How the Owners of All 32 NFL Teams Made Their Money

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Has the return of football season inspired you to pursue your dream of NFL franchise ownership? Here's how someone—or, in many cases, someone's parents or grandparents—becomes wealthy enough to buy a team. 

Arizona Cardinals: Bill Bidwill

Owner Since: 1972

The Numbers: Forbes estimates the Cardinals are worth $1 billion, making them the 25th most valuable team in the NFL. 

Moving Man: Bidwill moved the team from St. Louis after his demands for a new stadium weren’t met.

How He Got Rich: Bidwill inherited the Cardinals from his father, Charles. Charles was a wealthy Chicago lawyer, and according to the book From Sandlots to the Super Bowl: The National Football League, 1920-1967, he had connections to Al Capone.

Atlanta Falcons: Arthur Blank

Owner Since: 2002

The Numbers: The Falcons are estimated to be worth $1.125 billion, placing them 21st in the NFL franchise financial rankings. Blank reportedly bought the team for $545 million.

More Teams on the Way?: Blank has expressed interest in bringing an MLS team to Atlanta.

How He Got Rich: In 1978, Arthur Blank co-founded Home Depot. Story has it that during Home Depot’s early days, Blank and his business partner would stand in the parking lot handing out dollar bills to entice customers to browse the store. Blank is now worth an estimated $2.5 billion, meaning he could lure the entire population of China into a Home Depot if he wanted to.

Baltimore Ravens: Stephen Bisciotti

Owner Since: 2004

The Numbers: Bisciotti was a minority owner of the Ravens from 2000 until he bought the whole dang team through a $325 million deal with Art Modell in 2004. The Ravens are now worth $1.5 billion.

Young Gun: Bisciotti is the second youngest sole owner of an NFL franchise behind Dan Snyder. Bisciotti is the first youngest if you don’t count owners who are despised by their own fans.

How He Got Rich: Bisciotti founded Aerotek in a basement office with his cousin. This later turned into the parent company the Allegis Group, which owns both Aerotek and TEKsystems. Despite what they sound like, these companies are not fronts for a Bond villain’s plot for world domination, but rather staffing firms for engineering and technology companies.

Buffalo Bills: Terry Pegula


Owner Since: 2014

The Numbers: The Buffalo Bills are worth $935 million, according to Forbes. Ralph Wilson founded the team in the then-AFL in 1959. The league eventually merged with the NFL in 1970, where the Bills went on to define small-market success in the early '90s—before doing the exact opposite of that for the following two decades. 

How He Got Rich: After Wilson's passing in 2014, Pegula bought the Bills for a reported sum of $1.4 billion. His fortune comes from the sale of his natural gas drilling and fracking company.

Carolina Panthers: David Tepper

Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper is photographed before a preseason game against the Miami Dolphins at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2018
Grant Halverson, Getty Images

Owner Since: 2018

The Numbers: Tepper bought the Panthers for $2.275 billion, setting a record for the highest price ever paid for an NFL team.

Experience: Tepper purchased the franchise amid sexual harassment allegations against previous owner Jerry Richardson. In order for the sale to go through, Tepper had to sell his 5 percent stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers, which he had purchased in 2009. The shares were estimated to be worth $122 million.

How He Got Rich: Tepper's high-risk hedge fund moves, which bet against collapsing companies like Enron and WorldCom, made him a billionaire by 2003. His net worth is estimated to be $11 billion. He reportedly once kept a set of brass testicles on his office desk.

Chicago Bears: Virginia Halas McCaskey

Owner Since: 1983

The Numbers: Virginia McCaskey owns 80% of the Bears, who are valued at $1.7 billion. Nearly $1 billion of that money is spent reminding people the 1985 Bears won the Super Bowl.

Football Money: It’s hard to find any Halas family holdings or enterprises that don’t have to do with the T-formation, linebackers, or angry, mustachioed head coaches. The family’s fortune grew with the NFL, which is to say it grew a lot.

