Guthrie, Janet (1938—)

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Guthrie, Janet (1938—)

American auto racer and first woman to qualify for, and race in, the Indianapolis 500. Pronunciation: GUTH-ree. Born Janet Guthrie on March 7, 1938, in Iowa City, Iowa; daughter of Jean Ruth (Midkiff) Guthrie and William Lain Guthrie; attended MissHarris' Florida School for Girls; graduated, University of Michigan, B.Sc. in physics, 1960.

Moved from Iowa City to New York, Atlanta, and then Miami (1941); attended private school in Florida; started flying at 13, soloed at 16, and had her commercial pilot's license by 19; worked at Republic Aviation in the aerospace division, Long Island, New York; granted her competition license from the Long Island Sports Car Club (1962); granted her license from the Sports Car Club of America (1963); applied to be one of the first scientist-astronauts (1965); worked as a physicist and non-professional auto racer; participated in the 24-hour International Manufacturer's Championship at Daytona (1966); successfully finished in nine consecutive runnings of the Daytona 24-hour, Sebring 12-hour, and Watkins Glen 500 endurance races (1964–70); was second in class at the Watkins Glen race (1965); was second in class at the Sebring race (1967); won the Governor of Florida's Award at Sebring (1968); took a job as a technical editor for Sperry Rand (1968); was first in class at the Sebring 12-hour race (1970); participated in the North Atlantic Road Racing Championship (1973); did public relations work for Toyota (1975); became the first woman to enter and pass the rookie test at the Indianapolis 500 trials (1976); was first woman to compete in a NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) superspeedway race (1976); competed in four Indy-car races at other tracks; was the first woman to qualify for, and race in, the Indianapolis 500 (May 1977); finished ninth in the Indianapolis 500 (1978).

Janet Guthrie worked her way up the ranks of auto racing to gain national recognition on several levels, but the climb was not easy. The Indy-car and stock-car racing establishments were dominated by men, and they were in no hurry to open the circuit to women. Until 1972, when the gender ban was lifted by lawsuit, women had not even been allowed in the garage area or the pits at Indianapolis. After that, a few women had publicly announced their intention to race at Indy but then faded away.

On May 29, 1977, Janet Guthrie skillfully drove through the barrier. But long after she had proved that a woman could qualify and drive in the Indy 500, long after she had demonstrated that auto racing depends on skill, coordination, and courage, Guthrie would still be asked, "Can you physically compete with men?" A tall, elegant woman, with light brown hair and hazel eyes, Guthrie's response was always polite, acknowledging a remark first made by Belgian driver Christine Beckers : "I drive the car, I don't carry it."

Janet Guthrie was born in Iowa City, Iowa, on March 7, 1938, to William Lain Guthrie and Jean Midkiff Guthrie . The oldest of five children, she came from what she has described as a bookish, eccentric family. Her father, whom she regarded as a crusader, operated the Iowa City airport and exposed the airlines' practice of dumping jet fuel from aloft after takeoff, a disclosure which quickly brought reform within the industry. When he was hired as a pilot for Eastern Airlines, he moved his family to Miami where Janet attended Miss Harris' Florida School, a private school for girls, from 1944 to 1955.

"I don't know what it was about the way my parents brought us up," said Guthrie, "but I never had the feeling that I couldn't be this or that because I was a girl. I was never pressured toward the idea that the best thing was to marry and raise children… that there was no other option." At 13, she began flying lessons, instructed by her father; at 16, she made her first parachute jump. She earned her pilot's license at age 17 and her instructor's license at 21. Grown into a slender, articulate, but softspoken woman who intended to make a career in physics, she sometimes wondered herself about her affinity for so-called men's pursuits. Eventually, she concluded that it was the challenges she liked, and that all her interests were intrinsically exciting.

After high school, Guthrie attended the University of Michigan where she received a B.Sc. in physics in 1960. That year, she became an aerospace research and development engineer for Republic Aviation Corporation, Long Island, New York, bought her first sports car, a used Jaguar XK 120, and joined local sports-car clubs. From 1961 to 1966, while at Republic, she entered gymkhana competitions, low-speed events which stress precision driving, such as contests on zigzag courses marked with pylons. In 1962, she was named the women's gymkhana champion of Long Island. By then, Guthrie had discovered sports-car racing and bought a used Jaguar XK 140 prepared expressly for racing. She passed tests for competition licenses from the Long Island Sports Car Club and the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and finished third in her driver-school race against faster Corvettes. (In 1965, she also passed the first round of testing by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to become an astronaut, one of only four women to pass, but she lacked the required doctorate or experience to advance further with NASA.)

From 1964 to 1970, Guthrie finished nine consecutive times at the Big Three American sports-car endurance races: the Watkins Glen 6-hour, the Sebring 12-hour, and the Daytona 24-hour. At Watkins Glen, New York, in 1964 and 1965, she finished second in her class, and in 1964 she was sixth overall in the country's top endurance events. Only about half the drivers who start in those events finish. Her awards included the Sebring Reye Dreyfus Twin Cup, the Falstaff Team Trophy, the KLG Trophy, and the Governor of Florida Award. For five years, she drove for a team sponsored by the Macmillan Ring-Free Oil Company.

