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Old 01-19-2011, 05:19 AM   #1
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Thumbs up Kaija Kalevala - A Finnish Hot Rod Granny

Canada's first female stock car pilot still driving at 86

Kaija Kalevala competed head-to-head with the men

By Alyn Edwards, Freelance

Her name is Kaija (pronounced Ki-ya) Kalevala, and she still gets weepy when she recalls being forced to hang up her race car helmet and goggles. It was a combination of pressures that led the superb driver to call it quits.

In 1956, the Burnaby, B.C., resident was blocked from entering the pits to compete in midget car racing as part of the famed Indianapolis 500 race. Officials said it was bad luck to have a woman in the pits.
Pressure put on her sponsor sidelined her stock car during crucial races at Burnaby’s Digney Speedway, causing her to slide in the standings.
Then, when her mother arrived from Finland to live with her, she could no longer compete at out-of-town race tracks. Finally, her employer told her she had to choose between racing and driving his auto parts truck. It was at that point that the career of the first woman in Canada to compete head-to-head in male-only stock car races suddenly ended.

But Kalevala wasn’t done with getting attention for her driving skills. For two days, she led the 1956 B.C. Truck Rodeo in points and only lost on the final day, coming second. All other competitors were men.
Women just didn’t drive trucks back then. But she did. And, in the early 1950s, women didn’t compete against men in car races. To add insult to injury, this tall Finnish beauty with striking blond hair was at least as good as the male drivers -- and often better.

The road the Finnish immigrant travelled to achieve racing prominence in Canada is like a fairy tale on wheels. Kalevala’s fascination with motorized vehicles started early and became all consuming. “Any time I saw a vehicle with the hood up, I would go over to look and ask questions,” she says of her early years in Finland.

When her father refused to allow her to take driver training, she used her allowance to buy books on driving. At 17, Kalevala was ready to take her driving test, even though she had never driven a vehicle. “I drove in my head everywhere I went,” she recalls. “I would operate the controls and shift gears just as if I was really behind the wheel.”

She camped out at the local driving school and told the owner she wouldn’t leave without being tested. The instructor finally agreed to the test just to get rid of her. He was amazed when she passed. The owner made her take a second test, which she also passed.

She used her driving papers to get a position as a volunteer for the Finnish army reserve. She initially chauffeured officers and delivered important documents in a red 1939 Chevrolet. One morning, the only vehicle left in the compound was a three-ton Dodge truck. “I always asked the men how they drove trucks and learned how to double clutch and downshift on hills without ever driving a truck,” she recalls. “I had no trouble when I actually got behind the wheel of that truck.”
She was soon hauling loads of heavy guns and food for the soldiers, along with hay for army horses. The job she didn’t enjoy was carrying dead soldiers back from the front in wooden caskets.

Her racing career started when she joined the Finnish Film Company, driving heavy three-ton trucks and a bus along with a front-wheel-drive Renault car, racing film around Helsinki between three theatres just in time to change reels as there was only one original film available and there were no copies. In 1947 she drove the Renault in road rallies and ice races, always placing in the top five.

In 1950, Kalevala attracted the attention of one of Finland’s best known racers and, when he got a new race car, she got his old Ford flathead-powered Formula One car. She received national attention in her first race for being the only woman in it. The only way she could enter stock car races in Finland was in the so-called “powder-puff” all-female races. She won every time, and soon there was no other woman willing to race against her.

She emigrated to Canada in 1951 when she discovered she was being taxed more heavily as a taxi driver because she was female. When a Finnish friend told her about Digney Speedway in Burnaby, B.C., she took the train to Vancouver. Through connections, got a job at a dealership doing everything including full-engine rebuilds. She got sponsorship with a Ford dealer to start racing at Digney Speedway in 1952 as the only female driver.

“The first car was a sedan, and it had so much steel bracing inside that it was top heavy and wouldn’t perform,” she recalls. The second car was a much lighter coupe, and the young driver started moving up in the pack and making a name for herself.

By day, she drove a truck delivering auto parts to service stations and garages. Her spare time was spent preparing her car for the track or racing it.

“Aurora Speedway in Seattle heard about me and wanted me to race there,” she recalls. She asked for a month off to compete in the lead-up races to the 1956 Indianapolis 500, but when her boss’s daughter couldn’t manage the heavy clutch in her parts truck, her boss took over the driving. But it was too much for him, too. “He told me I had to make a choice. Either give up racing or give up my job.”
She kept driving the parts van and, at age 86, Kalevala is still driving a van. Her apartment is filled with boxes of trophies, awards and newspaper stories about her pioneering driving efforts. Her most recent recognition is an induction into the Greater Vancouver Motorsport Pioneers Society.

Alyn Edwards is a car enthusiast and partner in Peak Communicators, a Vancouver-based public relations company. aedwards@peakco.com
© Copyright (c) Postmedia News
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Chevrolet '53 Kustom "Queen of Diamonds"
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Old 01-19-2011, 05:28 AM   #2
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Default Re: Kaija Kalevala - A Finnish Hot Rod Granny

Cool story. Sorry her career was cut short.
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Old 01-22-2011, 02:16 AM   #3
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Default Re: Kaija Kalevala - A Finnish Hot Rod Granny

Another thread also
Fuel Fetish.

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