IRL: Woman flyer gets two-seater ride at IMS

Female flight pioneer adds Speedway lap to a life of speed INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, April 21, 2004 -- Margaret Ringenberg was born in 1921, the same year Amelia Earhart took her first flying lessons. Margaret took her first airplane ride at...

Female flight pioneer adds Speedway lap to a life of speed

INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, April 21, 2004 -- Margaret Ringenberg was born in 1921, the same year Amelia Earhart took her first flying lessons.

Margaret took her first airplane ride at age 7 in 1928, the same year Earhart became the first woman to fly over the Atlantic.

It seemed almost ordained that Margaret Ringenberg of Fort Wayne, Ind., would become a famous woman flyer.

She did. She still is.

But Ringenberg, now 82, did something April 10 that topped even the exploits of the legendary Earhart. In a vehicle with its wings inverted to keep it glued to the surface, she became oldest woman ever to ride around the storied 2.5-mile oval at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at high speed.

She sat in the rear seat of a two-seat Indy-style car as Sarah Fisher took her for two circuits of the famed oval, reaching 180 mph on the long straightaways.

Soon Ringenberg's ride will be immortalized on billboards around the city of Indianapolis. She will be publicizing the Never Too Late, Inc. organization that puts elderly people in position to fulfill a lifetime dream.

Ringenberg has ferried airplanes for the Air Force in World War II, raced many times in the Powder Puff Derby and other airplane races and flown around the world. But she always dreamed of riding around the Speedway since she attended her first race in the late 1950s.

"Once it got in my blood, the roar of the engines, wow!" she said about the Indianapolis 500.

A.J. Foyt was her first favorite driver. In 1966, Foyt was getting a new plane, and she was going to fly it in the Powder Puff Derby. That was the year of the multi-car crash at the start of the Indianapolis 500 that brought out a red flag. Ringenberg got into Foyt's garage later, but he told her the plan to fly his plane had to be scrapped. The opportunity never came around again.

"I was so disappointed," she said. "He went into jets. He went big time.

Foyt isn't her only favorite.

"I liked the Unsers," she said. "When the gals started, I put them on my list. Now that I've ridden with Sarah, I would like to see her win. Wouldn't that be wonderful?"

Earhart, who was a member of the Purdue faculty in the mid-1930s before she disappeared on her around-the-world flight attempt in 1937, attended the Indianapolis 500 but never got the chance to ride around the track at high speed. Ringenberg's chance came from an unexpected phone call in early April.

Bob Haverstick, who handles publicity for Never Too Late, Inc., arranged for Eloise Overdorf, 79, to ride in a dragster and had planned to get her an Indy-style ride at the Speedway. Then Overdorf had to back out because of family obligations, and Ringenberg was suggested as a replacement.

"I thought it sounded like fun, but I thought it was a joke call," Ringenberg said about receiving the invitation. "It was fantastic. What an opportunity I had."

Ringenberg's ride attracted a small crowd, including Speedway President and CEO Tony George and Fisher's parents, Dave and Reba Fisher, watching.

"I'm the oldest (woman) to be on the track, and she was the youngest," Ringenberg said of Fisher.

"I heard others talk about the G-forces through the curves, but I did not feel them. I was nervous, excited and thrilled over all the attention. I'm not used to that. If you get to know me, I'm the lady next door."

Ringenberg was asked what her family felt about her being on the racetrack. She laughed and said Fisher's parents said people ask them the same question about their daughter.

Ringenberg's love of flying began innocently enough. One summer day in 1928, she was riding with her parents in the northeastern Indiana countryside when an airplane landed in a farm field next to the road. Her father stopped the car and went over to see if the pilot needed help.

Instead, the pilot asked whether they were interested in taking a flight. Soon young Margaret Ray was soaring above the earth, and a lifelong love was born.

After graduation from high school, she decided she wanted to become a pilot but chose to become a stewardess because she didn't think a woman could be a pilot. Stewardesses were required to be nurses at that time. She was working in Fort Wayne at the start of World War II, taking flying lessons and receiving her private license while preparing to study nursing.

"I haven't got around to taking the nursing yet," she said, laughing.

She applied for participation in the Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) organization that ferried planes of all types across the United States and to England during World War II. The family didn't have a phone so she listed her neighbor's number.

In August 1943, the neighbor received a telegram for Margaret Ray. It told her to go to Chicago for training. Later she served at Sweet Water, Texas, and Wilmington, Del. Of more than 25,000 applications, only 1,830 were accepted, and she was one of 1,074 that graduated from flight school.

During her time as a WASP, she flew a PT-19, BT-13, AT-6 and UC-78. She got her first instrument clearance on a DC-3 and was a co-pilot on a B-24 and a C-54.

Ringenberg received an order in December 1944 that her service was done and returned home, paying her own way.

She returned to Fort Wayne, began flying and was married to Morris Ringenberg, who became a longtime banker in Grabill, Ind. He passed away last October.

Margaret became a member of the famed "99" women flyer's club in 1945. In 1957, she began competing in the Powder Puff Derby that Earhart started in 1929.

Over the years, Ringenberg has collected more than 150 trophies. Each of her five grandchildren has flown with her in one of these events and received a medal.

At age 72, she competed in the Round-the-World Air Race in 1994. In March 2001, she and daughter Marsha Wright flew in the London to Sydney, Australia, race. In 2003, she competed in a race that took her to Kitty Hawk, N.C., during the Centennial of Flight year.

"I got to buzz Kitty Hawk," she said proudly.

She's also flown a space shuttle simulator at NASA headquarters in Houston and called that "just another challenge." She's written a book, "Girls Can't Be Pilots," and her daughter is writing her life story with a possibility of a movie in the future.

Don't think the ride around the Speedway is the last "to do" thing left on her life's agenda. She turns 83 in June and is planning to celebrate with a race from Wichita, Kan., to the Rockies, up to the Canadian border and back.

Anything else, she was asked?

"Let the telephone ring," she said. "Everything that has happened to me has come by a phone call. I've only not been to Antarctica. It's on my list."


Tickets: Tickets are available for the 2004 Indianapolis 500 on May 30. For information, log on to, or call the IMS ticket office at (800) 822-INDY or (317) 492-6700.


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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Sarah Fisher , Tony George , A.J. Foyt