From Horsepower to Horse and Buggy Power : Hiss Takes a Turn in Road to a Slower Life

Times Staff Writer

When we last left Arlene Hiss, the divorced high school dance teacher had ended her dreams of driving at Indy and Daytona. She had moved to the country, where she began raising horses and birds, building her own house and pursuing her business career.

Welcome to real life and recent history, Arlene Hiss style.

It was 10 years ago. March, 1976. Hiss, then a 35-year-old Fullerton High School dance teacher, became the first woman to drive in an Indianapolis-type race in the USAC's Phoenix 150.

These days, Hiss rarely gets her van to go faster than 70 m.p.h. on the freeway. Horsepower now refers to the mare and colt that roam her two-and-a-half-acre backyard in Lake Elsinore.

But life hasn't exactly taken a 180-degree turn for Hiss since her racing days. It's more like a 160 degrees.

She's still involved with cars as a sales representative for an auto parts manufacturer.

"It's funny," she said. "My goal in 1976 was to be a professional race driver, full time. That was it. Now, that has all changed."

Today, the goals are: business career, master's degree, and more immediately, leaving her trailer and moving into the domed house she has built for herself.

"I'm different," she said. "I'm not your typical anything. There's no doubt about that."

There's also no doubt that life, 10 years after, also is a lot different for Hiss.

"Everything I did at that time I'm no longer doing," she said, even straining to remember the last time she was in a race car.

"It was sometime in '78, I can't even pin it down. I don't think about it much anymore. It's pretty much gone from my life now."

Racing was a part of her life for close to 20 years. Her ex-husband, Mike Hiss, was an amateur racer who also had a short-lived pro career. Arlene raced for 16 years as an amateur, winning the Sports Car Club of America amateur championship before taking a shot at the pros in 1976.

Janet Guthrie went on to make history that year as the first woman driver at Indy. Hiss, hurt by sponsorship troubles and some criticism from her male counterparts after she was lapped 22 times in the Phoenix race, switched to stock car racing.

Bobby Unser led the group that criticized Hiss' driving.

Said Unser after the Phoenix race: "It's a sad day when some woman gets in a car and pokes around the track slower than anybody else and then all the writers and television cameras crowd around her and ignore the professionals."

Hiss said she and Unser feuded for about a year.

"He was my biggest adversary," she recalled. "He'd blast me somewhere then I'd come back and blast him. Finally, we met somewhere later and were forced to talk to each other. We actually became very good friends once he realized I wasn't doing this just for a lark."

Hiss served notice that her racing was no minor fling when she finished ninth in the 1976 Texas 500. It was the best performance of her short career and earned her praise from A.J. Foyt.

"A.J. was all for it," she said. "He told everybody what a fine job I'd done in Texas."

Hiss said she received more support than resistance from other racers.

"I had a unique situation," she said. "I had been around those guys for several years, because of my ex-husband. So, I wasn't a stranger coming into their world. I was already a part of their world."

She stayed with the NASCAR circuit for two years. All the while she taught, even taking on a few auto shop classes between the tap and ballet.

Although a stock-car-racing dance teacher might sound like a case of split personalities, she said squeezing the two careers together was typical for her.

"I sometimes think I'm packing about four lives into this one little life of mine," she said. "Actually, the racing and teaching worked out quite well. Most of the racing was in the summer and I could go back to teaching in the fall."

But after two years in stock racing, sponsorship began to dwindle. There were fewer and fewer races. And Hiss had grown tired of the frustrations of teaching.

By June of '78, Hiss was ready to quit both. She packed up her two dogs and her motor home and went to Lake Elsinore. A new job, not to mention the horses and birds, would come soon after.

She admitted her decision to leave racing was made reluctantly, particularly since she had withstood the criticism and earned some respect from her peers.

"I hated that it stopped," she said. "It wasn't really a decision I made. It was made for me. I tried to get rides and they weren't coming. But being a woman had nothing to do with it. A lot of people (including her ex-husband) went out at that time. It was purely a financial thing."

Racing may be out of her life but the temptation to return is difficult to resist.

"I miss it," she said. "That's why I won't go to a race. I love to watch it on television because I get to see all my old friends and see how they're doing. That's neat. But it would be most difficult to go to a race and watch."

If the sponsors, the crew and a car all returned, Hiss said she would still need time to think about going back.

"It would not be a snap decision," she said. "I could easily go back to amateur racing. I thoroughly enjoyed that. But 10 years is a long time to stay away and I guess everybody's values change. There are more important things than racing right now."

But Hiss isn't making any promises about the future.

"When I think about it, I hope I'm right here and everything's the same, but I can't be sure. There's still a lot of things I'd like to do."

She began reeling off the possibilities: more dancing, even some singing and acting, maybe getting back to teaching a course or two.

Advanced auto shop for dancers? Beginning animal care for Indy racers? To Hiss, the opportunities seem endless.

"Maybe I just don't know any better," she said. "Nobody ever told me I wasn't supposed to do all this."

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