Formula 1 fans know Lella Lombardi’s name for countless reasons: She’s the only woman to score points in F1, the only F1 driver to score a career total of 0.5 points, and the only out gay driver F1 has ever seen. But nowwe’re digging into her short-lived NASCAR Cup Series career.

That’s right; Lombardi, who spoke little to no English, made an excursion to Daytona International Speedway to take part in NASCAR’s 1977 Firecracker 400. Even more shocking? NASCAR paid her expenses, set her up with a great team, guaranteed her excellent machinery, and asked rally racer Christine Beckers to join the field, too. All, allegedly, in an effort to discredit Janet Guthrie.

The controversial 1977 Firecracker 5400

By 1977, Lella Lombardi was considered one of the best women drivers in the world. She had impressed team owners and talent spotters around the world, and the half-point she scored at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix — albeit under tragic circumstances — etched her name permanently in the Formula 1 record books.

But when NASCAR paid at least $25,000 (or, about $130,000 today, converted for inflation), was the Cup Series’ goal really to highlight female talent? Or did it have an ulterior motive in mind?

This story is a tie-in to Elizabeth Blackstock’s podcast, “Deadly Passions, Terrible Joys.” Her latest episode centers on the 1977 Firecracker 400, a NASCAR Cup Series race featuring three women: Janet Guthrie, Christine Beckers, and Lella Lombardi. NASCAR invited both European women racers out to the track, allegedly in an attempt to discredit Guthrie and purge women of the sport.

See, in 1977, American racer Janet Guthrie had made a point of competing in as many NASCAR and IndyCar races as possible in an effort to both further legitimize herself as well as to make a better living. But the presence of a woman in these high-level forms of racing was met with derision, and in her autobiography A Life at Full Throttle, Guthrie alleges that NASCAR had attempted to make her uncomfortable.

“NASCAR’s attempts to hamstring our operation had been relatively subtle so far,” Guthrie wrote. “The worst they had done, at least as far as we knew, was delay our tech inspections at most events as long as possible, cutting our practice short.

“As an annoyance, they usually left us out in the rain without a garage until we had qualified for a race and the non-qualfiiers who’d had a roof over their heads had gone home.”

But the backlash got worse after Guthrie made history by becoming the first woman to ever qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in May of 1977. Agitated racing fans flooded enthusiast magazines with letters alleging that IndyCar had become a “pantywaist” sport, and that if a woman could race there, then it was too easy a discipline.

“NASCAR isn’t stupid,” Lynda Ferreri, Guthrie’s manager, told her driver, as reported in A Life at Full Throttle. “They don’t want the status of their sport to be downgraded, as professions often are when women enter them.”

Heading into the 1977 Firecracker 400, though, NASCAR had made the perplexing decision to invite Formula 1 driver Lella Lombardi and rally/touring car ace Christine Beckers to compete in the annual Independence Day event. With Guthrie in the field, that meant a record-equaling three women would compete in the same NASCAR race for only the second time in history.

And NASCAR didn’t merely invite the European drivers. It also paid both women thousands of dollars, guaranteed them drives at some of the best NASCAR Cup Series teams on the grid, and also made sure their assigned garage areas left them in close contact with legendary drivers, possibly in the hope that these women could learn by proximity.

But why? Why go to all that trouble to invite women to compete in a sport that didn’t want them around?

“That’s easy,” Ferrari is said to have told Guthrie. “If they can discredit us in the eyes of our sponsor, they’ll have taken a big step toward purging their fields of women altogether.”

Dig deeper into Formula 1 history

???? 75 days of hell: F1’s last woman driver has a shocking story to tell

???? The scandalous story behind the man who introduced glamour to F1

Lella Lombardi: Driving a NASCAR ‘like riding a buffalo’

For her first and only NASCAR start, F1 racer Lella Lombardi was seemingly given all the tools she’d need to succeed. Chevrolet provided her with its best engine and had it tuned by one of the best tuning shops for a sum of around $10,000. She was given garage space next to A. J. Foyt, who was perhaps supposed to help her improve her craft.

