Janet Guthrie may never have reached the victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but still won several victories in the Indianapolis 500, so to speak.
Among Guthrie’s “victories” at Indy:
* She was the first woman to do a qualifying test (1976) – although she failed to make the field of 33 cars.
* A year later, just three months after becoming the first woman to participate in the NASCAR Daytona 500 (12th and honors winner of the year), Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the biggest show in racing in Indianapolis.
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Unfortunately, engine problems interrupted his debut – one of the most anticipated in Indy 500 history – just 27 laps from the classic 200 laps, leaving him a disappointing 29th place.
* She was the first woman to drive and complete the 500 – and also became the first woman to rank in the top 10 (ninth in 1978).
His top-10 was a brand that Guthrie had held for 27 years until fourth place by Danica Patrick in the 2005 edition of the 500, a brand that Patrick improved with the first podium of a woman in 500 years (third place ) in 2009.
As the first woman to ever run on the sanctified bricks of Indianapolis, Guthrie became quite a sight in itself – even if it was the attention that she didn’t necessarily or intentionally seek.
If you were a racing fan – especially a male competitor or a team owner – you like or hate her, the polar opposites are both incongruously united because of her simple presence on the most famous circuit in the world .
As a result, Guthrie became the front page of sports pages around the world, daring to walk where no woman had tried to walk before.
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Guthrie began a career as an aerospace engineer. But her desire to move planes faster prompted her to also feel a need for speed in her own right, eventually becoming a successful sports car racer.
Contrary to the mixed response she would ultimately get in both IndyCar and NASCAR, Guthrie was much more accepted in sports car racing. The more she ran, the more her opponents and fans viewed her only as a very tough competitor, not as a woman. This is the level of acceptance for which she has strived.
But even with his success, including two class wins at the 12 Hours of Sebring, Guthrie’s career came to a halt stridently due mainly to a lack of sponsorship.
“I was really at the end of my rope,” Guthrie told NBC Sports. “I was running out of money, I had a used racing car, I had no savings, no insurance, no husband, no house, no jewelry.”
Several months after failing in his first bid to qualify for Indianapolis in 1976, Guthrie received a phone call that would change his life forever.
Car team owner Indy Rolla Vollstedt, who gained notoriety as the first car designer to put an engine behind a driver in an open-wheeled racing car, as well as to put the first rear spoiler on a car in Indianapolis, was on the other end of the phone line.
“It was all the surprise of a lifetime,” said Guthrie. “This guy I never heard of before asked me,” How would you like to take a picture of the Indianapolis 500? “
“I was a driver who had a chance at the highest level of the race. There was no way in hell that I wouldn’t come back if I managed to get there. “
Guthrie returned to Indy with a much higher profile in 1977 than the year before. She was loved by many, especially other women, for what she did. It came at a time when the women’s movement continued to change long-held beliefs about what women should and should not do in life.
This do’s was made up of a very vocal and often cruel crowd – mostly male competitors – who felt that Guthrie had no place on the sacred 2.5-mile track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Frankly, I don’t think Rolla and certainly I didn’t know what turmoil we were going to cause, which made life difficult for a while,” Guthrie told NBC Sports. “Between the time they announced the program and the time I piloted my first race, it was about three months – and those three months were hell.
“It was” women don’t have strength, women don’t have stamina, women don’t have emotional stability, women will put our lives at risk. »»
Other women may have fled criticism, chat calls and even indications of violence, all because of their gender. Guthrie was considered by many of these critics to be a threat to their sex, their masculinity and above all their good brotherhood.
But Guthrie was not at Indy to knock down the entrance doors to the boys’ club, nor was she there to be a free woman.
“I just wanted to run,” she said. “Who wouldn’t want if they had the chance to compete in the Indy 500? “
Guthrie first caused a stir when she attempted to qualify for the Indy 500 in 1976. She successfully completed her rookie orientation, but ultimately failed to qualify, when team owner AJ Foyt decided not to get into the car in which Guthrie was to qualify.
“Talk about the pressure, but I upgraded this car (in practice) and I could have put it on the ground,” said Guthrie.
But if the naysayers thought Guthrie would never come back to Indianapolis and simply retire and disappear from the race, well, they didn’t know Guthrie at all.
She was not one to give up, period.
Just a day after failing to qualify at Indy, Guthrie was offered a ride in NASCAR’s longest race, the World 600 – which ran later the same day as the Indy 500 – by the president of Charlotte Motor Humpy Wheeler Speedway
Guthrie jumped at the chance to further demonstrate his versatility on four wheels. So, seven days after failing to do the 500, and although he had never climbed into a stock because until five days earlier, Guthrie found himself in the World 600.
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Wheeler hoped that Guthrie in the 600 field would not only sell more tickets, but more importantly, steal the headlines and attention away from the Indy 500 which took place earlier that day.
Wheeler got what he hoped for: Guthrie finished impressive 15th in the 40-car field at Charlotte, beating many of NASCAR’s best, including Richard Childress (17th), Bill Elliott (23rd), Buddy Baker (28th) and even Dale Earnhardt (31st)), with whom she would be a teammate in the Daytona 500 of 1980, the penultimate Cup race of her career.