How She Got Rich: She inherited the team from her father, George Halas, who took a starch company’s rec-league squad and essentially turned it into the NFL. He was a founder, player, coordinator, coach, and owner of the Bears—hence his nickname, “Mr. Everything.”

Cincinnati Bengals: Mike Brown

Owner Since: 1991

The Numbers: Mike Brown took over the Bengals after his father’s death in 1991. The team is worth an estimated $990 million.

Total Control: Mike Brown works as the general manager of the Bengals, and is one of only two owners in the NFL to do so. The Cowboys’ Jerry Jones is the other, which doesn’t help Brown in deflecting any criticism that he’s a control freak.

How He Got Rich: Mike Brown’s father, Paul Brown, was the namesake and first coach of Ohio’s other team, the Browns. He went on to co-found and own the Bengals before leaving the team to his son. Like the Halas family, the Browns’ money comes from football. Should football one day cease to exist, the Browns would be penniless and confused, wandering through the Midwest wondering where their publicly-funded stadiums and fortune went. Luckily for them, football has continued to exist and looks relatively stable.

Cleveland Browns: Jimmy Haslam

Owner Since: 2012

The Numbers: In 2012, Jimmy Haslam bought the Cleveland Browns from Randy Lerner for a reported $1 billion.

Serial Buyer: Haslam had to sell a minority interest in the Pittsburgh Steelers that he held since 2008 in order to buy the Browns. NFL rules state that owners aren’t allowed to have ownership stakes in multiple teams. In fact, that’s pretty much the only rule the NFL has for its owners.

How He Got Rich: Jimmy Haslam is the CEO of the Pilot Flying J truck stop company, a nationwide chain founded by his father. Pilot Flying J is the largest such company in the country and sells more over-the-road diesel fuel than anyone else. Haslam and Pilot Flying J are currently under federal investigation for allegedly scheming customers and shortchanging them on fuel rebates.

Dallas Cowboys: Jerry Jones

Owner Since: 1989

The Numbers: The Cowboys are worth an estimated $3.2 billion, making them the number one team on Forbes’ list of the most valuable NFL franchises. Jerry Jones bought them in 1989 for $140 million and has been one of the most visible owners in all of pro sports. In 2009, Jones opened the new $1.3 billion Cowboys Stadium, now named AT&T Stadium. Remember to call it that—AT&T paid an estimated $500 million and would appreciate it.

How He Got Rich: Jones is an oilman, naturally. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Jones made his fortune wildcatting with Jones Oil and Land Lease, drilling all the way to the Cowboys’ owners box. Jones’ estimated net worth now sits at $4.2 billion, or roughly 35 debatable Tony Romo contract extensions.

Denver Broncos: Pat Bowlen

Owner Since: 1984

The Numbers: Pat Bowlen became the majority owner of the Denver Broncos in 1984 after his family purchased the team from Edgar Kaiser. The Broncos are now worth $1.45 billion which, adjusted for altitude, is still $1.45 billion. Bowlen also owns the Denver Outlaws of Major League Lacrosse.

How He Got Rich: Pat Bowlen achieved success as a lawyer in Edmonton before becoming an executive for his family’s oil drilling and exploration company, Regent Resources. The lesson here seems to be that if you can strike oil and buy a sports team before the league’s popularity explodes, you might be able to make a buck or two.

Detroit Lions: Martha Ford

Owner Since: 2014 (Inherited team from late husband William Clay Ford, Sr.)

The Numbers: William Clay Ford, Sr. bought the Detroit Lions in 1963 for $4.5 million. The team is now worth $960 million. Since buying the team, Ford’s Lions have won exactly one playoff game. 

How He Got Rich: Bill was Henry Ford grandchild and the Ford Motor Company’s single largest stockholder. According to a 2011 calculation, Ford’s shares in the motor company were estimated to be worth about $500 million.

Green Bay Packers: Green Bay Packers, Inc.

This One's Different: The Packers are a very special case. They are a publicly traded non-profit company owned by their 360,760 shareholders. If they ever need to raise money for a stadium or something else expensive, they just sell more shares. To prevent anything even resembling a majority owner from coming into existence, there’s a limit on how many shares you can buy.

