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.