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Fast Cars and Warm Quilts: Auto Racing’s "Quilt Lady"

March 19, 2021 Archive Insight
Woman with pink outfit and dark hair sits with a quilt over her, part of which is in a needlework frame on her lap
Jeanetta Holder with Her Indianapolis 500 Quilt Made for Bobby Unser, 1975-1980 / THF78732

On May 30, 1932, the day that Jeanetta Pearson Holder was born in Kentucky, race cars sped around the track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway about 250 miles to the north. The timing of Jeanetta’s birth was certainly a hint of things to come: she would grow up with a passion for auto racing, and, as an adult, become that sport’s “Quilt Lady.”

For four decades, Jeanetta combined her love of auto racing and her sewing talents to create unique quilts for winners of the Indianapolis 500 and other auto races.

Man wrapped in quilt wearing baseball cap stands among other people with a large trophy and grandstands in the background
Dale Earnhardt is wrapped in pride and his quilt after the 1995 Brickyard 400 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. / THF78819

A Love for Racing, A Talent for Sewing

As a little girl growing up on a Kentucky farm, Jeanetta made her own small race cars out of tobacco sticks and lard cans which she “raced everywhere [she] went.” Jeanetta’s childhood creative streak soon extended to sewing. She began to make clothes for her doll—and her pet cat. By the time she was 12, Jeanetta began sewing quilts, filling them with cotton batting from cotton she grew herself.

Jeanetta was clearly “driven.” When she didn’t have a car in which to take her driver’s license test, the teenager borrowed a taxicab. About this same time, Jeanetta started going to the race track. Soon 20-year-old Jeanetta was speeding around an oval dirt track at the wheel of a 1950 Hudson at Beech Bend Park in Warren County, Kentucky. In the early 1950s, women drivers were uncommon—and so was safety equipment. Jeanetta was dressed in a t-shirt and blue jeans for these regional races.


Listen to Jeanetta Holder talk about her early racing days in this February 2010 interview. / YouTube

Becoming Racing’s Quilt Lady

Jeanetta soon left behind her experience as an amateur racecar driver for a career as a wife, mother, and decorator. She and her husband moved to Indianapolis in 1953.

Jeanetta—who attended her first Indianapolis 500 race in 1950—remained a racing fan, collecting autographs from drivers whenever she had the chance. In the mid-1970s, a friend suggested that Jeanetta use her sewing talents to create a racing-themed quilt that included these signatures. That same year, Jeanetta presented the finished quilt to 1976 Indianapolis 500 race winner Johnny Rutherford.

Woman with dark hair in braid wrapped around her head and man in polo shirt hold a quilt in front of empty grandstands
Jeanetta Holder presents A.J. Foyt with a quilt as the winner of the 1977 Indianapolis 500. / THF78695

Following on that first quilt, Jeanetta looked through her pile of fabric and embroidery thread and cut her own quilt design patterns out of newspaper to create over 75 racing-themed quilts. She presented them not only to winners of the Indianapolis 500, but also races like the Pocono 500, the California 500 at Ontario, the Norton Michigan 500, and NASCAR’S Brickyard 400.

Woman with blonde hair and glasses and man with white hair in a white dress shirt hold a quilt; text inscription and signature on photograph
Jeanetta Holder has also made quilts to celebrate other racing milestones. She presented this quilt in 1999 to racing team owner Roger Penske to mark his 30 years of racing at the Indianapolis 500. The Penske team had won the Indianapolis 500 ten times by then; these wins are represented on the quilt. / THF78850

The winning drivers treasure these quilts. Bobby Unser’s quilts grace the beds in his home. Rick Mears built a room onto his house to accommodate the large quilts.

Bobby Unser’s Quilt

Quilt with blocks alternately featuring cars and logo for "Norton," along with balloons and checkered flags in the middle and signatures throughout
Jeanetta Holder made this special quilt for race car driver Bobby Unser in 1981 to mark his three Indianapolis 500 wins. / THF94584

Jeanetta Holder met and got to know many of the race car drivers, especially Bobby and Al Unser. It was a special delight for Jeanetta to present quilts to the Unser boys when they won: Al in 1978 and Bobby in 1980 at Pocono; Al at the Indianapolis 500 in 1978 and 1987; and Al Jr. at the Indianapolis 500 in 1992 and 1994.

Man in white jumpsuit with arm around woman with large laurel wreath around her neck stand surrounded by other people, folded quilt to one side
Al Unser as the jubilant winner of the Pocono 500 in 1978, with Jeanetta’s quilt at his side. / THF78710

Bobby Unser’s 1981 Indianapolis 500 win became one of the most controversial finishes in history. Unser won the race, but was stripped of his win the following morning in favor of second-place driver Mario Andretti. Since Jeanetta was to present the winning driver with a quilt the day after the race, she gave the 1981 quilt to Andretti. Unser was ultimately awarded the win in October 1981, after a lengthy appeals process. In the wake of this dispute and to mark his three Indianapolis wins (1968, 1975, and 1981), Jeanetta decided to make Bobby Unser the special quilt shown above.

Man in blue jumpsuit and woman with curly hair wearing tortoiseshell glasses hold corners of a quilt spread out on the grass
Bobby Unser with Quiltmaker Jeanetta Holder at Pocono in 1980 / THF78752

Visit our Digital Collections for a closer look at Bobby Unser’s quilt.

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an entry in our former “Pic of the Month” series.

Additional Readings:

Indiana, 20th century, women's history, racing, race car drivers, quilts, making, Indy 500, cars, by Jeanine Head Miller

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