Obituary: Donna Mae Mims / Champion race car driver

July 1, 1927 - Oct. 6, 2009

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Donna Mae Mims, an eccentric champion race car driver who was portrayed in the Hollywood movie "The Cannonball Run," died Tuesday from complications from a series of strokes. She was 82.

Known as the Pink Lady of sports car racing because most of her cars were painted pink, Ms. Mims, whose maiden name was Warnock, graduated from Dormont High School in 1945. She first became interested in race cars when she and her husband, Mike, came upon an unusual-looking two-seater at a car dealership on West Liberty Avenue in the 1950s.

They came to learn that the car was a Corvette and later bought their first one at Kenny Ross Chevrolet.

"She said the thing she liked best about it was that her in-laws couldn't ride with them," said longtime friend Don Baker.

The couple bought their first fuel-injected Corvette at Yenko Chevrolet in Canonsburg, where she was an executive secretary and later the liaison for design and production with the Yenko sports car division.

Ms. Mims started racing cars with her friends from Yenko in 1960 and quickly became one of the top amateur race car drivers in the country. Ms. Mims, who had by then divorced her husband, became the first woman to win a Sports Car Club of America national racing championship in 1963, at the wheel of her pink Austin-Healey 1959 Bugeye Sprite that once had belonged to Dr. Jonas Salk.

"She was just racing for fun with her friends," said Dan DelBianco, the executive director of the Vintage Grand Prix and a friend of Ms. Mims. "At the final race she was told if she came in fifth place or better than she would be the champion. That was the only time she got nervous, she told me."

Ms. Mims also raced a pink Corvette, Corvair, Triumph TR3 and MGB.

"On the back of most of my cars I had 'THINK PINK,'" Ms. Mims told the Post-Gazette earlier this year. "I liked pink ever since I was a little girl."

Ms. Mims liked her pink Corvette so much that it was her dying wish to be laid out in it at Beinhauer Funeral Home in Peters. The car was being detailed yesterday and was going to be taken to the funeral home, where a viewing will take place tomorrow and Sunday.

"Nobody has ever done anything like this," said Aaron Beinhauer of Beinhauer Family Services. "But it was her wish. I talked to her personally about it three years ago."

Following the final visitation, friends are encouraged to drive their Corvettes to a reception at Bella Sera in Canonsburg.

Ms. Mims was well known in national and local auto racing circles. She volunteered at the annual Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix and often worked the starting grid so she could be close to the cars.

"She was a colorful person," Mr. DelBianco said. "She was just a joy to know, a real character."

Ms. Mims raced for 14 years and in 1972 took part in Brock Yates' original Cannonball Run Race, the cross-country outlaw road race that was made famous by the 1981 movie "The Cannonball Run," starring Burt Reynolds and Farrah Fawcett.

Ms. Mims, along with teammates Judy Stropus and Peggy Niemcek, borrowed a limousine from a friend, got some racing tires put on and used it on their trek.

"Most memorable is the ticketing event in the wee dark hours as we were pulled over by a Barney Fife look-a-like who claimed he'd been chasing us for 15 minutes at 115 miles per hour," Ms. Mims said in Mr. Yates' book "Cannonball: The World's Greatest Outlaw Road Race." "No bribe could corrupt this pure-hearted Don Knotts, and we were doomed to follow him to the magistrate."

Ms. Mims was taking a nap when the limo wrecked in Texas. The vehicle was totaled and the women were stuck, so they sold it and bought plane tickets home.

Mr. Baker said Ms. Mims often told the Cannonball Run stories when local organizations hired her as a guest speaker. One of the stories was about their sponsor for the race, the Right Bra Co. An official from Right Bra attended the pre-race festivities, and the women asked for bras to wear during the race.

When the official told them he didn't have any, they decided to do the race braless and wore tight-fitting shirts and pants. In the movie, actress Adrienne Barbeau portrayed Ms. Mims.

Ms. Mims was a member of the Sports Car Club of America and taught Sunday school as an active member in Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Church.

A viewing will take place tomorrow and Sunday from 2 to 8 at Beinhauer Funeral Home in Peters with an additional visitation from 10 to 11 a.m. Monday. Memorial contributions may be made to the National Corvette Museum, Bowling Green, Ky.


Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.


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