Guthrie’s arrival in Charlotte would also begin a 33-race NASCAR race which would reflect the same timeline of his 11-car Indy ride from 1976 to 1980.
Guthrie has been inducted into more than half a dozen Motorsports Hall of Fame and is among the five nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame Landmark Award 2021.
When she failed in her first attempt at the Indianapolis 500 in 1976 and saw her second offer the following year with Vollstedt falling short after only 27 laps in the 200 laps, it was in 1978 that Guthrie and Indianapolis will be synonymous with the rest of his life.
It was a year that not only gave Guthrie the satisfaction of a job well done, but above all proved to the world of racing that yes, a woman could successfully drive a car in the most famous race in the world and do it with balance.
In addition, Guthrie controlled her own destiny that year, owning the car with which she would finish in the top 10.
“It was a real (near) thing to get there,” said Guthrie. “I spent the whole winter of 1977-1978 looking for funding. It wasn’t until a month before the cabinet opened that I finally found the funding. “
Guthrie brought the same pit team that led her to 12th place in the 1977 Daytona 500 with her in Indianapolis. Although most of the crew have never worked on an Indy car before, they not only prepared the car well, but also crossed it during the race and until the finish.
But it was not easy. Guthrie suffered a number of problems during the race, including:
* The fuel tank vent was blocked and it was not until late in the race that the team understood the problem. But by that time, Guthrie had already lost three to four laps, ultimately only finishing 190 of the 200 laps and costing him a potentially higher finish.
* The car was originally built for his colleague Gordon Gordon. Because Guthrie was taller, she found it hard to be comfortable in the seat, which caused her to lose her right foot sensation several times during the race while she was holding the gas.
* She has put on a new, untested head sock that does not fit well in her helmet. “The helmet pushed down (the sock) down my line of sight,” said Guthrie. “I basically had to drive with my head tilted back to see where I was going.”
* A radio borrowed from another driver who did not race failed to work, leaving Guthrie unable to hear his team in the pits. It took almost half the race before repairs could be made.
And then there was the biggest problem of all:
“I broke my right wrist while trying to pretend I was playing tennis at a charity game last Friday,” said Guthrie with a laugh. “So I had to change my left hand.
“The right hand could hold the steering wheel properly, but you had to shift gears with your little wrist and my right wrist didn’t move, so I shifted gears with my left hand.
“Among the various problems we encountered during the race, I thought that the best I could do with this car if everything went perfectly was probably fifth. Instead, we had a number of difficulties and I finished ninth. Well, I’ll take it. “
After its breakthrough in 1978, Guthrie will travel to Indianapolis for the 500 twice more.
In 1979, she had her highest qualifying effort (14th), only to have a virtual flashback when she started in 1977. She only completed three laps in the 1979 race before major engine damage – four burnt pistons – don’t leave her on the pit road, powerless to do anything but be just another interested spectator.
As cruel as fate was for her that day, Guthrie did not let her down. Less than three months after her disappointing performance in her 500th final, Guthrie could have enjoyed the best performance of her Indy car career when she finished fifth at the Tony Bettenhausen 200 in Milwaukee.
It would be the last Indy car race in which Guthrie would participate.
The following May, she returned to Indianapolis for another try, but reserved her term for Speedway the same way she started it: she again failed to qualify.
And that would be it for Guthrie. Not only would she never race bricks again, but her racing career had also been interrupted.
“Oh, it was a really terrible time,” said Guthrie. “I mean, ’78, ’79, ’80, ’81, ’82, ’83, all those years that I’ve spent every living moment trying to find support to keep running at the highest levels. “
But no matter how hard he tried, it was a tough economic time around the world and Guthrie hung up on the boy forever.
“Finally, in 1983, I realized that if I held it, I was going to jump out of a tall window. It was then that I stopped doing this and started working on the book. “
His autobiography, “Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle”, was a labor of love that lasted 23 years, Guthrie remembering meticulously all of his racing career – especially his Indy 500 tenure – which was ultimately published in 2005.
“I really thought of this book as my own legacy,” Guthrie told NBC Sports. “Sports Illustrated called it, I will never forget it,” an uplifting piece of work that is one of the best books on racing ever. “I found it pretty cool. “
With the book now out of print, Guthrie hopes to republish it by himself on the Kindle platform so that she can present her life story to a new audience, especially young aspiring runners.
She plans to write a new preface to update the contents of her original volume, but one thing remains the same today as she did when she wrote the story in the sports facility the most historic of the planet.
“The problem for women, in my opinion, is that they find it even harder to find funding for this very expensive sport than a man with similar achievements,” she said.
Now 82, the longtime resident of Aspen, Colorado has never considered herself a pioneer. “All I wanted was just to be known as a good racing car driver,” she said.
But what she did in Indy and NASCAR car racing was to open the door for many other women like Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher and Hailie Deegan to follow her.
“I knew at the time that if I was wrong, it would take a long time before another woman had a chance,” said Guthrie. “I have come to feel it as a responsibility, really.
“I mean, I didn’t do what I did to prove anything to women. I did it because I was a racing driver to my bone marrow. “