American race car driver
In 1977, the famous words traditionally spoken at the beginning of motorsport's best known race were changed to "In company with the first lady ever to qualify at Indianapolis—gentlemen, start your engines." The change acknowledged the presence of thirty-nine-yearold Janet Guthrie. Before this historic moment, Guthrie had thirteen years of trailblazing experience in the male-dominated world of sports car racing. With her last major race, a career-best fifth place finish at the Milwaukee 200 in 1979, her career began to wind down. By then, she had earned a distinguished position in women's sports history.
A Thirst for Adventure
Janet Guthrie was born in Iowa City, Iowa, on March 7, 1938, the oldest of five children. At the age of three, she moved with her family to Miami, Florida, when her father accepted a job as an Eastern Airlines pilot. Her love of adventure, and fast machinery in particular, started early.
Guthrie earned a pilot's license at the age of seventeen, and even before she graduated from the University of Michigan in 1960 with a bachelor's degree in physics, she worked as a commercial pilot and a flight instructor. After graduation, she began a career as an aerospace engineer, working on forerunners to the Apollo rockets. She also applied for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) first Scientist-Astronaut program. She passed the first round of eliminations but lacked the Ph.D. necessary to advance. Meanwhile, the tug of competition, something that flying did not provide, led her to buy a Jaguar XK 120. She disassembled then reassembled the engine, with the goal of turning it
into a race car. She started competing soon after, and in 1964 won two Sports Car Club of America races and finished sixth in the Watkins Glen 500 in New York. Her work in the aerospace industry began to give way to sports car racing.
She explained the lure of competitive racing to Margie Boule of the Oregonian, "All these wonderful machines developed in the 20th century …made the difference for a woman who had the same sense of adventure as a man but didn't have the broad shoulders and the big muscles.… The good old boys weren't happy to see me coming."
A Pioneering Racing Career
By 1971, Guthrie had completed nine consecutive endurance races. But her star really started to rise in 1976, when she became the first woman to compete in a National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) Winston Cup superspeedway event, finishing fifteenth out of forty starters. She did not qualify for the Indianapolis 500 that year, but racing team owner and car builder Rolla Vollstedt was impressed enough to offer her a test drive in one of his Indy cars. Pleased with her performance, she became Vollstedt's second driver at the 1977 Indianapolis 500 qualifying trials. Guthrie qualified and competed, but engine trouble forced her out of the race early. The next year, she returned to the Indianapolis 500 and finished ninth out of 33 starters. She remains the only woman to finish in the top ten.
Displaying racing talent and persistence, Guthrie continued to post impressive finishes. In 1977 alone, she was top rookie at Rockingham, Charlotte, Richmond, and Bristol. She competed in nineteen NASCAR Winston Cup races that year, finishing in the top twelve ten times. She also was the first woman and Top Rookie at the Daytona 500, finishing twelfth.
She also began winning over critics. Fellow driver Mario Andretti told The Washington Star in 1977, "Anyone who says she doesn't belong, just feels threatened." Driver Bobby Unser echoed the sentiment, telling Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine in 1979, "She's done a good job. I gotta admit that I had my doubts about her. But she's proven her point … she can be up there in the top 10. There are a lotta guys who can't say that."
Still, Guthrie was dogged by the allegation that she was not competitive; that her racing career amounted to an experiment. In typical fashion, she proved herself unflappable in handling the close scrutiny and frustrations she faced. In an interview with Tracy Dodds of the Los Angeles Times, she said, "I know that that is not true. I stand on my record … but it's hard to have your reputation kicked around again and again." The criticism ignored the fact, her supporters countered, that she was poorly funded and usually raced in cars that were entered just to complete the field.
Few Women Followed Her Lead
Guthrie's racing career did not end the way she wanted. Without adequate sponsorship, she did not have the money to continue. "I didn't quit willingly, and I didn't accomplish what I felt I could," she told Boule of the Oregonian.
Few women have replicated Guthrie's racing success. She points to several reasons for this—the big money corporate sponsorship the sport requires, a male network that discourages women's participation, and a persistent attitude that women don't have what it takes to race.
Guthrie argues that corporate sponsorship is still not as available to women as it is to men and remains the biggest reason women have made little progress in the sport. As for the idea that women lack the ability, in 1987 she told Dodds of the Los Angeles Times, "Women just can't do it? Horsefeathers. I find that highly offensive." She is armed with examples from different sports to illustrate her contention that women possess the skills, stamina, and courage to compete with men.
