The Great Women of Motorsport - Janet Guthrie
Updated: Sep 5, 2020
For my next set of features, I thought I would look at great women of motorsport, ranging from drivers and team members from all disciplines who have achieved success at the top level.
My first feature is on a driver who shares my surname and is probably a distant relation, Janet Guthrie, a woman who originally trained as an engineer before turning to motorsport.
Janet Guthrie was born in Iowa City on the 7th March 1938, prior to her family moving to Miami, Florida when she was 3-years-old. Having attended Miss Harris’ Florid School for Girls through her elementary and high-school years, Janet studied Physics at the University of Michigan graduating in 1960 at the age of 21.
After graduating she joined Republic Aviation, located in Farmingdale, New York, as an aerospace engineer, having been a frequent flyer from as early as 13-years-old, a pastime encouraged by her father. During her time with Republic Aviation, Janet worked on some very interesting projects, including precursors for Project Apollo. In addition to flying she did her first parachute jump at the age of 16, gaining her pilots license a year later, proving Janet was always a thrill seeker!
In 1960, Janet nearly bought half a share in an aircraft, however as she was situated in New York, she realised that there were no areas to have fun in it, due to the proximity of the big cities. Instead, Janet purchased a 1953 Jaguar XK120 M coupe, where her thrill for speed started. Before too long, solo competitions were being entered, also known as Gymkhanas, as well as field trials and hill climbs, in her Jaguar, which doubled up as her everyday car to work!
Janet could not get enough of the thrill of speed and in 1963, she bought another Jaguar, this time an XK140 that had been set up specifically for the track, which is where her racing career began. Money was tough for Guthrie, she funded all of her own racing to begin with from the salary she was earning from her job in aerospace, often sleeping in the back of her tow truck during weekends away.
Due to her knowledge of physics she was talented enough to build her own engines, something which surely kept the costs to a minimum. During this time, she was becoming more and more successful winning her class at Sebring 12 hour in 1967 driving a Matra Djet 5S and in 1970 in an Austin-Healey Sprite.
Janet’s impressive results started to put her name on the map as she worked her way up the motorsport ladder, becoming a full-time driver in 1972. However, she still struggled for money and by 1975, Guthrie was nearing the end of her motorsport career. At this stage Janet was considering her next move, “I had no savings, no pension plan, no house, no health insurance, no stock or bonds, no jewellery.” It was a realisation that left her looking for work in the aerospace industry, when Janet received a totally unexpected call from a total stranger offering the chance to compete in the Indianapolis 500.
Guthrie snapped up the opportunity with the aim of competing in the 1976 race, however her attempts were blighted by reliability issues throughout the first two weeks of the event. It became clear pretty early on that her Vollstedt Enterprises Ford simply did not have the pace required to qualify. Despite being hampered by these issues there was still considerable interest in her exploits, although she faced resistance from some of her competitors and indeed the media, who were questioning whether Janet would be able to compete in a world dominated by men. Prior to the race, the NY Times reported that some were in uproar with Bobby Unser for example quoted as saying, “where the hell did Janet Guthrie get her credentials?”
Her inclusion in the 1976 Indy 500, coincided with a movement throughout America, as women demonstrated in the street protesting for quite basic rights such as equal pay in the workplace. The movement got the backs up of many men who felt that their power was slipping through their fingers as the traditional roles of genders were crumbling in front of them.
This power shift turned to anger, and Janet often became a vent for that anger amongst certain sections of society.
Guthrie always stated she was not racing on behalf of the women’s movement, however the response from quarters of the media and fellow competitors shocked Guthrie who had never experienced such a backlash in her career.
One driver who did not shy away and supported Janet was AJ Foyt, who was angered by the criticism she was receiving. Foyt let Guthrie practise in his backup car when her team owner Rolla Vollstedt searched the paddock for a new car for Janet to compete in. Following Foyt’s offer, an offer Janet to this day still cannot believe occurred, she took just nine laps to get
Foyt’s car to qualifying speed, lapping at average speeds easily quick enough to qualify for the race. This silenced the critics, before handing the car back to Foyt as she was not permitted to race in it. To this day, she does not know why Foyt offered his backup car to her, however without him and her team owner Rolla Vollstedt’s faith, the minds of the few would not have changed.
