By Meg Peters
At age 75, famous female funny car driver Della Woods said she would jump behind the wheel of her four-second Dodge Daytona in a heartbeat.
But, she’s trying to give it up. Or at least pretending to, for now.
For almost 20 years that car has sat in her garage until earlier this month when Woods and her husband Top Fuel racer De Nichols trailered it to the Charity Car Show in downtown Lake Orion, the first time it’s been out since 1996. ?
‘I love our little village. I was really proud when they put that car on Facebook and showed our street and the village merchants and how pretty it is,? she said. ‘A huge thank you to the Lake Orion Police Department and Golling Buick GMC for inviting us.?
It may be one of the last times the renowned female dragster can lean against its frame.
‘I really hate letting it go because it’s part of us, and it’ll let go totally of the racing. But I think because it’s such a famous car, a historical car, it should be out there, and I think that we’re holding it back from other people to enjoy.?
Woods and Nichols purchased the Dodge Daytona in 1993 from Chuck Etchell, and are offering it back to the racing world for around $125,000.
Letting it go, however, doesn’t erase the memories.
Della has been professionally racing on and off spanning four decades, and earned her title as the first woman to reach the NHRA semifinals at the 1985 Keystone Nationals in Reading, driving the Fighting Irish Trans Am, a title she held for 22 years.
Her life in Lake Orion began in 1972, with eight years of professional racing already under her belt.
It was in a ?53 Plymouth she raced in first, however, on the streets she grew up on near her family’s 100-year-old farm off of Squirrel Rd.
And it was a ?63 Dodge she won her first Powder Puff race with.
Her first serious race car was the Lawman ?65 Coronet, a Dodge Super Stocker purchased from Al Eckstrand, named for his profession, and initially driven by her brother and first crew chief Bernie Woods.
The duo would take turns driving the Lawman; Della was licensed for it in 1967 when she began putting her speed to the test.
‘We put Bernella Brother and Sister Race Team on the side and that’s how we started,? she said.
After hearing about a woman on the west coast running the professional cast AA/FC, the Woods elected to take a road trip.
‘We decided that we would move the wheel base on the car and put this big huge engine on it that ran on nitro-methane, got a license from the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), and went around the country match racing.?
Not many ladies were out on the tracks, and those who were dealt with some bias. Her first machismo moment came at a track in Michigan when she was pulled from the race after the NHRA revoked her license for being a female driver.
‘So I called them up and said Paula Murphy had a license, I said if you pull my license you better pull hers. They didn’t pull her license but sent me a letter and said I could run again.?
While waiting for her license, Della raced on outlaw tracks in the south, where male drivers refused to race with her in many cases. The sword was double edged’the wouldn’t race her in case she won, which would humiliate them, and they wouldn’t race her in case she lost, because that would still be embarrassing.
But, she raced, even if by herself.
She remembers poor conditions at the Yellow River race track in Georgia.
‘They made me run by myself, and thank God I didn’t actually leave the track or cross the center line when I made my runs, but I did hit the bump at the far end, and I did leave the ground,? she remembered. ‘The track operator asked me to go out into the middle of the track to wave to the crowd and prove that I was a woman.?
It never phased her, even when a drunken man followed her in the bathroom and peeked under the stall to make sure she was a girl.
‘I loved racing so much that I didn’t pay any attention and just kept doing it. Eventually we proved ourselves and they accepted us.?
Della and Bernie campaigned two other cars and quit in 1972 when Bernie got married and opened his first automotive shop, Bernella’s Auto Parts next to Sherwin Williams.
Della met De, who then and still owns N & S Automotive on Woodward, and the two married and moved to Bellevue in Lake Orion.
Della opened a hair salon in Rochester Hills when De, who was working as an engineer at General Motors by day, and the auto shop by night, popped the question.
‘He came home one day and he said, ‘do you want a new house, or a race car?? I said, ‘well, I want the race car.?
They went to Irish Hills and picked up a really famous racecar, Della said, the Fighting Irish Trans Am.
‘It was the only Pontiac I ever raced,? she said. ‘We were a Dodge family.?
And the rest was history.
The couple started campaigning that car in ?82. Della was the first lady to record a five-second Funny Car time in her bracket, she finished 20th’in the world after competing in only eight out of 18 races, and was the first woman to race in the semi-finals at a national event. ?
‘We had a few little sponsors but other than that my husband ran all the machining on the car and that kept us going.?
Della eventually put away the race gear in the early ?90s when funds ran short and a family member got sick, and opened a pizzeria in Troy.
But her fame followed her.
‘We were inducted into the Michigan Hall of Fame in 1999 at Soaring Eagle Casino, and now we are going to be inducted into the East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame in October,? she said.
A breast cancer survivor, Della said she would give anything for one more race.
‘I love looking at it, I love touching it, I love sitting in it, I love thinking about sitting in it. In a heartbeat I’d jump in that thing?[Dodge Daytona].?
But, for now, the memories are enough.
‘We loved it, we were very fortunate to be able to do it at all in that class, and I’m grateful that I had the experience. Meeting the people that we met through the ways, that was an experience in itself to have all these friends all over the country. It really truly was fun.?
By Meg Peters