Attitudes among drivers, however, have shifted over the years, partly because Guthrie's success in breaking the gender barrier has made women racers more acceptable. For example, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser, Sr. , who spoke out against Guthrie's 1977 appearance at Indy, is mentoring twenty-two-year-old driver Sarah Fisher. In 1999, Fisher became the youngest woman to compete in an Indy event.
Guthrie now lives in Colorado, with her husband of thirteen years. She completed the manuscript chronicling her racing days, Lady and Gentlemen, and is seeking a publisher. Guthrie still loves the sport and follows the progress of up and coming drivers, especially the women. She travels and gives speeches extensively. She's also active in the arts.
Guthrie's helmet and driver's suit are in the Smithsonian Institution, and she was one of the first inductees into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame. Even though her last major race was more than twenty years ago, her pioneering influence remains. When Guthrie got Sarah Fisher's autograph during a 2002 visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Fisher wrote, "To Janet, my idol."
|1938||Born March 7 in Iowa City, Iowa|
|1955||Earns pilot license at age seventeen|
|1960||Graduates from University of Michigan with B.Sc. in physics|
|1960||Joins Republic Aviation in New York as aerospace engineer|
|1960||Buys her first sports car, a used Jaguar XK 120|
|1963||Begins competing in high-speed car races|
|1964||Passes first round of eliminations of NASA's first Scientist-Astronaut Program|
|1967||Resigns position with Republic Aviation|
|1976||Granted a United States Auto Club license|
|1976||Becomes first woman to compete in NASCAR Winston Cup event|
|1976||Becomes first woman to enter Indianapolis 500 and pass the rookie test|
|1977||Becomes first woman to qualify and race in Daytona 500|
|1977||Becomes first woman to qualify and race in Indianapolis 500|
|1979||Finishes fifth in the Milwaukee 200, her last major race|
|1989||Marries Warren Levine|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1967||First in class, Sebring 12-Hour (GT-6)|
|1970||First in class, Sebring 12-Hour (Under 2 Liter Prototype)|
|1971||First overall, New York 400, Bridgehampton|
|1973||North Atlantic Road Racing Champion|
|1976||Finished 15th, Charlotte World 600 (NASCAR superspeedway race)|
|1977||Finished 12th, Daytona 500 (Top Rookie)|
|1977||Set fastest time of day on opening day of practice, Indianapolis 500|
|1978||Finished ninth, Indianapolis 500|
|1979||Finished 34th, Indianapolis 500|
|1979||Finished fifth, Milwaukee 200|
|1980||Finished 11th, Daytona 500|
|1980||Inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame|
|1997||Honored at "Specialty Equipment Market Association's (SEMA) Salute to Women in Motorsports", Washington, DC|
|2002||Received Lifetime Achievement Award in motorsports at Boy Scouts Breakfast, Portland, Oregon|
Woolum, Janet. Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports in America. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1998, 2nd ed.
Boule, Margie. "For Racing Pioneer, Women Still Have a Long Way to Go." Oregonian (June 13, 2002): E01.
Dodds, Tracy. "Why Aren't Women Racing at Indy? Ask Guthrie." Los Angeles Times (May 24, 1987): 3.
"Pioneer Reflects on History; Guthrie Made Her Mark in '77." Commercial Appeal (May 24, 2002): D4.
"History of Women at Indy." http://cbs.sportsline.com/u/ce/feature/0,1518,2392629_6,00.html (October 22, 2002).
"Janet Guthrie." International Women's Sports Hall of Fame. www.hickoksports.com/biography/guthriejan.shtml (October 18, 2002).
"Janet Guthrie." www.nascar.com/2002/kyn/women/02/02/Guthrie/(October 18, 2002).
"Janet Guthrie—Auto Racing Legend." www.janetguthrie.com/indexold.htm (October 16, 2002).
"Janet Guthrie Biography." www.janetguthrie.com/Biography.htm (October 16, 2002).
"Janet Guthrie Career Statistics." www.janetguthrie.com/careerstats.htm (October 16, 2002).
"Janet Guthrie, The First Female Indianapolis 500 Driver, to be Honored On Capitol Hill May 7 at the 'SEMA Salute to Women in Motorsports." www.classiccarbuyersguide.com/news/press/date/19970506/press00203.html (October 22, 2002).
"Quotes From Her Peers." www.janetguthrie.com/quotes.htm (October 16, 2002).
Sketch by Carole Manny
"Guthrie, Janet." Notable Sports Figures. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/sports/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/guthrie-janet
"Guthrie, Janet." Notable Sports Figures. . Retrieved December 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/sports/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/guthrie-janet