It’s a remarkably effective and successful model that goes directly against the NFL’s runaway capitalist ideal. Naturally, it’s long been banned by the league—the Packers have been grandfathered in.

Houston Texans: Janice McNair

An image of the late Houston Texans owner Robert C. McNair is shown on a big screen prior to a game between the New Orleans Saints and the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas in 2018
Ronald Martinez, Getty Images

Owner Since: 2018

The Numbers: Janice's late husband Robert McNair and his partners bought the expansion Houston Texans for $700 million in 1999. They began playing in 2002. In a little over a decade, the team’s value ballooned to an estimated $1.85 billion, making them the 5th most valuable NFL franchise according to Forbes, and proving that people from Texas really took to rooting against the Cowboys.

How She Got Rich: Robert C. McNair owned a cogeneration power plant company and sold it to Enron in 1999. Janice took over as controlling owner after Robert passed away from cancer in 2018. Their son, Cal McNair, is the team's chairman.

Indianapolis Colts: Jim Irsay

Owner Since: 1997

The Numbers: The Colts are worth an estimated $1.4 billion, much of which is tied to a sweet stadium deal hashed out with Indianapolis.

How He Got Rich: Jim Irsay’s father, Robert Irsay, built a fortune estimated to be over $150 million through successful heating and air-conditioning companies. In 1972 he bought the Los Angeles Rams for $19 million before trading franchises with Carroll Rosenbloom for the Baltimore Colts. The franchise trade wasn’t the last oddball ownership trick he pulled: Irsay infamously moved the Colts out of Baltimore in the middle of the night in 1984 via a fleet of moving trucks. No one ever gives the movers enough credit. Moving an entire pro football team in one night must’ve been really hard.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Shahid Khan

Owner Since: 2012

The Numbers: The Jaguars are worth an estimated $965 million, which must come as a surprise to the citizens of Jacksonville. Khan also purchased English soccer team Fulham FC for a price estimated to be over $200 million.

How He Got Rich: Bumpers.

Khan arrived in America from Pakistan when he was 16 to study engineering at the University of Illinois. After graduating, Khan found work as an engineering manager at Flex-N-Gate, a nearby autoparts company. Flex-N-Gate made bumpers, and they made them inefficiently. Khan streamlined the process and started his own company, Bumper Works. Soon after, Khan bought Flex-N-Gate and began supplying lightweight bumpers to General Motors. After GM decided to use his methods on their own, Khan shifted his focus to Japanese automakers in the ‘80s, just as the Japanese auto invasion began to storm U.S. shores. Flex-N-Gate is now the sole bumper manufacturer for Toyota, and made $4.5 billion in 2014 alone.

Kansas City Chiefs: Clark Hunt

Owner Since: 2006

The Numbers: The Chiefs are worth a little over $1 billion, and have been in the Hunt family since the team’s inception in the AFL. Clark Hunt is the Chairman of Hunt Sports Group, which operates the Columbus Crew.

How He Got Rich: Clark Hunt is the grandchild of extravagant oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, who was the Platonic ideal for a Texas billionaire (he may have been the inspiration for J.R. Ewing on Dallas). H.L’s son (and Clark’s father) Lamar was a co-founder of the American Football League. He’s also the person who coined the term “Super Bowl,” and had investments in various soccer, tennis, hockey, and basketball ventures (including the Chicago Bulls). When Lamar died in 2006, Clark inherited the Chiefs and has served as chairman and CEO ever since.

Los Angeles Chargers: Dean Spanos

Los Angeles Chargers owner Dean Spanos is photograhed during a game between the Chargers and the Jacksonville Jaguars at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California in 2016
Donald Miralle, Getty Images

Owner Since: 2018

The Numbers: The Chargers are worth an estimated $995 million.