Sadly, she failed to qualify for the 1976 event, however a year later Janet returned stronger and qualified, ensuring she became the first ever woman to compete in the Indy 500. Guthrie qualified 26th with an average speed of 188.403 mph putting her safely on the starting grid. She achieved this feat on the fourth and final day of qualifying, being the fastest qualifier on “bump day” beating drivers such as Clay Regazzoni and a young Rick Mears. Her inclusion created a huge amount of positive media exposure for Indy Car and indeed Guthrie, as news crews documented her progress ahead of the race, even being mentioned in the introductory coverage prior to the race.
The coverage surrounding Guthrie’s achievements started many debates ahead of the race, the most noticeable being how the race should be started. American tradition sees each race started after the famous command, “Gentlemen, start your engines!” Indianapolis officials did not want to alter the tradition, arguing the cars were actually started by male crew members, hence the call. This frustrated Janet with her team responding by appointing Kay Bignotti, George Bignotti’s wife, the team leader of Patrick Racing STP, winners of the 1973 race, as Janet’s starter.
The Speedway management’s argument crumbled, revealing a special amended command would start the race that year, although they did not announce what this would be. All eyes were on circuit owner Tony Hulman Jr when he took the mic, the phrase used was, “In company with the first lady ever to qualify for Indianapolis, gentlemen, start your engines.”
Despite the publicity surrounding Janet and all the positive messages coming her way from some of the legends of the sport, such as Sir Jackie Stewart, she only managed 27 laps after suffering an ignition problem, found to be a timing gear issue. It was a sad end to her first Indy 500.
Although Janet suffered misfortune in the 1977 Indy 500, it certainly was not the end of her season, as she was busy making history in other American motorsport championships. Her record-breaking stint began a year before in 1976, when she became the first woman to qualify for a NASCAR Superspeedway event, after being invited to run the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway by Humpy Wheeler, the former President of the Charlotte Motorsport Speedway. Wheeler’s vision was to generate positive headlines regarding Guthrie’s participation to aid his vision to develop Charlotte Motor Speedway into a major sporting venue, 1976 being his first as promoter.
The deal was hasty as it only came about due to Janet’s failure to qualify for the 500, as the race was held on the same day. Prior to the deal coming about, Wheeler was calling Guthrie each day leading up to Indy qualifying trying to persuade her to race at Charlotte rather than Indy. Initially Janet did not want to know however a day before qualifying, Guthrie said, if she did not qualify, she would head down to Charlotte but as part of the deal she wanted the best machinery possible to compete.
Wheeler’s vision worked, the press followed her to Charlotte from Indy, however, as at Indianapolis, Guthrie faced the same bombardment of questions in relation to her driving ability, the world of NASCAR deeply critical that a woman could compete, with lead drivers of the day saying she’ll never make 600 miles.
On opening day of practise the car was undrivable however Junior Johnson, a legend of NASCAR nicknamed “The Last American Hero”, asked Cale Yarborough, then reigning champion, to try out the car to see what the problems were. Yarborough only managed to go a fraction faster than Janet after which they changed her setup completely, propelling Guthrie into the fight.
Guthrie qualified a very respectable 27th out of 40, competing against NASCAR legends such as Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Richard Childress and a young Dale Earnhardt. Guthrie finished the race an amazing 15th completing over 500 miles, a fantastic achievement. Again, Janet had silenced critics who felt a woman could not go the distance on ovals.
Wheeler and Charlotte also benefitted hugely from her exploits, something they had hoped from the start. It was the biggest sale of single tickets the circuit had ever seen and it is a record which still stands today.
It was not her only appearance of the 1976 NASCAR season as she raced again at Daytona, Dover, Charlotte once more and Ontario. Despite making five appearances that season, Janet was ineligible for points but she had undoubtedly made her mark on the NASCAR Series. Leading drivers praised her ability, such as Darrell Waltrip and Ricky Rudd, who had deputised for Janet during the season when she had fallen ill.
It was a record-breaking season, however she was not finished breaking new ground in NASCAR as in 1977, Guthrie made history as she became the first woman to qualify for the Daytona 500, also known as “The Great American Race”.
