The Power of Pink

Racers have a way of turning everyday fashion elements into pop culture icons. Steve McQueen cruised the pits at Le Mans in a white racer jacket, and it survives as a symbol of cool at the track. Jackie Stewart made tartan a valid choice for helmet decoration. And just try to imagine Richard Petty without his trademark cowboy hat.
Although Donna Mae Mims is not as widely known as these international motorsports heroes, in the world of American club racing she’s synonymous with the color pink. The Pink Lady put the motorsports scene on notice in 1963 by becoming the first female SCCA national champion.
She raced Austin-Healeys, MGs, Sunbeams and more, and she was an avid Chevy Corvette fanatic. She even ran at the 24 Hours of Daytona. Sports cars were more than a hobby for Donna Mae, who spent her days as the high performance manager at Yenko Sportscars.
The vivacious Donna Mae was an inspiration to Hollywood, too. Her real-life stint with two fellow female drivers in the 1972 Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash was the template for the all-female Lamborghini team in the film “Cannonball Run.” It’s no coincidence that Adrienne Barbeau’s character in the movie wore a hot-pink jumpsuit.
At the age of 82, after a lifetime of adventures in the world of sports cars, Donna Mae died of complications from a stroke on October 6, 2009. One year before her passing, however, she had a chance to relive her SCCA championship memories when Jeff Moore reunited her with the H Production 1959 Austin-Healey Sprite that carried her to the championship. The car was fully restored, complete with a fresh coat of signature Camellia Pink paint.

History in a Hurry

Donna Mae’s winning Sprite had a knack for accumulating historical significance. Its initial owner was Dr. Jonas Salk, the man who discovered the first polio vaccine.
Jonas cruised the University of Pittsburgh campus in the little British roadster for a time before selling it to Bill Wissel, who transformed the car into an SCCA club racer. Donna Mae bought the car in ready-to-race form in 1962, then added her signature pink paint and a “Think Pink” decal to the back before hitting the track. In 1963, she accumulated enough points in the car to become the first woman to win an SCCA class championship—the current Runoffs format didn’t debut until 1964.
After winning her championship, Donna Mae moved on to racing an MGB and sold the Sprite to a fellow driver, Ross Harris. Ross, in turn, sold it to John Francis. John took the car from the Pittsburgh area out to Denver, where he campaigned it until 1987. The Sprite sat dormant until 2004, when John decided to sell the car on eBay. That’s when it appeared on Jeff Moore’s radar.
“A friend of mine, Curtis Wood, noticed it on eBay and pointed it out to me,” explains Jeff, proprietor of The Automotive Archeologists, Ltd., restoration shop in Missouri. “We discussed it, and he was thinking about buying it.”
Jeff considered making the purchase himself, but decided that he didn’t really need the car in his life: “It was a tatty old SCCA car.” The eBay listing did describe the Donna Mae Mims history, but Jeff found out that Donna Mae herself wasn’t convinced that the car was hers. The car in the listing was painted white.
Curtis ended up buying the Sprite, though he had no immediate plans to do anything with it. He told Jeff that if he ever wanted the car, it would be waiting.
Before too long, Curtis approached Jeff about restoring a 1964 Jaguar XKE, and the Sprite became part of the payment for that restoration. With the Sprite firmly in his possession, Jeff’s enthusiasm for the project grew rapidly, and he started researching its authenticity by trading letters with Donna Mae.
“It was her understanding that the car was totaled when it rolled one and a half times,” says Jeff. He went to visit Donna in 2006 to learn more about the Sprite. “When I got back home from meeting with her, I started investigating and taking pieces off. Lo and behold, I found pink paint. The Corvette mirrors and other little things matched up. At that point she was on board; she was excited we’d found the car.”
It turns out the legend of the roll was accurate, but Donna Mae didn’t have the whole story. Jeff got in touch with Bonnie Harris Hiltner, daughter of previous owner Ross Harris. Bonnie remembered that the car had rolled, but her father had made the necessary repairs and continued racing the little Austin-Healey.

The Past Reborn

Inspired by his discovery that the Sprite was, in fact, Donna Mae’s championship car, Jeff set a short deadline for the restoration. “With a lot of letter writing back and forth with Donna Mae, I started in December of 2007 trying to get the car ready for the 50th anniversary of the Sprite,” explains Jeff. His goal was the SVRA Vintage Grand Prix event at Mid-Ohio in June 2008, and he promised Donna Mae that she’d be reunited with her car at the event.
Jeff has plenty of experience restoring Austin-Healey Sprites, so the Donna Mae car wasn’t particularly challenging. Jeff’s friends thought he was a bit crazy trying to thrash out a full restoration in such a short period of time, but Donna Mae’s enthusiasm was infectious. He stripped away the old layers of paint and was pleased to find reasonably solid metal underneath.
Considering the tight deadline, Jeff was fortunate that the car had survived its dormant years with few negative effects. “The 50-weight Kendall racing oil was a little gooey,” he admits.
The engine, which was a bit frozen when Jeff picked up the car, decided to cooperate with some negotiation. “On the tow back from Denver with the car in gear, it broke itself loose. I pulled the pan and inspected the bearings—they looked beautiful. I buttoned it up, detailed it, and it ran well.” Jeff plans to freshen the engine eventually, but the car was a runner, so that was one less problem to deal with.
Jeff recreated the 1963-era roll hoop and replaced any rusty body panels with fresh metal. The floor pans were still solid, another big timesaver. After sandblasting away several layers of paint, Jeff primed the tub and applied a fresh coat of pink to the Sprite. Then, with help from Donna Mae’s letters and old photos of the car, Jeff returned it to its 1963 livery. “I got the car done just in the nick of time.”

Back in Pink

The SVRA extended a hero’s welcome to both Donna Mae and her freshly restored car for their Sprite Speed 50 celebration at the Vintage Grand Prix. “When we got to the track and I pulled up in the Sprite, she walked around and said, ‘I can’t believe it, I just can’t believe it. It’s perfect,’” Jeff remembers. “Then she whispered, ‘But it’s a lot nicer!’”
Jeff immediately knew that his thrash to get the car done was worth every ounce of effort. “She had such a great weekend,” he recalls. “She got recognition for her accomplishment, being the first female national champion. All kinds of people came by to take pictures.”
Before the feature Sprite race, Jeff and Donna Mae took a lap around the Mid-Ohio circuit in the snarling pink sports car, with fans cheering at every corner. “She was wonderful,” says Jeff, “she was just a wonderful person. She was a real firecracker, always full of energy, always having fun. She’d just bring a smile to your face. At the end of the weekend, she gave me a big hug and said it was the most fun weekend she’d ever had in her life.”
Today, the “Think Pink” Sprite is licensed and insured, complete with Missouri historic plates. Jeff takes it on spirited drives through the country from time to time, and he thinks he may get it out to Hallett Motor Racing Circuit in Oklahoma someday to give it a more thorough workout.
“I plan to hang on to it. It’s just a little piece of Donna Mae,” Jeff says. “She was such a special person. It’s my way of staying close to her.”

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SHANE
SHANE New Reader
8/1/12 10:15 a.m.

THIS IS STILL A WONDERFUL STORY, ABOUT A WONDERFUL WOMAN..TWO CLASSIC DONNA MAE & HER PINK BUGEYED SPRITE.......SHE SURE HAD A GOOD LIFE....SHANE

SHANE
SHANE New Reader
10/1/13 4:02 p.m.

I don't understand why more classic PEOPLE don't reply to a great story like this one........SHANE

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