Mary McGee arrived on the Monterey Peninsula in 1962 ready to compete at Laguna Seca Raceway. With five friends, including another rider, the group was also abruptly asked to leave a restaurant because they were “motorcycle people.”
McGee, now 82, and her dining companions complied and they ate elsewhere without issue. The Hall of Fame rider also competed and she continued to do for many decades around the country and in several disciplines — as a pioneering woman motorsports athlete.
McGee, who lives in Gardnerville, Nev., was a guest in July at the World Superbike Championships at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
With her career of memories, she also carried two copies of black-and-white images of her race 57 years ago. It shows her negotiating the famous Corkscrew on Turn 8 with two other riders, both men, in the distance. It was the first motorcycle race held on the racetrack.
(McGee will be a guest of The Sacramento Mile, scheduled Aug. 10 at Cal Expo in Sacramento.)
“I miss riding, but I miss the dirt bikes because it was what I liked best,” McGee said during an interview at the racetrack. “I was into my vintage motocross, but I stopped in 2013. I was 77.”
Severe arthritis is both hands ended her career, but McGee still appears fit. She said she’s shrunk some, but competed at 6-foot-1 and 137 pounds, proportions she’s close to now. She walks with a purpose and often grins and laughs. She dons a healthy supply of curly white hair.
McGee was born in Juneau, Alaska, in 1936. Her family settled in Phoenix, Ariz., in 1944 where she met Don McGee, her former husband. He was a mechanic who introduced his new bride to car racing.
McGee bought her first motorcycle in 1957 and began competing in 1960, several years after she first competed in automobiles. When she transitioned into motorcycles, the Hollister riot of 1947 was still vivid in the public consciousness.
The infamous event occurred at the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) sanctioned Gypsy Tour motorcycle rally and the legend of the event was the loosely the impetus for the 1953 movie The Wild One starring Marlin Brando.
McGee vividly recalls in the Monterey restaurant incident in Papa John’s Pancake House because the server looked frightened. As he told the McGee and her companions to leave, he was backing up and approaching a telephone. He said he was going to calling the police.
“The rumors were probably worse than what happened,” said McGee. “The movie was not that bad. The reports of what actually happened in Hollister, filtered down and exponentially got worse and worse.”
When the debut motorcycle event at Laguna Seca was scheduled, some city officials took exception. McGee detailed a letter to the editor in the local newspaper that read in part: “Businessmen, get your women and children out of town, the motorcyclists are coming.”
McGee’s return to Laguna Seca was precipitated by her nephew, a motorcycling fan who has attended Laguna Seca event for many years. With McGee and several other friends, the group drove eight hours in a motorhome to Laguna Seca.
McGee’s nephew contacted track officials, explained his aunt’s legacy and McGee’s invitation followed. As she’s done many times in speaking engagements, McGee enthusiastically recalled her career and her life in motorsports. She’s been a guest commentator at Laguna Seca several times this week. McGee was also escorted to the corkscrew turn by track officials where she commented “all the trees were gone.”
McGee explained competition today is drastically different from nearly 60 years ago. Then, there was one race, comprised of all divisions. The Laguna Seca track was superior for its time but unfit by current standards. McGee preferred the dirt.
“I fell off a lot,” she said. “When I left road racing, I went to the desert. I have to tell you, racing in the Mohave as beautiful as it is, it was really tough. I wasn’t the strongest. I was tall, but I was this skinny person.”
McGee, inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2018, rode a Honda 250, a bike in its infancy and a heavyweight for its time. In 1975, she became the first woman to ride the Baja 500 solo.
“It was a good-looking bike; it was slick and beautiful and I fell off a lot in the desert,” she said. I had no muscles. Things fell off (the bike), levers and foot pegs and I can’t tell you how difficult it is to have your foot on the engine casing when you don’t have a left foot peg and still have 15 miles to get in. But it was great. Desert riding is like ‘I am strong.’ ”
While no longer competing, McGee watches motorsports often. She isn’t fond of Formula 1 because “it looks like they’re on rails.” She’s never met any of the current Superbike competitors but appreciates their skills.
McGee also still drives aToyota Tundra she purchased new 17 1/2 years ago.
“I drive it everyday,” she said. “How else to you get get around if you drive, for Pete’s sake? But what I do notice about other drivers is that a lot them don’t pay attention. It’s not that all of them are on their phones. It’s just that all of them are not visually active. You have to take it all in.”
(Originally published in The Monterey Herald, July 13, 2019.)
Article Last Updated: July 28, 2023.
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A sports, travel and business journalist for more than 45 years, James has written the new car review column The Weekly Driver since 2004.
In addition to this site, James writes a Sunday automotive column for The San Jose Mercury and East Bay Times in Walnut Creek, Calif., and a monthly auto review column for Gulfshore Business, a magazine in Southwest Florida.
An author and contributor to many newspapers, magazines and online publications, James has co-hosted The Weekly Driver Podcast since 2017.