O'Neil and the SMI Motivator, Oregon 1976
|Born||March 24, 1946|
Corpus Christi, Texas, U.S.
|Died||November 2, 2018 (aged 72)|
Eureka, South Dakota, U.S.
|Occupation||Stuntwoman, race car driver|
Kitty Linn O'Neil (March 24, 1946 – November 2, 2018) was an American stuntwoman and racer, known 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 still stands.
Kitty Linn O'Neil was born in Corpus Christi, Texas on March 24, 1946. 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 O'Neil's childhood. Her mother, Patsy Compton O'Neil, was native Cherokee. At five months of age, O'Neil contracted simultaneous childhood diseases,[nb 1] 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 herself 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. 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. After recovering from meningitis, she lost interest in diving, and turned to water skiing, scuba diving, skydiving and hang gliding, stating that diving "wasn't scary enough for me." In her late 20s, she underwent two treatments for cancer.
Racing and stunt career
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 Woman, Airport '77, The Blues Brothers, Smokey 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.
In filming for a 1979 episode of Wonder Woman, O'Neil was hired to perform a stunt of high difficulty for Jeannie Epper, Lynda 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).
Land speed record
In 1976 in southeastern Oregon's Alvord Desert, O'Neil set the land-speed record for female drivers. She piloted a $350,000 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).
Restrained by her contract, O'Neil struggled with sponsors at the time and never forgot how they treated her. 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. 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." However, 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.
Later years and death
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.
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.
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. She died on November 2, 2018 of pneumonia in Eureka, South Dakota at age 72.
In 2019 she received the Oscars in Memoriam award.
- Moore, Matthew S.; Panara, Robert F. (1998). Great deaf Americans (2. ed., 2. print. ed.). Rochester, N.Y.: Deaf Life Press. ISBN 0963401661.
- Ireland, Karin (1980). Kitty O'Neil, daredevil woman (Library ed.). New York, N.Y.: Harvey House. ISBN 0817800042.
- Libby, Bill; O'Neil, Kitty (1981). Kitty, a story of triumph in a soundless world (1st ed.). New York: Morrow. ISBN 0688003559.,
- The list of diseases varies according to the source, many mentioning measles and smallpox, others listing measles, mumps and chicken pox. In a 1979 interview with the Washington Post, O'Neil mentions measles and smallpox. Although not impossible, smallpox was a highly unlikely disease in 1940s Texas. The last endemic case of smallpox in the United States was in 1949 - in the Rio Grande valley of Texas. The 1977 People article mentions chicken pox, a much more likely childhood disease. Deafness is one possible outcome of both measles and mumps.
- News articles from the time reported that she was Hambleton's wife, which was not the case
- Cobb, Marnee (May 18, 1977). "The Day Kitty O'Neil Couldn't Break the Record". Lakeland Register.
- Hendrickson, Paul (May 5, 1979). "The Daredevil". Washington Post. Retrieved 6 November 2018.
- "Last U.S. Smallpox Outbreak Left Mental Scars on Witnesses". Los Angeles Times. Associated Press. September 26, 2001. Retrieved 6 November 2018.
- Jares, Sue Ellen (January 4, 1977). "The Renaissance Woman of Danger—That's Tiny Kitty O'Neil". People. Retrieved 6 November 2018.
- Smith, Harrison (November 4, 2018). "Kitty O'Neil, deaf daredevil who became 'world's fastest woman,' dies at 72". Washington Post. Retrieved 6 November 2018.
- Barnes, Mike (November 5, 2018). "Kitty O'Neil, Famed Hollywood Stuntwoman and Daredevil, Dies at 72". Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 6 November 2018.
- Sandomir, Richard (November 6, 2018). "Kitty O'Neil, Stuntwoman and Speed Racer, Is Dead at 72". New York Times. Retrieved 7 November 2018.
- "1976: Deaf stuntwoman Kitty O'Neil sets women's land-speed record". History. November 13, 2009. Retrieved 7 November 2018.
- "Fastest land speed record (female)". Guinness World Records. Retrieved 7 November 2018.
- Phinzey, Coles (January 17, 1977). "A Rocket Ride to Glory and Gloom". Sports Illustrated Vault. Retrieved 7 November 2018.
- Kitty O'Neil at Find a Grave
- Kitty O'Neil on IMDb
- Silent Victory: The Kitty O'Neil Story on IMDb
- Photo: Dressed as Wonder Woman, O'Neil leaping, February 12, 1979 - (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)