Carol Hennings Clemens: Living A Full Life
By Dawn Izon
WNC Woman Magazine received Carol’s name as a possible woman-of-interest because she was the first woman, in 1963, to participate in Ohio’s Put-In-Bay Race Car Rally Reunion.
I have completed a number of interviews and feature articles for this magazine, but this subject put me off center because I could not determine if my focus should be race car drivers, the Put-In-Bay Road Race, or women in racing. When I asked my editor, she replied, “Is this the only out of the box thing she has done? Did it have any lasting results for her sense of empowerment … that sort of thing?” Off I went to interview Carol.
By most standards, Carol’s entire life would be outside of the box – if she spent any time worrying about the box. She has lived and continues to live life to the fullest, exploring every opportunity for adventure and cherishing each moment. She says that she has no political or social agenda, and I believe her; what she has accomplished in her life, or should I say with her life, she has done for the sole purpose of enjoying every moment. And this woman has had amazing moments, let me tell you!
At age 70 (Carol is honest about her age), she manages two households. First, the home in Hendersonville that she shared with her husband who passed away in 1995; second, the house in Asheville that her 91-year-old-mother, also widowed in 1995, lives in. When I say manages, I don’t mean ordering around maintenance people; this little dynamo does it all.
The day I arrived in Asheville for our interview, Carol was taking down the Halloween decorations dominating the front yard. In a few short weeks, she will set up a Christmas village that includes twenty inflatables. She repeats the same routine at her own home. I met her mother, just as feisty as Carol, and very active. On a regular basis, they pack the Tahoe (the latest of three that she has owned) and embark on a six-week road trip. Their trips are well planned: back roads mapped for the best scenic routes, hotels booked, and landmarks to visit, especially lighthouses, which Carol particularly loves. But, before the lighthouses, came the cars that brought Carol to our attention.
Carol says that she has no regrets, that her life has been happy from childhood. She has always had a loving and close relationship with her family, although times were different back in the late fifties and early sixties. When she graduated from high school, her parents didn’t hand Carol the keys to a new car, or any car for that matter. She was not yet driving.
She worked for American Airlines and, by age 19, saved enough money to buy her first vehicle, an MGA sports car. Carol loved driving and soon connected with a local car group that met for weekend runs. This led to her participation in the Put-In-Bay Race, where she came in third.
What was it like to be the only woman? No problems, as far as she was concerned; she earned the respect of her fellow drivers by carrying her own weight and racing for the same reason as they did – fun. This was never an Equal Rights’ issue. She worked to live and to race, very costly as an amateur driver because she had to pay for maintenance and travel. Carol learned car maintenance beyond cleaning windshields and filling the tires with air. Her parents worked as her pit crew, traveling with her on weekends from race to race. Carol and her mother have been active members of the Corvette Club of Michigan since 1958.
In the racing circuit Carol, met and married Bob Clemens, a fellow racing enthusiast. After their marriage in 1965, they owned two leisure cars and two race cars, expensive to maintain. She continued her career in the travel industry and Bob worked as an engineer in the suspension division of General Motors. Over the course of his driving career, he competed in 328 national and regional races, winning 260. Their daughter Robin, a graphic artist who helps design promotional materials for races, is also an official flagger.
How and when they left racing directly relates to Robin, who spent most of her childhood traveling to races with her parents. Since this is a very expensive hobby, when Robin was ready to enter college, they retired from racing and invested in her education. According to Carol, “Every dime was well spent.”
The year 1995 was a tragic rough year for a family which, until then, led an idyllic life. Carol’s only sibling, a brother quite a few years younger, entered quarter midget races at age eight and participated in amateur racing until his death at age 45 in May. Shortly thereafter, Carol’s father passed away, and then her husband. Three beloved men removed from their lives within six-months left these two incredible women to sink or swim, but swim they did. To this day they enjoy a remarkable bond more accurately described as best friends than mother and daughter. They have never had a fight and don’t think they ever will.
Their most recent excursion took them back to the Put-In-Bay Reunion in September where Carol was honored as Grand Marshal because, 49 years later, she retains the distinction as the only woman participant.
In 1997, a former travel customer of Carol’s approached her about opening his own travel agency. Carol, a seasoned professional in this field, convinced him to focus on the premier service that caters to a clientele willing to pay for first-class attention. By heeding her sage advice, he launched the very successful Fifth Avenue Travel. Within a short time, Carol’s former customers requested her services once again. At age 60, Carol took her Social Security retirement. She laughs, “Most people do not realize how stressful that job is. The customers’ levels of expectation are very high, deservingly so, but the chances that part of their itinerary will be messed up during their trip are substantial. Maybe the Italian rental car company loses the reservation, or the hotel in Paris doesn’t give our customer the exact view requested.
These are all factors beyond our control, but, ultimately, they hold their travel agent responsible. I loved the job, but do not miss the pressure and stress.”
As an associate, Carol enjoyed maritime adventures, visited every national park several times, and bungee jumped in Nova Scotia while on a three-week, all-expense paid trip, courtesy of the travel company. Carol has stood over the falls in Canada, traveled the locks that transport the cruise ships, climbed hundreds of light houses, and raced sports cars all over this country.
In everyday life, she has been a much-loved wife, daughter, and mother, and a coach for cheerleading, track, and field sports. She admits that she is still driven by her very competitive nature.
Who would have thought that there would be more stress in working as a travel agent than manipulating race course turns at 80-plus miles per hour? How does Carol keep herself busy today? Besides maintaining two homes, spending four days of the week in Asheville with her mother and three at her home in Hendersonville, she must polish all those racing trophies which, I understand, fill an entire room. She builds, paints, plumbs and electrically wires both homes. During the summer months, she plans activities for her grandson’s visits. As he has gotten older, she laughs, her planning must be more diverse and challenging. This past August, they joined the Virginia Creeper, a 34-mile bike path tour. I was exhausted just listening to her!
Summing up, what defines Carol Hennings Clemens? Was she attempting to break the glass ceiling by racing when other women weren’t? Was her goal winning trophies and competing with men on their level and placing above them? Was she after the notoriety or the 15 minutes of fame? None of the above! Carol’s philosophy is simple: Live life to the fullest with no restrictions or regrets and realize that you set your own limitations. Life is for joyful living, and Carol Hennings Clemens looks to each day for joyful new adventures.
Dawn Izon may be contacted at (828) 350-7510 or email her at email@example.com