How He Got Rich: Spanos’ father, Alex Spanos, began his business in 1951 when he started a catering company with an $800 loan. He threw his catering profits into real estate and rolled those investments into the A.G. Spanos Companies, a construction business specializing in apartment and commercial buildings. Alex bought the team while they were the San Diego Chargers in 1984. Dean took full control of the team following his father's death in 2018, though he had been running day-to-day operations since 1994. He soon exercised the team's option to relocate to Los Angeles.

Miami Dolphins: Stephen M. Ross

Owner Since: 2009

The Numbers: The Dolphins are worth an estimated $1.3 billion. Not bad for a team whose logo is a porpoise wearing a helmet. Ross increased his share of the franchise from 50% to 95% in 2009.

How He Got Rich: Stephen Ross started his career as a tax attorney before getting into real estate. He started by investing in affordable housing and syndicating and selling these projects as tax shelters to wealthy investors. His real estate ventures eventually grew to include mammoth projects like the Time Warner Center and the sprawling Hudson Yards development site in Manhattan. His estimated net worth is now $6.5 billion. Ross donates a lot to his alma mater, the University of Michigan. A lot: he's given over $300 million so far. For his troubles they went ahead and named the business school after him.

Minnesota Vikings: Zygi Wilf

Owner Since: 2005

The Numbers: Wilf and his partners bought the Vikings in 2005 for a reported $600 million. The team is now worth over $1.1 billion.

How He Got Rich: Wilf’s family, German immigrants and Holocaust survivors, launched their wealth by building and selling single family homes in the ‘50s. The company grew with Wilf and his brothers at the helm, and their business now develops town homes in 39 states. They also have a commercial arm that specializes in shopping malls and owns over 20 million square feet of retail space in the U.S.

New England Patriots: Robert Kraft

Owner since: 1995

The Numbers: Robert Kraft bought the Patriots for $172 million in 1995, and their estimated net worth is now $2.6 billion. In an alternate universe, this number swelled to over $3 billion due to merchandise sales celebrating the Pats’ undefeated season in 2007. But in this universe, there was the helmet catch.

Other Notable Holdings: Kraft is the founder of one of the first MLS teams, the New England Revolution.

How He Got Rich: Robert Kraft got his start working at his father-in-law’s packaging material company. He eventually bought the business and merged it with International Forest Products, a separate packaging and recycling company he started. All his ventures are currently under the umbrella of The Kraft Group, a holding company that also controls various real estate and entertainment ventures. His estimated net worth is $4.3 billion.

New Orleans Saints: Gayle Benson

New Orleans Saints owner Gayle Benson is photographed before an NFC Championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2019
Sean Gardner, Getty Images

Owner Since: 2018

The Numbers: The New Orleans Saints are worth around $1.1 billion. Tom Benson bought the team in 1985 when he found out they were in talks to be moved to Jacksonville, a city with far inferior zydeco music and gumbo. Tom Benson also bought the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans. When he passed away in 2018, his wife, Gayle, took control of both teams, becoming the first woman to own both an NFL and NBA franchise.

How She Got Rich: Tom Benson owned multiple car dealerships in the New Orleans and San Antonio areas. He began to invest in and purchase local banks and formed Benson Financial, which was a successful enough enterprise to fund his purchase of the Saints. In 1996 he sold Benson Financial to Norwest Banks for $440 million. Gayle ran an interior design business for 30 years before their marriage in 2004. Her inheritance was contested by Tom's daughter and granddaughter, who were reportedly left out of the will; a court upheld the transfer of his assets.

New York Giants: John Mara and Steve Tisch

Owners Since: 2005

The Numbers: The Giants, one of the NFL’s first teams, are estimated to be worth around $2.1 billion. But they have to share a stadium with the Jets, which really must bring their property values down.

Familiar Names: That’s Mara as in Rooney and Kate Mara; the actresses are the great-granddaughters of Tim Mara. And the Tisch family might ring a bell because they’re the Tisches of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

How They Got Rich: The Maras' fortune started with the Giants’ original owner, Tim Mara. Tim was a bookkeeper in the horse racing circuit and bought the Giants for $500 in 1925. Story has it that Mara’s buddy, a boxing promoter, was offered the team but passed it along to him. Mara didn’t know much about football, but he ponied up the five hundred bucks anyway.

