Kitty O’Neil

Kitty O’Neil
Description: Kitty ONeil-SMI Motivator-1976.jpg O’Neil and the SMI Motivator, Oregon 1976
BornMarch 24, 1946 Corpus Christi, Texas, U.S.
DiedNovember 2, 2018 (aged 72) Eureka, South Dakota, U.S.
Occupation(s)Stuntwoman, race car driver

Kitty Linn O’Neil (March 24, 1946 – November 2, 2018) was an American stuntwoman and racer, given the title as “the fastest woman in the world”. An illness in early childhood left her deaf, and more illnesses in early adulthood cut short a career in diving. O’Neil’s career as a stuntwoman and race driver led to her depiction in a television movie and as an action figure. Her women’s absolute land speed record stood until 2019. “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 is the reason she did took up diving, with great success. Her coach Sammy Lee said she snapped up trophies “like hungry fish”.

Early life

Kitty Linn O’Neil was born in Corpus Christi, Texas on March 24, 1946.[2] John O’Neil, her father, was an officer in the United States Army Air Forces, who had been an oil wildcatter. He died in an airplane crash during Kitty’s childhood. Her mother, Patsy Compton O’Neil, was native Cherokee. At five months of age, O’Neil contracted simultaneous childhood diseases,[nb 1][5] losing her hearing. After her deafness became apparent at the age of two, her mother taught her lip-reading and speech, eventually becoming a speech therapist and co-founding a school for students with hearing impairment in Wichita Falls, Texas.

As a teenager, Kitty became a competitive 10-meter platform diver and 3-meter springboard diver, winning Amateur Athletic Union diving championships.[1] She trained beginning in 1962 with diving coach Sammy Lee. Before the trials for the 1964 Olympics, she broke her wrist and contracted spinal meningitis, threatening her ability to walk and ending her contention for a position on the Olympic diving team.[6][2] She competed in 100m backstroke and 100m freestyle swimming at the 1965 Summer Deaflympics.[7] After recovering from meningitis, she lost interest in diving, and turned to water skiingscuba divingskydiving and hang gliding, stating that diving “wasn’t scary enough for me”.[8] In her late 20s, she underwent two treatments for cancer.[9][8]

Racing and stunt career[edit]

By 1970, O’Neil had taken up racing on water and land, participating in the Baja 500 and Mint 400. She met stuntmen Hal Needham and Ron Hambleton while racing motorcycles, and lived with Hambleton,[nb 2] giving up racing for a time. In the mid-1970s, she entered stunt work, training with Needham, Hambleton and Dar Robinson. In 1976, she became the first woman to perform with Stunts Unlimited, the leading stunt agency. As a stuntwoman, she appeared in The Bionic WomanAirport ’77The Blues BrothersSmokey and the Bandit II and other television and movie productions. In 1978, her stunt career inspired a Kitty O’Neil action figure, made by Mattel.[8]

In filming for a 1979 episode of Wonder Woman, O’Neil was hired to perform a stunt of high difficulty for Jeannie EpperLynda Carter‘s usual stunt double. In the process, she set a women’s high-fall record of 127 feet (39 m) at the 12-story Valley Hilton in Sherman Oaks, California. She credited her small size, at 5’-2″ and 97 pounds (44 kg), for allowing her to withstand impact forces. She later broke her record with a 180-foot (55 m) fall from a helicopter. In 1977, O’Neil set a women’s record for speed on water of 275 miles per hour (443 km/h), and she held a 1970 women’s water skiing record of 104.85 miles per hour (168.74 km/h).[6][2][1]

Land speed record[edit]

On 6 December 1976, in southeastern Oregon‘s Alvord Desert, O’Neil set the land-speed record for female drivers. She piloted a $350,000 (equivalent to $1.7 million in 2021) hydrogen peroxide powered three-wheeled rocket car built by Bill Fredrick called the “SMI Motivator”. It reached an average speed of 512.710 mph (825.127 km/h), with a peak speed of 621 miles per hour (999 km/h).

O’Neil’s runs reportedly used 60% of the available thrust, and O’Neil estimated that she could have exceeded 700 miles per hour (1,100 km/h) with full power.[6][9][10][11]

Attempt prevented by sponsors[edit]

Restrained by her contract, O’Neil struggled with sponsors at the time. She was contracted to break only the women’s land speed record, and was obligated to allow Hal Needham to set the overall record. According to her contract, she was not supposed to exceed 400 miles per hour (640 km/h). Needham’s sponsor, toy company Marvin Glass and Associates, was preparing a Hal Needham action figure and obtained an injunction to stop further runs by O’Neil.[8] A spokesman was reported (incorrectly according to Sports Illustrated) to say it is “unbecoming and degrading for a woman to set a land speed record.” Needham did not set a record or even drive the car, and a legal effort by O’Neil and Hambleton to allow O’Neil another attempt failed. The sponsors received negative publicity for removing O’Neil from the car, and the Needham action figures were not marketed.[11]

Later years and death[edit]

In 1977 in the Mojave Desert, O’Neil piloted a hydrogen peroxide-powered rocket dragster built by Ky Michaelson with an average speed of 279.5 mph (449.8 km/h). Since the run was not repeated according to NHRA rules, it is not recognized as an official drag racing record.[9]

In 1979, O’Neil’s experiences served as the basis for a biographical movie Silent Victory: The Kitty O’Neil Story, starring Stockard Channing. O’Neil commented that about half of the movie was an accurate depiction.[6][8]

O’Neil stepped away from stunt and speed work in 1982 after stunt colleagues were killed while performing. She moved to Minneapolis with Michaelson, and eventually moved to Eureka, South Dakota, with Raymond Wald. When she retired, O’Neil had set 22 speed records on land and water.[9]

She died on November 2, 2018, of pneumonia in Eureka, South Dakota, at age 72.[6] In 2019, she received the Oscars in Memoriam award.[12]


On 24 March 2023, Google celebrated Kitty O’Neil’s 77th birthday with a doodle

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