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.