Steve Tisch is a film producer and inherited his part-ownership of the Giants from his father, Bob Tisch, a former postmaster general and co-owner of the Loews Corporation.

New York Jets: Robert Wood Johnson IV

Owner Since: 2000

The Numbers: Robert “Woody” Johnson IV bought the Jets in 2000 for a reported $635 million. They are now worth an estimated $1.8 billion, but if you ask the New York tabloids, they’d list the team as “priceless.”

How He Got Rich: Woody Johnson is an heir to the Johnson & Johnson company, which was co-founded by his great-grandfather.

Oakland Raiders: Mark and Carol Davis

Owners Since: 2011

The Numbers: The Raiders are worth $970 million, so they should be able to afford a football field that doesn’t have a baseball diamond sitting in the middle of it. This isn’t Pop Warner, folks.

Warring With The NFL: He could be a clueless blowhard at times, but former owner Al Davis loved to stick it to the powers-that-be, something that’s always enjoyable. Davis quit as the AFL commissioner because he was so against the move to the NFL. As owner, he went on to annoy every NFL commissioner who stood in his way.

How They Got Rich: Mark Davis and his mother, Carol, inherited a controlling interest in the Raiders from Mark’s father, Al. The elder Davis began as a coach and general manager of the Raiders before becoming the team’s owner by shouldering out Wayne Valley, the man who'd originally hired Davis, when Valley was out of the country. The moral of the story: Don’t go on vacation when Al Davis is around.

Philadelphia Eagles: Jeffrey Lurie

Owner Since: 1994

The Numbers: Jeffrey Lurie bought the Eagles in 1994 for $195 million. The team is now worth around $1.75 billion.

Eagles Are Green: In 2010, Lurie and the Eagles announced a plan to make Lincoln Financial Field the first major sports stadium to generate its own renewable energy. Though, that’s pretty easy when the fans are throwing batteries on the field. (Lay off, Eagles fans; at least we didn’t go the Santa-booing route.)

How He Got Rich: The Lurie family fortune started with a chain of movie theaters founded and built by Jeffrey Lurie’s grandfather. The family wealth blossomed after acquiring other ventures like bottling companies and clothing retailers. In 1985, Jeffrey founded Chestnut Hill Productions, which produced a slew of pretty forgettable films including Blind Side. No, not the movie about football, but rather the steamy 1993 thriller starring Ron Silver.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Dan Rooney

Owner Since: 1988

The Numbers: The Steelers are worth $1.35 billion, making them the richest towel manufacturer in the world. They also run a football team on the side.

Steeler Nation Envoy: In 2009, President Obama named Rooney the U.S.’s ambassador to Ireland. He resigned in 2012.

How He Got Rich: Lore has it that Art Rooney, Dan’s father, got the $2500 needed to purchase Pittsburgh an NFL franchise in 1933 after he won a parlay at the horse track. There is some dispute over the validity of this story, but no matter how he earned the money, Art managed to turn the Steelers into one of the NFL’s wealthiest franchises. Gambling never left the family’s blood, either: Dan Rooney’s brothers own various horse and greyhound tracks across the country.

San Francisco 49ers: Jed York

Owner Since: 2009

The Numbers: Forbes estimates the 49ers to be worth about $1.6 billion.

How He Got Rich: Jed York is the nephew of Edward DeBartolo Jr., who was the 49ers’ remarkably successful owner for 23 years. The DeBartolo fortune came from construction and real estate: they built some of the first suburban shopping malls in the country.

Seattle Seahawks: The Paul G. Allen Trust

Owner Since: 2018

The Numbers: The Seahawks are worth an estimated $1.33 billion [cut to footage of people throwing sturgeon in the Pike Place Fish Market].

