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Kitty O’Neil, deaf daredevil who became ‘world’s fastest woman,’ dies at 72

Stunt performer and daredevil Kitty O’Neil in 2005, with some of the items from her past at the Eureka Pioneer Museum in South Dakota. (Russ Keen/Aberdeen American News via AP)

When she was 5 months old, a simultaneous diagnosis of the mumps, measles and smallpox left Kitty O’Neil with a scorching fever that caused her to lose her hearing and nearly killed her. Her mother, a Cherokee homemaker who may have saved her life by immersing her in an ice bath, resisted teaching her daughter sign language and instead showed her how to read lips and form words of her own, placing the girl’s hands on her throat so she could feel the vibrations of her vocal cords.

In the years that followed, she learned the piano and cello, feeling the music through her hands and feet, and trained as a platform diver, winning dozens of competitions. Her coach, Olympic gold medalist Sammy Lee, assured reporters that she was a shoo-in for the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo. She seemed destined to medal when, in the lead-up to the Olympic trials, she broke her wrist and came down with a case of spinal meningitis.

Doctors told her that she might never walk again. But within two weeks, she was out of bed, searching for a way to reinvent herself. “I got sick, so I had to start all over again, and I got bored,” she later told the Midco Sports Network, a regional broadcaster based in South Dakota. “I wanted to do something fast. Speed. Motorcycle. Water skiing. Boat. Anything.”

So Ms. O’Neil, who was 72 when she died Nov. 2 of pneumonia, set about becoming a stunt artist and record-setting daredevil. Amid a battle with cancer that required two sets of operations in her 20s, she raced motorcycles and speed boats, dove off hotel rooftops, leaped from helicopters, set herself on fire, water-skied at more than 100 mph and earned the title “world’s fastest woman,” reaching speeds of about 600 mph while piloting a rocket car across a dried lake bed in southeastern Oregon.

From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, she stood in for actresses including Lindsay Wagner of “The Bionic Woman,” dangled out of a sixth-story window for an episode of the television detective show “Baretta,” braved rising waters on a sinking jet plane in the movie thriller “Airport ’77,” was immolated during a graveyard seance in “September 30, 1955,” and rolled, crashed or raced cars for films such as “The Blues Brothers” and “Smokey and the Bandit II.”

“Today, while Washington is lolling over brunch, Kitty O’Neil is going to be set on fire in Hollywood”

For one memorable 1979 stunt in the “Wonder Woman” television series, she leaped off the roof of a Hilton hotel in Los Angeles, arms spread wide, and fell 127 feet before landing on an inflated air bag, setting a new women’s high-fall record. “If I hadn’t hit the center of the bag, I probably would have been killed,” she told The Washington Post.

Ms. O’Neil later broke her own record by jumping from a helicopter onto an air bag 180 feet below. The bag measured 60 feet by 80 feet, she said, “But from up there, it looked about the size of a postage stamp.”

“She was a wonder woman, a true wonder woman,” said her friend Ky Michaelson, a fellow stunt performer who designed several of the vehicles Ms. O’Neil used to break records in the 1970s, when she alternated between stunt jobs and efforts to drive a car faster than the speed of sound.

Her small stature — 5-foot-2 and 97 pounds during her heyday — helped her withstand the strong G-forces of her record-setting drives, Michaelson said, including a 1977 outing in which she drove a quarter-mile in only 3.22 seconds, reaching 412 mph.

“If you’re pulling four Gs and you weigh 100 pounds, that’s 400 pounds of pressure . . . Your vision is up and down, shaking. It’s not easy to control,” he said in a phone interview. “She crashed one of my cars at over 300 mph and walked away. . . . The only bone she ever broke was in a hand one time when she was racing motorcycles.”

Ms. O’Neil credited her hearing impairment with helping her maintain focus, and she spoke and read lips well enough that some directors were unaware she was deaf, according to one Associated Press account. “I know I’m deaf. But I’m still normal,” she told The Post. “The way I look at it, being handicapped is not a defect. People say I can’t do anything. I say to people, I can do anything I want.”

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In 1977, she set a women’s water-speed record of 275 mph. But perhaps her greatest stunt or daredevil achievement occurred on Dec. 6, 1976, when she set the women’s land-speed record while driving the SMI Motivator, effectively a rocket on three wheels. Designed and built by William Fredrick, the car was powered by hydrogen peroxide and “barely large enough to accommodate an expectant baboon,” wrote Sports Illustrated journalist Coles Phinizy.