Even then, it would be a challenge. The Italian Lombardi barely spoke a lick of English, and we can assume her crew likely didn’t speak any Italian. Interestingly, Vic Elford — a British racing driver who was called Christine Beckers’ boyfriend — often served as her interpreter.

“I can’t see Lella being impressed by the other drivers in the race,” Elford told the press, “but Christine may be intimidated by the grandeur of the occasion. Lella is very aggressive. She will not be impressed by a Richard Petty or a Cale Yarborough breathing down her neck. Christine might be.”

He also shared that Lombardi and Beckers were able to compare their stock car experiences with their prototype experiences; after all, the two women had shared a car earlier that year at the Daytona 24.

Elford explained, “Physically, the girls tell me the stock car is lighter to drive than a prototype. For instance, prototypes are much harder to hold on the 31-degree banking.

“The problem is the sheer size of the stock car. While they are used to placing the slimmer prototypes within an inch of the wall, the women at first were getting the stock cars only within a foot or two of a wall.

“It is a matter of experience, and after a week of driving they are getting much closer.”

Elford also shared that, thanks to the language barrier, Lombardi had a list of Italian words for things like oil and tires pasted on her dashboard, all of which were assigned a number. That way, she could hold up a certain number of fingers to indicate what she needed to her crew.

If Elford had a high opinion of the European women racing in the Firecracker 400, many of the NASCAR sect didn’t.

Dick Brooks, a veteran racer on the NASCAR circuit, claimed he was offering a hand to Lombardi and Beckers thanks to an ulterior motive: “They’re good race drivers, but not only that, they’re good looking, too.”

However, he also regularly railed against the presence of women in NASCAR, saying, “They never had to race on the sportsman circuit, and they never had to put together an old car in the backyard

“They get paid high dollars because they are women, and they take away a spot from a guy who is trying to make a living on the circuit.

“If they’re here just for women’s equality, I don’t think they belong here.”

Larry Woody, a writer for The Tennessean, offered a similar sentiment in a column he wrote on the 1977 Firecracker 400.

“What’s stock car racing coming to?” he wrote. “Next thing you know, they’ll be serving tea at pit stops and planting pansies in the infield and hanging curtains along pit road. Chanel No. 5 will compete for space in the garage area with exhaust fumes and cigar smoke.”

While Janet Guthrie wrote extensively about her impressions of the uncomfortable media coverage in her autobiography, we don’t know much about how Lombardi felt — though perhaps the language barrier prevented her from seeing the worst of it.

In fact, she’s really only quoted twice in media reports from the event. First, she has been widely reported as saying that driving in NASCAR was “like riding a buffalo.”

Later, via an interpreter, she said, “At first the car seemed too fast, then it was just right. Now it’s not fast enough for me.”

Of the three women, Guthrie qualified the best, though both Lombardi and Beckers did make the field in what was a deeply competitive era where not every entry could make the cut.

But the race itself left much to be desired.

Guthrie retired on lap 11, having suffered a blown engine. Beckers followed suit 22 laps later when her brakes failed.

But just two laps before the halfway mark of the 160-lap event, rain descended on half the track, resulting in a two-hour-long red flag. Lombardi was still in the race, with a chance at finishing, when the delay kicked off, and she was able to take the restart.

Sadly, on lap 103, she suffered her own mechanical failure when the rear end of her car failed. She was the best finisher of all three women, and she was credited with 31st position out of 41 starters. Only 26 cars finished the race.

As expected, both Beckers and Lombardi returned to Europe after their NASCAR debut — which would turn out to be their only appearance in the American stock car racing series.

Guthrie continued in NASCAR, securing her best finish of sixth place at Bristol in August of 1977. She credits that result as finally changing the minds of some of her more stubborn male competitors, who came to view her as a legitimate competitor.

Guthrie’s continued presence in NASCAR ultimately meant that the series’ efforts at quashing female participation didn’t work, and the series has grown and evolved in countless ways over the years to encourage greater diversity.

But the alleged attempt to discourage women did result in one of the wildest PR stunts of all time — and it gave Lella Lombardi a fascinating entry on her racing resumé.

Read next: Meet the American driver who witnessed two of motorsport’s greatest tragedies