A driver is a driver—whether male or female is irrelevant. The essentials are in the mind: concentration, judgment, emotional detachment, and desire.

—Janet Guthrie

In 1967, she had quit Republic Aviation Corporation in order to race full-time; the following year, she signed on as a technical editor for the Sperry Rand Corporation, a part-time job that allowed more time for racing. By then, Guthrie had become known to race fans, but she preferred to be viewed as an auto-racing driver who happened to be a woman rather than as a woman auto-racing driver. Severely depleting her funds, Guthrie bought a new Toyota Celica and rebuilt it as her own race car. It took a year, one she describes as the nadir of her life, as she took the vehicle apart and put it back together, in preparation for the 1972 2.5 Challenge Series racing program. Then, at the end of 1971, the SCCA canceled the competition.

For the next three years, Guthrie worked part-time and raced her Toyota in amateur and professional events. She won the North Atlantic Road Racing Championship in 1973. By 1975, she had competed in 120 races, in which she was usually the only woman entered. It was an outstanding record by any account, but the male racing-car establishment was still not anxious to let her in. She approached racing team owners, factory representatives, and other drivers, searching for sponsors and owners with cars willing to let her race. She was frustrated, in debt, and the Toyota Celica was now obsolete, forcing her to think about ending her racing.

In October of 1975, Guthrie went to work for Toyota as a consumer information specialist, demonstrating safe-driving techniques. Four months later, when the proposal finally came from an established Indianapolis team that opened the way to the Indianapolis 500, Guthrie insisted on a private test. "Unless the car went fast enough," she said, "and I could make it go fast enough, so that we had a viable situation, we'd shake hands and that would be the end of it." She had been approached by Rolla Vollstedt, a championship auto designer and builder from Oregon, who wanted her as a driver for one of his cars at Indianapolis. Though Guthrie had been racing for over 13 years, handling a championship Indy car was different. To see if she was up to it, Vollstedt rented the Ontario Speedway in California, a track almost identical to the one at Indianapolis for her to test drive.

Two weeks before Guthrie was to fly to California, she landed badly while doing jumping exercises, breaking a bone in her left foot. As the test date approached, her foot was still swollen and painful and sealed inside a cast that doctors refused to remove. On the advice of a friend, she soaked the cast off in the bathtub and limped to the airport with her leg wrapped in an Ace bandage. In California, she left the plane with a steady walk, in case the man who had recruited her was watching.

The Ontario track was rented for three days. Watching with Vollstedt from the pits was Dick Simon, the senior driver on his team, who wanted to see what kind of feel this new driver had for racing. By the third day, Guthrie was averaging 172.5 miles an hour on the two-and-a-half-mile track. A minor example of the preparation required for the Indianapolis 500 was learning to "ride the wall." To see how close she could get to the wall on the turns, Guthrie attached a four-inch metal rod to her car and drove nearer and nearer to the banked wall until she could hear the screech of the metal.

At one point, after making some adjustments to the car without Guthrie's knowledge, Vollstedt and Simon waited for her reaction. Her immediate recognition of the changes left both men impressed, as well as the representatives of Bryant Heating and Cooling, the company sponsoring the car. Still nobody knew yet that she was driving with a broken foot. A month later, Rolla Vollstedt filed his entry form for the Indianapolis 500, listing Janet Guthrie as one of his two drivers.

Her first race on the Indy-car circuit was the Trenton (NJ) 200 on May 2, 1976, in the Bryant Special. At a press conference before the race, she had her photograph taken with Indy champion, Johnny Rutherford, a welcome surprise after months of hostility and problems from those still talking about "women drivers." Some drivers claimed a woman could not handle a race car at 200 miles per hour. Though Guthrie was also welcomed by A.J. Foyt, Bobby Unser called her presence a publicity stunt, saying he would apologize if she qualified at Indianapolis. (She did; he didn't.) Unser, a driver who had never seen her drive, claimed he could "take a hitchhiker" and teach him how to drive better than Janet Guthrie.

The following day, The New York Times printed an account of her race against Foyt, Rutherford and Gordon Johncock. Unser's car had broken down in the morning trials.

In the pit area of Trenton International Speedway, mechanics in fireproof clothes tinkered with the empty blue race car. Above the seat, a white driver's helmet had "JAN" marked with tape on each side. On the back of the helmet were four small identification strips: Janet Guthrie. Blood Type O Plus, Last Tetanus 2–75, No allergies. After competing in sports car events for 13 years, the 38-year-old physicist was about to become a "debutante in asbestos." With a roar, the cars moved down the gray straightaway in front of the grandstand.… Lap after lap, Janet Guthrie streaked along. Shortly after her first pit stop to refuel, one of her pit

crew began shouting. "She's coming back in," he was yelling. "I couldn't hear why but she's coming back in." The chinstrap of her helmet had loosened.

"Of all the dumb things that I never had happen to me before in my life," she said later. "That sip of Gatorade at the pit was just enough to loosen the buckle."