After having minor issues in the qualifying races, Janet started the race 39th of the 42 starters however she quickly showed she deserved to be there, making her way up the order to as high as eighth during the race. As she was challenging for seventh, her car lost two cylinders dropping her to twelfth by the finish. It was still enough for her to finish as top rookie amongst the seventeen finishers.
It was a result which showed how far Janet had come, in just five years she had gone from taking the plunge into becoming a full-time driver to being the first lady to compete in both the Indy 500 and Daytona 500.
Guthrie continued to drive in NASCAR throughout the season, alongside her single-seater commitments, racing in a further 18 rounds of the 31-race season. She made history again in 1977 as she finished sixth at the 1977 Bristol, the highest placed finish for a woman in NASCAR, a record which was not equalled until 2014, when Danica Patrick finished sixth at Atlanta.
Her final record in 1977 saw Janet become the first woman in NASCAR history to lead a race, after she led laps 43 to 47 during the Los Angeles Times 500 at the end of the season at Ontario Motor Speedway, the series finale.
1978 saw Guthrie return to the NASCAR scene, again racing for Lynda Ferreri, whom she made her debut with in 1976. Her best result that season was tenth at Atlanta, ending the season with 592 points.
Guthrie’s major achievement in 1978 however was her return to the Indy 500. A year on from the disappointment of failing to finish and the troubles she faced with her car, Janet qualified a fantastic fifteenth, with an average speed of 190.325 mph, ensuring she started on the fifth row of the grid.
Unlike the season before, Guthrie was able to finish the race, completing 190 laps on her way to ninth, the highest placed woman driver of all time. Again, the record stood until Danica Patrick came along when in 2005 she finished fourth. Her achievements were even more impressive when after the race it was revealed she had competed with a broken wrist, an injury she sustained two days earlier in a charity tennis match, although she hid this injury
from Indianapolis officials as well as her own team to avoid being forced to withdraw.
It was her only appearance of the 1978 season, however, in 1979, Janet raced in three of the seven rounds as the series broke away from the USAC to form their own formula following a disagreement over the future direction of the series. Her best result that year was fifth at the season finale at the Milwaukee Mile.
Sadly, the turn of the decade saw Janet without a permanent drive in either NASCAR or the newly founded CART championship, with her sole points finish in either category being at the Daytona 500, where in 1980, she bettered her twelfth in 1977 to finish eleventh for Osterlund Racing. She raced one last race in NASCAR at Pocono later that year finishing 28th and out of the points.
After this, Janet Guthrie’s career slowly started to ease off before retiring from full time motorsport in 1982. Since then she has raced the occasional race, the last being in 1986 for Peugeot in the IMSA series driving a Peugeot 505.
After her racing career came to an end, Janet set about writing her autobiography, all in her own words without using a ghost, something she is very proud of. As well as her book, she has featured on shows such as “Good Morning America” over a dozen times.
Guthrie has also had the honour of being inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006 where Darrell Waltrip introduced her and presented her with her medal. Later this year in May, she will also be inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hall of fame alongside Dale Earnhardt. The presentation will be on the 21stMay in downtown Indianapolis at the Oldtimers Diner.
Guthrie currently resides in Aspen Colorado where, until the age of 75, she was a keen skier although she stopped when the realisation hit that she did not bounce as well as before!
In my opinion, Janet Guthrie is much more than just a racing driver, but also a cultural hero for those who contested women’s rights at that time in America, when brave women were challenging the establishment, demanding basic rights such as equal pay.
Janet spoke up for herself in such a fantastic way throughout her career when faced with tough questions regarding her gender, at times speaking on behalf of a whole movement, rather than just herself, breaking barriers as she competed head to head. She was taking on tradition as a woman in a man’s world of top American motorsport, something none of us think twice about now.
Like every racing driver however she has always maintained that she did not do it for anyone other than herself, which is exactly how it should be and a true testament to her character as being an out and out racer. Sir Jackie Stewart described her in a recent documentary for Fox as “one of the boys”, for me, this is praise of the highest order.
Janet’s abilities as a racing driver cannot be underestimated, starting out on her own learning to build her own cars and engines to racing in America’s largest races is truly inspirational.
Now 81 and still as strong as ever, it is vitally important that Janet Guthrie is always remembered.
Images: www.indycar.com, www.alchetron.com, www.historicracingnews.com