Kitty O’Neil was an American stuntwoman and racer who was 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 potential Olympic diving career. Kitty 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. 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 was native Cherokee. At only five months old, Kitty contracted mumps, measles and smallpox all at the same time and a high fever caused her to lose her hearing. Kitty deafness didn’t become apparent until she was two years old at which time her mother began to teach her to read lips and helped her develop speech. Her work with Kitty led her mother to eventually become a speech therapist and she co-founded a school in Wichita Falls, Texas for students with hearing impairment.
As a teenager, Kitty became a competitive 10-meter platform diver and 3-meter springboard diver, winning Amateur Athletic Union diving championships. Beginning in 1962 she trained with diving coach Sammy Lee. Before the trials for the 1964 Olympics began, Kitty broke her wrist and contracted spinal meningitis. The disease threatened her ability to walk and ended the possibility for a position on the Olympic diving team. She recovered from the meningitis, but lost interest in diving, instead she turned to water skiing, scuba diving, skydiving and hang gliding, stating that diving “wasn’t scary enough for me.” When she was in her late 20s, she underwent two treatments for cancer.
O’Neil took up racing on water and land in 1970 and she participated in the Baja 500 and the Mint 400. She met stuntmen Hal Needham and Ron Hambleton while racing motorcycles, and she and Hambleton moved into together and Kitty gave up racing for a time. In the mid-1970s, she began training with Needham, Hambleton and Dar Robinson and began working in stunts. In 1976, she became the first woman to perform with Stunts Unlimited, the leading stunt agency at the time. She performed stunts in The Bionic Woman (1976-1978), Airport ’77 (1977), The Blues Brothers (1980), Smokey and the Bandit II (1980) and other television and movie productions. In 1978, Mattel created a Kitty O’Neil action figure in her honor.
Kitty O’Neil was hired to perform a very difficult stunt for regular stunt women, Jeannie Epper, Lynda Carter’s usual stunt double, in the filming of a 1979 episode of Wonder Woman. This particular stunt allowed her to set a women’s high-fall record of 127 feet at the 12-story Valley Hilton in Sherman Oaks, California. She was only, at 5′-2″ and 97 pounds and credited her small size for allowing her to withstand the impact forces. She later broke her own record with a 180-foot fall from a helicopter. In 1977, Kitty O’Neil set a women’s record for speed on water of 275 miles per hour, and she held a 1970 women’s water skiing record of 104.85 miles per hour.
Kitty also set the land-speed record for female drivers in southeastern Oregon’s Alvord Desert In 1976. She piloted a three-wheeled rocket car built by Bill Fredrick called the “SMI Motivator” which cost $350,000 to build and which was powered by hydrogen peroxide. The vehicle reached an average speed of 512.710 mph, with a peak speed of 621 miles per hour.
Kitty O’Neil’s runs reportedly used 60% of the available thrust, and she estimated that she could have exceeded 700 miles per hour with full power. Kitty piloted a hydrogen peroxide-powered rocket dragster built by Ky Michaelson in the Mojave Desert with an average speed of 279.5 mph in 1977. This run was not repeated according to NHRA rules, so it is not recognized as an official drag racing record.
The Biographical movie Silent Victory: The Kitty O’Neil Story (1979) was the story of Kitty O’Neil’s experiences. The film stared Stockard Channing. According to Kitty, onlly about half of the movie was an accurate depiction fo her life.
In 1982, after stunt colleagues were killed while performing, Kitty stepped away from her stunt work as well as her speed work. She moved to Minneapolis with Ky Michaelson, and eventually she met Raymond Wald and moved to Eureka, South Dakota with him.
When Kitty O’Neil retired she had set 22 speed records on land and on water.
She died of pneumonia on November 2, 2018 after suffering a heart attack. She died at Eureka Community Hospital in Eureka, South Dakota. She was only 72 years old.
The annual 2019 Memoriam segment at the 91st Academy Awards included tribute to Kitty O’Neil