How He Got Rich: In 1975, Paul Allen founded Microsoft with Bill Gates. His worth was estimated at $17.4 billion, making him the NFL’s richest team owner (by far). When he passed in 2018, the Paul G. Allen Trust was listed as owner of the Seahawks. His sister, Jody Allen, is a trustee and the current chair of the team. Jody is also chair of Vulcan, Inc., an umbrella for Paul Allen's business interests. Vulcan owns the Portland Trail Blazers, making her team chair there as well.

St. Louis Rams: Stan Kroenke

Owner Since: 2010

The Numbers: The St. Louis Rams are worth an estimated $930 million, making them the "poorest" team in the NFL.

Other Notable Holdings: Kroenke heads Kroenke Sports Enterprises, which owns or holds considerable shares of the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, and Colorado Rapids. He had to turn over operational control of these teams upon becoming the owner of the Rams, as per the NFL’s rules on owning teams in multiple markets.

How He Got Rich: Stan Kroenke is a real estate magnate who owns developments around the country, many of which are anchored by Wal-Mart locations. His wife, Anna Walton Kroenke, is the daughter of Bud Walton, co-founder with his brother Sam of Wal-Mart. What a coincidence!

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Glazer Family

Owners Since: 1995

The Numbers: Malcolm Glazer bought the Bucs for $192 million in 1995, which was a record at the time. He died in 2014.

Other Notable Holdings: The Glazer family bought Manchester United in 2005. The soccer club is the third-richest in the world.

How They Got Rich: When he was 15, Glazer inherited his father’s watch business. In the ‘70s, Glazer began buying trailer parks and soon developed that real estate venture into First Allied Corporation, a holding company that owns and rents shopping centers across the country. The company took a huge hit during the recession, and his current wealth is mainly due to his sports franchise ownerships.

Tennessee Titans: KSA Industries (A Holding Company Established by Former Owner Bud Adams)

Owner Since: 2013

The Numbers: The Titans are estimated to be worth $1.161 billion.

How He Got Rich: Bud Adams was a wildcatter in the ‘50s and ’60s and made his money in oil. Hence the Titans original identity: The Houston Oilers. Adams died in 2013.

Washington Redskins: Dan Snyder

Owner Since: 1999

The Numbers: The Redskins are worth $2.4 billion.

Other Notable Holdings: Snyder owns three sports radio stations in the DC area, as well as a production company with Tom Cruise. He also purchased Dick Clark Productions, hoping it would provide rockin’ returns.

How He Got Rich: Snyder started a marketing and advertising company with his sister. They specialized in doctors' offices and hospitals. According to a report in the Washingtonian, “When new mothers were sent home from the maternity ward, they were given goodie bags of creams and diapers—through Dan Snyder’s company.” This direct marketing proved successful and the business took off and started to branch out to include telemarketing and other methods. That call you got during dinner last night? Probably Dan Snyder.

All photos courtesy of Getty Images. An earlier version of this post appeared in 2013.

Running Just Once a Week Is Linked to a 27 Percent Drop in Risk of Early Death

lzf/iStock via Getty Images
lzf/iStock via Getty Images

A new study suggests that even the occasional light jog could help you live a longer, healthier life.

Runner’s World reports that researchers compiled data from 14 previously published studies to determine if running was associated with lower the risk of early death. Their findings, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, show that among a pooled sample of 232,149 people whose habits were monitored from 5.5 to 35 years, those who ran had a 27 percent lower risk of early death than those who didn’t.

Causes of death included cardiovascular disease, cancer, and everything in between—and while the study doesn’t guarantee that running will lower your risk of early death, it does show that there’s at least a link between the two.

Furthermore, the results suggest that you don’t have to be a particularly dedicated or serious runner in order to reap the health benefits. The researchers found that those who ran for less than 50 minutes a week, only once a week, or at speeds below 6 mph still ranked with more intense intense runners when it came to lower early death rates than non-runners.

“This finding may be motivating for those who cannot invest a lot of time in exercise, but it should definitely not discourage those who already engage in higher amounts of running,” Željko Pedišić, a professor at Victoria University’s Institute for Health and Sport and a co-author of the study, told Runner’s World.