Guthrie finished 15th in a field of 22 at Trenton, forced out by a gearbox break; but it was good enough to attempt the Indy 500. Though she passed the rookie test in the trials at Indianapolis, Vollstedt's car was not fast enough to qualify. When A.J. Foyt let her drive his backup car in practice, she proved she was fast enough to qualify, but he thought better of letting her use it.

Making up for her disappointment at Indianapolis was the opportunity to become the first woman to race in a Grand National superspeedway event sponsored by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). Only a few women had competed on the quarter and half-mile tracks in the 1940s, before the construction of the first superspeedway at Darlington. Admirers of Guthrie in North Carolina saw to it that she could race in the Charlotte World 600 on May 30, 1976. In a 1975 Chevrolet Laguna provided by Lynda Ferreri, a bank executive, and tuned up by veteran mechanic Ralph Moody, Guthrie came from the 27th position to finish 15th. For completing all 600 miles without a relief driver, she won the Curtis Turner award. Moving on to five other NASCAR events in 1976, Guthrie finished 15th twice and earned $8,179 in prize money. At the Daytona 500 stock-car race in February 1977, she was Top Rookie.

In 1977, Vollstedt provided Guthrie with a new and faster car, the Lightning, for another assault on the Indy 500. On a practice run at the Indianapolis Speedway on May 10, she crashed into a wall seconds after she was clocked at 191 mph. Even so, she recuperated and had her car repaired in time for the Indy qualifications, which she passed with a four-lap average of 188.403 miles per hour.

On May 29, 1977, the president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in his last call to the drivers beginning the 500, made the now famous statement: "In company with the first lady ever to qualify for the Indianapolis 500—gentlemen, start your engines." During the historic race, engine trouble forced Guthrie to make eight pit stops for repairs. She completed 27 laps out of 200 to finish in 29th place. But though no one could dispute her record behind the wheel, though she had demonstrated that she could drive with the best, skeptics were not to be silenced until 1978.

For the remainder of 1977, she competed for Rookie of the Year in NASCAR, taking the Top Rookie position in five races. In Vollstedt's car, she competed in the U.S. Auto Club's (USAC) other two 500-mile races, running as high as eighth at Ontario. "There is no question about her ability to race with us," said Cale Yarborough, the reigning NASCAR champion. "She has made it in what is the most competitive racing circuit in the world." But Guthrie was still without a sponsor. Discouraged, in March 1978, she admitted in a television interview that she probably would not be at Indianapolis that year. That same day, Texaco agreed to sponsor her, a mere month before the 1978 Indianapolis race. This time, her car was more reliable. Guthrie formed her own team and qualified for the race in 15th place, with a four-lap average of 190.325.

On May 28, 1978, in the Texaco Star, a "Wildcat" built by George Bignotti, Guthrie raced at Indianapolis with a broken right wrist. Her strategy was to maintain a conservative pace at the outset and finish strong. She gradually improved her position, a move that went unnoticed by radio and television announcers. While many drivers dropped out with car problems, more than 400,000 saw Al Unser's first-place finish and Janet Guthrie's completion of what was described as an intelligent, well-lanned race. She finished ninth, in the top ten, the first woman to complete the Indianapolis 500, again defeating some of the world's best drivers. The prize was nearly $25,000.

"I hope this ends the nonsense once and for all that a woman can't compete in these cars," she told the press:

Nobody would pay any attention to the fact that I had been running 500 miles in stock cars, a much tougher job than this physically—although these cars demand total precision, which is mentally grueling. Just remember, too, that the driver is the most visible part of the team. But the crew is most important. I had, I believe, the best crew in Gasoline Alley.

Janet Guthrie's 1978 Indianapolis 500 driver's suit and helmet are in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and she is a member of the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame. There is "very little in civilized life that demands everything you've got intellectually, physically, and emotionally," said Guthrie. "Auto racing demands all of this and more. Driving is living. It's aggressive instead of passive living."


Correspondence with Janet Guthrie, 1995.

Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1978, p. 183.

Davidson, Judith A. Biographical Dictionary of American Sports. Edited by David L. Porter. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988.

Eskenazi, Gerald. "It's One Woman Against 70 Men For Indy Berths," in The New York Times Biographical Service. March 10, 1976, p. 353.

"Janet and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines," in The New York Times Biographical Service. May 3, 1976, p. 697.

Olney, Ross R. Janet Guthrie, First Woman to Race at Indy. NY: Harvey House, 1978.

suggested reading:

Fox, Mary Virginia. Janet Guthrie: Foot to the Floor. Minneapolis, MN: Dillon Press, 1991.

Hahn, James, and Lynn Hahn. Janet Guthrie: Champion Racer. St. Paul, MN: EMC Corp, 1978.

Robison, Nancy. Janet Guthrie: Race Car Driver. Chicago, IL: Children's Press, 1979.

Susan Slosberg , Adjunct Professor of Public Relations at Baruch College and freelance writer, New Rochelle, New York

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Guthrie, Janet (1938—)

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Guthrie, Janet (1938—)