Daily Archives: October 24, 2008

Janet Guthrie’s had one adventurous life

Janet Guthrie as she looks today. (Photo courtesy of Sport Classic Books)

Janet Guthrie as she looks today. (Photo courtesy of Sport Classic Books)

Long before the December 1975 phone conversation that led to Janet’s biggest adventure — a shot at Big League racing — she had experienced a lifetime of adventures.

Janet was born March 7, 1938, in Iowa City, the oldest of Lain and Jean Guthrie’s five children. Her family moved to Miami when she was a youngster when her father, a pilot for Eastern Air Lines, was transferred there.”

Janet was adventurous by nature. Maybe she inherited that from her father, who was raised on an Iowa farm.

“My father was always drawn to flight, and experimented,” Janet writes in her autobiography, “Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle” (Sport Classic Books, 2005). “Chickens that he tossed from the top of the windmill fluttered to the ground unharmed. Cats sent aloft on his kites were agitated by the ascent, but returned to earth astonishingly calm.”

Janet’s love for adventure surfaced early. She learned to ride the bicycle she received for her fourth birthday in just two hours — with only a push to get her going and without training wheels.

When the Guthries moved to a primitive house deep in the woods of Dade County, instead of worrying about the prowling panthers and slithering snakes that lurked nearby, Janet shinnied up pine trees to listen to the ocean breeze. She also looked forward to weekly trips to the library, where she checked out adventure books. Never mind that most of the heroes she read about were boys.

Janet’s parents enrolled her in a private school, Miss Harris’ Florida School for Girls. She started in the second grade and attended the next 11 years, mostly on a confidential scholarship.

“Poor was a concept that did not apply,” Janet says of her upbringing. “Being short of money was not the same thing.”

While some girls Janet’s age longed to become cheerleaders, “I longed to go play in the clouds. From books, I knew what that would be like,” she says.

In 1953, Lain Guthrie gave in to her begging and taught his 15-year-old daughter how to fly a Piper Cub. She soloed a year later.

Janet made her first parachute jump at age 16 after nagging her father until he gave in. She had practiced her landings by jumping off the roof of the family’s house.

At 17, Janet earned her private pilot’s license at a grass airstrip where she worked to pay for flying time. That fall she entered the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering. She didn’t go straight through college, however. Adventure called.

Janet took a year off at the end of her sophomore year to earn a commercial pilot’s license and a flight instructor’s rating. She then spent a couple of months hitchhiking around Europe before returning to school and graduating with a physics major in 1960.

Janet’s next adventure took her to Long Island, where she hired on as a research and development engineer for an aerospace firm. There was only one problem: She wasn’t flying, and she missed it.

Janet considered buying a half share in an airplane. Instead, she saw a classified ad for a car whose style she loved, a Jaguar XK 120 M coupe. A gray 1953 was for sale for $1,200 in Manhattan.

Now, thanks to a modest lifestyle and loans from both a bank and a finance company, Janet would buy the Jag. Her adventurous spirit had taken her from airplanes to sports cars.

Janet and her Jag competed at gymkhanas and hill climbs before she attended a driving school and dove headlong into sports car racing.

In November of 1964, another opportunity for adventure briefly presented itself. NASA was looking for candidates for its Scientist-Astronaut Program. Janet applied, and her test results advanced her to the second round of evaluations. But she and the other women applicants were rejected the following year.

Janet’s sports car racing adventure continued, and she became a full-time racer in 1972.

There were successes, but “at the end of ’75, I was completely out of money. I had no house, no jewelry, no insurance, no husband, no savings. I was in debt, and I had one used-up race car,” Janet recalls.

Racing had been Janet Guthrie’s obsession for 13 years, and, she says, “the prospect of giving up loomed like a kind of death.”

Then her phone rang. “And someone I had never heard of, Rolla Vollstedt, said, ‘How would you like to take a shot at the Indianapolis 500?'”

Janet Guthrie’s biggest adventure ever was about to begin.

Copyright March 17, 2006. In 2006, Janet Guthrie was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. I am honored that she selected me to write this profile about her for the induction ceremony program.

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Posted by on October 24, 2008 in Uncategorized


Janet Guthrie: “A racer right through to my bone marrow”

Janet Guthrie (Photo courtesy of Sport Classic Books)

Janet Guthrie (Photo courtesy of Sport Classic Books)

When the world first heard of Janet Guthrie, she was already an experienced racer with a desperate need to advance.

“I was a racer right through to my bone marrow,” says Guthrie,

who is being inducted April 27th into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (IMHOF) in Talladega. “I was a racing driver who happened to be a woman. I knew that didn’t make any difference, (but) nobody else seemed to at the time.”

Guthrie’s big break — an invitation to make a qualification attempt for the 1976 Indianapolis 500 — came in late 1975, after she’d already competed in 120 sports car races over 13 years. The quiet young lady with a wide smile, a former aerospace engineer with a degree in physics, was a good driver; she had won her class twice in the 12 Hours of Sebring.

But she was also dead broke.

“I had no house, no jewelry, no insurance, no husband, no savings. I was in debt,” she says. “I had one used-up race car, and I was saying to myself, ‘You really must come to your senses and make some provisions for your old age.'”

Then the phone rang. It was Indy team owner Rolla Vollstedt, whom Guthrie had never heard of. He asked her if she’d like to take a shot at the Indianapolis 500.

“All that followed was due to Rolla Vollstedt,” Guthrie says. In fact, her fabulous autobiography, “Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle” (Sport Classic Books, 2005), is dedicated to him, among others.

Guthrie drove in her first Indycar race at Trenton in early May 1976. Then it was on to Indianapolis, where most of the drivers and crews, and some spectators, chose not to welcome with open arms this single, five foot-nine inch, 135-pound female driver.

Vollstedt’s car had not made the field at Indy in 1975, even with experienced open-wheel driver Tom Bigelow behind the wheel. Guthrie also could not make it go fast enough to qualify in 1976.

But another opportunity had presented itself. Guthrie had received an offer to try to qualify for the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race.

“The day after the last day of qualifying at Indianapolis, I was on my way to Charlotte, where it was just like Indianapolis all over again,” she says. “People said, ‘She’ll never make the field.'”

But she did make it, qualifying right behind Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott.

Then some folks said Guthrie would be worn out after 40 laps in a stock car with no power steering, and she’d have to pull in. They were wrong. They didn’t know this soft-spoken, modest woman who liked classical music and ballet was also very, very determined.

“I finished 15th,” Guthrie says. She had become the first woman to qualify for and compete in a modern day NASCAR race.

Guthrie drove in some more NASCAR and Indycar races in 1976. The next year she became the first woman to qualify for and race in the Daytona 500.

In May 1977, Guthrie and her crew overcame one frustrating problem after another to put a prototype car in the field at Indianapolis, making her the first woman driver to qualify and race there.

In all, Guthrie competed in three Indianapolis 500s — her best finish was ninth in 1978 — and in 33 NASCAR races between 1976 and 1980. Guthrie’s top NASCAR finish was sixth at Bristol in 1977.

Her life and racing career are both well detailed in her book.”This book puts you inside a driver’s mind and in the driver’s seat and explains the excitement a lot of people have found in Nextel Cup and, to a lesser extent these days, Indy cars,” she says.

It also teaches us something about perseverance and determination.

Copyright 2006. This article appeared in Stock Car Racing magazine.

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Posted by on October 24, 2008 in Uncategorized