In other words, there’s no reason that avid marathoners and competitive tag enthusiasts should lessen their running regimens—but if you spend most of your time sitting in front of your computer or television, you might want to consider adding a 45-minute neighborhood jog to your weekly to-do list. According to Pedišić, it could help keep high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer at bay.

And if you’re avoiding running to protect your knees, toenails, or something else, you probably don’t have to—read up on the truth behind eight common running myths here.

[h/t Runner’s World]

Kitty O'Neil, Trailblazing Speed Racer and Wonder Woman's Stunt Double

PHOTO COLLAGE BY DAMON AMATO, MINUTE MEDIA. MOTORCYCLE/CAR/DIVINGBOARD, ISTOCK VIA GETTY IMAGES. PORTRAIT, MIDCO SPORTS MAGAZINE // YOUTUBE
PHOTO COLLAGE BY DAMON AMATO, MINUTE MEDIA. MOTORCYCLE/CAR/DIVINGBOARD, ISTOCK VIA GETTY IMAGES. PORTRAIT, MIDCO SPORTS MAGAZINE // YOUTUBE

Kitty O’Neil could do it all. A stuntwoman, drag racer, and diver, the legendary daredevil's skills were once described by the Chicago Tribune as “full and partial engulfment in fire; swimming; diving; water skiing; scuba diving; horse falls, jumps, drags, and transfers; high falls into an air bag or water; car rolls; cannon-fired car driving; motorcycle racing; speed, drag, sail, and power boat handling; fight routines; gymnastics; snow skiing; jet skiing; sky diving; ice skating; golf; tennis; track and field; 10-speed bike racing; and hang gliding.”

During her lifetime, O’Neil set 22 speed records on both the land and sea—including the women’s land speed record of 512 mph, which remains unmatched to this day. Through it all, she battled casual sexism and ableism, as she was often not only the lone woman in the room, but the lone deaf person on the drag strip or movie set.

"It Wasn't Scary Enough for Me"

O’Neil was born on March 24, 1946, in Corpus Christi, Texas. Her father, John, was an Air Force pilot and oil driller, while her mother, Patsy, was a homemaker. When she was just a few months old, O’Neil contracted mumps, measles, and smallpox, an onslaught of illness that damaged her nerves and caused her to lose her hearing. Patsy, who had packed her in ice during the worst of the fever, went back to school for speech pathology so she could teach her daughter how to read lips and form words. She placed the young girl’s hand on her throat as she spoke, allowing her to feel the vibrations of her vocal cords.

Feeling those sensations helped Kitty learn to talk, while the sensations associated with engines would teach her something else. At the age of 4, O’Neil convinced her father to let her ride atop the lawn mower in what would be a transformative experience. “I could feel the vibrations,” she told the Associated Press. “That’s what got me into racing. When I race, I feel the vibrations.”

But racing wasn’t her first thrill ride. As a teenager, O’Neil showed such an aptitude for diving that Patsy decided to move the family to Anaheim, California, where O’Neil could train with the two-time Olympic gold medalist Sammy Lee. She was on her way to the qualifying rounds for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics when she broke her wrist, eliminating her from consideration. Soon after, she contracted spinal meningitis. Her doctors worried she wouldn’t walk again.

She recovered, but found she was no longer interested in diving. “I gave it up because it wasn’t scary enough for me,” she told the Chicago Tribune.

Motorcycle racing proved to be a better adrenaline rush, so she began entering competitions along the West Coast. It was at one of those races that she met another speedster named Ronald “Duffy” Hambleton, who offered his assistance after O’Neil crashed her bike, severing two fingers. Once she had gotten stitched up, the pair began a professional and romantic relationship. O’Neil moved onto a 40-acre ranch in Fillmore, California, with Hambleton and his two children from a previous relationship.

Hambleton would act as O’Neil’s manager, often speaking to the press for her after stunts or record attempts. However, O’Neil later alleged that he stole money from her and physically abused her during their partnership. In 1988, a Star Tribune reporter would describe O’Neil’s scrapbooks as containing a photo of Hambleton with his face scratched out; she had also written “not true” in the margins of newspaper clippings touting his profound impact on her success.

