Road & Track (USA)
‘I’m a Driver Who Happens to Be a Woman’
JANET GUTHRIE, 1977
The press called her the “goddess of racing.” When Janet Guthrie debuted in Indy car for the 1976 season, she had a helmet-clad Athena—the Greek goddess of war—painted on the car’s nose.
“We’re all drivers here,” she told a reporter before the Schaefer Beer 500 that year at Pocono. “I’m a driver who happens to be a woman. There is no reason—physical, emotional, or psychological—that a woman cannot drive a car as well as a man. And when men don’t feel ashamed of being beaten by a woman, we will have come a long way.”
Guthrie had a daring childhood. “I was born an adventuress and grew up insufficiently socialized,” she says today. “My first love was flying. I soloed for the first time when I was 16, got a private license at 17 and an instructor’s and commercial license before I got out of college.” She was a development engineer at an aviation firm when she bought a seven-year-old Jaguar XK120M and discovered motor racing. She raced SCCA for years, plus the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring.
“After 13 years, I was out of money,” she says. “I had one used-up race car, no insurance, no house, no jewelry, no husband. I was saying, ‘Janet, you should come to your senses.’”
Then a phone call changed everything. Longtime Indy-car team owner Rolla Vollstedt wanted Guthrie to drive for him and become the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500. That year, 1976, she didn’t make the cut; Vollstedt’s car wasn’t quick enough. But press attention got her a NASCAR ride. She became the first woman to compete in the Daytona 500, finishing 12th in 1977. Then in May it was back to Indy, which in those days utterly eclipsed any other race in the Western Hemisphere.
“Rolla had gained enough sponsorship money to purchase a better car,” Guthrie says. “On the first day of practice, I set the fastest time. I went back to the garage, and Rolla said, ‘Well, Guthrie, that oughtta get their attention.’” While straining to make the field, Guthrie crashed at 191 mph. She still made the grid, qualifying 26th out of 33 positions. Even before she returned to the pits, she knew: “My life would never be the same.” Her achievement made newspapers all over the globe.
Before each Indy 500, track owner Tony Hulman made his famous pronouncement: “Gentlemen, start your engines!” This time he said, “In company with the first lady ever to qualify at the Indianapolis 500, gentlemen, start your engines!”
Guthrie made it 27 laps before her engine blew. She went on to start 11 Indy-car races with one topfive finish and 33 NASCAR Cup races with five top 10s. She didn’t just break the racing glass ceiling; she motored through it at nearly 200 mph.