fish”. In 1964, however, when she was training for the Olympics, she contracted spinal meningitis after breaking her wrist.


At one point it looked like she would never walk again, but she recovered, only to face cancer twice in her 20s. After being told she was too weak for a career in athletics, O’Neil decided to get her thrills out of speed instead, racing motorbikes and cars in events including the cult off-road race the Mint 400. After one smash in a motorbike race, she peeled off her gloves to find two severed fingers left inside. So the story goes, a fellow racer, Duffy Hambleton, came to her aid and insisted on taking her to hospital to have them reattached, rather than letting her continue the race. According to some reports, she later married Hambleton and took a break from racing, but the marriage, if it happened, was probably short. In 1988 she showed a reporter her scrapbooks and in one picture of her “husband” his face was scratched out, while she had written “not true” next to a clipping about how he influenced her work. It may well have been through Hambleton that she met Hal Needham, an established stuntman whom she always credited with training her up in the field.


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