The Need for Speed

O’Neil wanted to go fast and she didn’t care how. So she expanded her scope beyond motorcycles, setting a new women’s water skiing record in 1970 with a speed of 104.85 mph. Her national breakout arrived six years later, when she drove a skinny three-wheel rocket car into the Alvord Desert. The hydrogen peroxide-powered vehicle was dubbed “The Motivator,” and it was the work of William Fredrick, a designer who normally created cars for movie and TV stunts. When O’Neil got behind the wheel of The Motivator, she quickly smashed the women’s land speed record. Her average speed was 512 mph, over 1.5 times faster than the previous 321 mph record held by Lee Breedlove since 1965.

She believed she could beat the men’s record of 631.4 mph, too, which should’ve been great news for her entire team. Fredrick and his corporate sponsors were gunning for a new record, and O'Neil had already reportedly hit a maximum speed of 618 mph in her initial run. But before she could take The Motivator for a second spin, she was ordered out of the car.

As O’Neil would discover, she had only been contracted to beat the women’s record. Marvin Glass & Associates, the toy company that owned the rights to the vehicle, wanted Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham to break the men’s record. The company claimed it was purely a business decision, as they had a Needham action figure in the works. But according to Hambleton, the company reps had said it would be “unbecoming and degrading for a woman to set a land speed record.”

“It really hurts,” O’Neil told UPI reporters as she choked back tears. “I wanted to do it again. I had a good feeling.” She earned the immediate support of the men’s record holder, Gary Gabelich, who called the whole incident “ridiculous” and “kind of silly.” She and Hambleton tried to sue for her right to another attempt, but she wouldn’t get a second ride in The Motivator. Needham wouldn’t break the record, either, as a storm dampened his chances. Not that he was especially polite about it.

“Hell, you’re not talking about sports when you’re talking about land speed records,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “It doesn’t take any God-given talent … even a good, smart chimpanzee could probably do it. Probably better—because he wouldn’t be worried about dying.”

As the messy legal battle dragged on, O’Neil focused on her budding career in stunt work. According to The New York Times, she completed her first stunt in March of 1976, when she zipped up a flame-resistant Nomex suit and let someone set her on fire. For her second job, she rolled a car, which was practically a personal hobby. (She liked to tell people she rolled her mother’s car when she was 16, the day she got her driver’s license.) O’Neil eventually became Lynda Carter’s stunt double on Wonder Woman, where she famously leapt 127 feet off a hotel roof onto an air bag below. “If I hadn’t hit the center of the bag, I probably would have been killed,” she told The Washington Post in 1979.

Her work earned her a place in Stunts Unlimited, the selective trade group that had, until that point, only admitted men. O’Neil continued racking up credits with gigs on The Bionic Woman, Smokey and the Bandit II, and The Blues Brothers. Although few stunt doubles achieve name recognition, O’Neil was a media darling who inspired her own 1979 TV movie starring Stockard Channing and a Barbie in her trademark yellow jumpsuit.

A Pioneer's Legacy

But by 1982, feeling burned out after watching the toll the work had taken on colleagues, O'Neil decided she was finished. She retired from the business at the age of 36, packing up and leaving Los Angeles entirely. She wound up in Minneapolis and then in Eureka, South Dakota, a town with a population of fewer than 1000 people. She would live out the rest of her days there, eventually dying of pneumonia in 2018 at the age of 72.

O’Neil lived her life as a never-ending challenge—to go faster, jump higher, do better. She always said that her lack of hearing helped her concentrate, eliminating any fear she might’ve felt over the prospect of breaking the sound barrier, let alone self-immolation.

“When I was 18, I was told I couldn’t get a job because I was deaf,” she told a group of deaf students at the Holy Trinity School in Chicago. “But I said someday I’m going to be famous in sports, to show them I can do anything.”

O’Neil did exactly that. Over her the course of perilous career, she carved out a name for herself in a space that was often openly hostile towards her, setting records and making it impossible for anyone who doubted her to catch up.

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