Speeding across the Alvord Desert in Oregon, she notched an average speed of 512.71 mph during two runs — obliterating the previous record of 321 mph, set by Lee Breedlove in 1965 — and said that for a moment, she reached a maximum of 618 mph, approaching what was then the overall world land-speed record of 630.388 mph. (The records, maintained by the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme, are averaged over two runs, not set or broken in any single moment of awe-inducing speed.)

Ms. O’Neil later recalled that the runs were “a beautiful experience,” in which the vast flatness of the Oregon desert seemed to move past her in a series of rolling waves, but also disappointing. Not content with being the fastest woman on Earth, she sought to outpace the fastest man and break the sound barrier, as well, and was preparing to do so on Dec. 7, 1976, when Fredrick told her she could not.

She had, it turned out, been contracted to break only the women’s record. Her friend Hal Needham, a stuntman and filmmaker who was then busy directing “Smokey and the Bandit,” was signed up to break the men’s record, bankrolled by a Chicago company that had developed a toy line featuring his likeness. For the Needham doll to succeed, the thinking apparently went, Needham would have to be the one breaking the record.

A war of words ensued, with Ms. O’Neil’s husband — Ronald “Duffy” Hambleton, a bank executive turned stunt performer — declaring that Needham’s representative had said it would be “degrading and humiliating to Needham if Kitty ran 650 and Needham ran only 660.” The representative issued a denial, and PR executives insisted that contracts, rather than sexism, were the deciding factor.

Neither stunt performer drove away with the record, and Ms. O’Neil sued unsuccessfully to have another shot inside the Motivator. She had reportedly used just 60 percent of its engine’s power during her initial record-breaking runs and believed she “could have done 700 or 750.”

“I’m a liberated woman, but I’m not trying to compete against men,” she had told People magazine earlier in 1977, before the drive. “I’m just trying to do my own thing.”

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Kitty Linn O’Neil was born in Corpus Christi, Tex., on March 24, 1946. Her father was an oil wildcatter of Irish descent and a major in what is now the Air Force. He died in an airplane crash when she was a child, and Ms. O’Neil’s mother went to work as a speech therapist. She eventually helped found a school for hearing-impaired students in Wichita Falls, Tex.

By 1970, Ms. O’Neil had turned from diving to racing. She was driving a motorcycle in Valencia, Calif., when she met Hambleton at a race. “She hit a bad spot in the terrain, and I tried to help her,” he told People. “She thought I was trying to pass her. Then she hit a rut and the cycle crashed. When she got up, she took off her gloves and found parts of two of her fingers inside.” Doctors sewed them back on.

According to news accounts, Ms. O’Neil married Hambleton and cared for his two children for several years before tiring of life on their Fillmore, Calif., orange ranch. She entered the stunt business with training from Hambleton, Needham and Dar Robinson, widely considered the greatest high-fall stuntman in movie history.

Ms. O’Neil soon became the first woman to join Stunts Unlimited, considered Hollywood’s premier stunt agency. Her exploits inspired a Mattel action figure and a 1979 TV movie, “Silent Victory: The Kitty O’Neil Story,” starring Stockard Channing. (Only about half the movie was accurate, Ms. O’Neil said.)

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By 1982, she had separated from Hambleton and retired from the stunt and speed business, later explaining to the Aberdeen (S.D.) American News that she left the industry after colleagues were killed while performing stunts. She lived with Michaelson in Minneapolis for several years before moving to Eureka, S.D., in the early 1990s with a companion, Raymond Wald, who had roots in the former “wheat capital of the world.”

“How and why they settled in Eu­reka probably still has a lot of people scratching their heads and a bit baffled,” said Barry Lapp, president of the Eureka Pioneer Museum, which features an exhibit on Ms. O’Neil’s life.

Lisa Carlsen, a director of Carlsen Funeral Home in Eureka, confirmed Ms. O’Neil’s death at a hospital in Eureka and said she had no immediate surviving family members. Michaelson said the cause was pneumonia.

Ms. O’Neil’s women’s land-speed record still stands, although she has been challenged in recent years by driver Jessi Combs. “I’m proud of her. I’m happy for her,” Ms. O’Neil told MidCo Sports in 2015, saying that the two had met. Still, she added, “If she breaks the record, then I’ll do it again. It’s a challenge.”

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