How Janet Guthrie changed the Indianapolis 500 forever

Jerry Bonkowski
NBC Sports

Janet Guthrie may never have reached victory lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but she still earned several victories in the Indianapolis 500, so to speak.

Among the “wins”  Guthrie had at Indy:

* She was the first woman to make a qualifying attempt (1976) – although she failed to make the 33-car field.

* One year later, just three months after becoming the first woman to race in NASCAR’s Daytona 500 (finished 12th and earned Rookie of the Year honors), Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the Greatest Spectacle In Racing in Indianapolis.

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Janet Guthrie celebrates after becoming the first woman to ever qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Photo: Getty Images.
Janet Guthrie celebrates after becoming the first woman to ever qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Photo: Getty Images.

Unfortunately, engine troubles cut short her debut – one of the most anticipated in Indy 500 history – just 27 laps into the 200-lap classic, leaving her with a disappointing 29th place finish.

* She was the first woman to drive in and complete the 500 – as well as became the first woman to earn a top-10 finish (ninth in 1978).

Her top-10 was a mark Guthrie held for 27 years until Danica Patrick’s fourth-place finish in the 2005 edition of the 500, a mark Patrick bettered with the first podium finish by a woman in 500 history (third place) in 2009.

As the first female to ever race upon the hallowed bricks of Indianapolis, Guthrie became quite a spectacle in and of herself – even though it was attention she didn’t necessarily or intentionally seek.

If you were a racing fan – particularly a male competitor or team owner – you either loved her or hated her, polar opposites both incongruously united due to her mere presence at the most famous racetrack in the world.

As a result, Guthrie became front page news on sports pages around the globe, daring to tread where no woman had attempted to tread before.

After graduating from the University of Michigan, Guthrie began a career as an aerospace engineer. But her desire to make airplanes go faster prompted her to also feel a need for speed within herself, eventually becoming a successful sports car racer.

Unlike the mixed response she’d eventually receive in both IndyCar and NASCAR, Guthrie was much more accepted in sports car racing. The more she raced, the more opponents and fans looked at her solely as a very tough competitor, not as a female. That’s the level of acceptance she strived for.

But even with her success, including two class wins in the 12 Hours of Sebring, Guthrie’s career had come to a screeching halt due mainly to lack of sponsorship.

“I was really quite at the end of my rope,” Guthrie told NBC Sports. “I was out of money, I had one used up race car, I had no savings, no insurance, no husband, no house, no jewelry.”

Several months after failing in her first bid to qualify at Indianapolis in 1976, Guthrie received a phone call that would change her life forever.

Janet Guthrie gives a smile to her pit crew after turning in a few practice laps prior to what would be the final Indianapolis 500 of her career in 1979. Photo: Getty Images.
Janet Guthrie gives a smile to her pit crew after turning in a few practice laps prior to what would be the final Indianapolis 500 of her career in 1979. Photo: Getty Images.

Indy car team owner Rolla Vollstedt, who gained notoriety as the first car designer to put an engine behind a driver in an open-wheel race car, as well as put the first rear wing on a car at Indianapolis, was on the other end of the phone line.

“It was quite the surprise of a lifetime,” Guthrie said. “This guy I had never heard of before asked me, ‘How would you like to take a shot at the Indianapolis 500?’

“I was a driver getting a chance at the top level of racing. There was no way in hell I wouldn’t come back if I managed to get there.”

Guthrie returned to Indy with a much higher profile in 1977 than the year before. She was beloved by many, particularly other women, for what she was doing. It came at a time when the women’s movement was continuing to change long-held beliefs about what women should or shouldn’t do in life.

That “shouldn’t do” element was made up of a very vocal and oftentimes cruel crowd – primarily male competitors – who felt Guthrie had no place on the hallowed 2.5-mile track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“Frankly, I don’t think Rolla and certainly I had no idea what a commotion we were going to cause, which made life difficult for a while,” Guthrie told NBC Sports. “Between the time they announced the program and the time I drove my first race was something like three months or so – and those three months were pure hell.

“It was ‘women don’t have the strength, women don’t have the endurance, women don’t have the emotional stability, women are going to endanger our lives.’”

Other women might have run away from the criticism, cat calls and even hints of violence, all because of their gender. Guthrie was seen by many of those critics as a threat to their gender, their masculinity and most importantly their good old boy fraternity.

But Guthrie wasn’t at Indy to beat down the front doors of the boys club, nor was she there to be a women’s libber.

“I just wanted to race,” she said. “Who wouldn’t want to if given the chance to race in the Indy 500?”

Guthrie first caused a stir by attempting to qualify for the Indy 500 in 1976. She successfully passed her rookie orientation, but ultimately fell short of making the field, when team owner A.J. Foyt decided not to enter the car Guthrie was slated to qualify in.

“Talk about pressure but I did bring that car up to speed (in practice) and would have been able to put it in the field,” Guthrie said.

But if naysayers felt Guthrie would never return to Indianapolis and simply walk away and disappear from racing, well, they didn’t know Guthrie at all.

She wasn’t one to give up, period.

Just one day after failing to qualify at Indy, Guthrie was offered a ride in NASCAR’s longest race, the World 600 – which ran later on the same day as the Indy 500 – by Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler

Guthrie jumped at the chance to further show her four-wheeled versatility. So, seven days after failing to make the 500, and despite never having even climbed into a stock car until five days earlier, Guthrie found herself in the World 600.

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Wheeler hoped having Guthrie in the 600 field would not only sell more tickets, but more importantly steal headlines and attention away from the Indy 500 that was run earlier the same day.

Wheeler got what he hoped for: Guthrie finished an impressive 15th in the 40-car field at Charlotte, beating many of NASCAR’s best including Richard Childress (17th), Bill Elliott (23rd), Buddy Baker (28th) and even Dale Earnhardt (31st), who she would be teammates with in the 1980 Daytona 500, the next-to-last Cup race of her career.

Guthrie’s finish at Charlotte would also begin a 33-race tenure in NASCAR that would mirror the same timeline of her 11-race Indy car stint: from 1976 to 1980.

Guthrie has been inducted into more than a half-dozen motorsports halls of fame and is among five nominees for the 2021 NASCAR Hall of Fame Landmark Award.

While she failed in her first bid to make the 500 at Indianapolis in 1976 and saw her second bid the following year with Vollstedt fall short after just 27 laps into the 200-lap event, it was 1978 that would make Guthrie and Indianapolis synonymous for the rest of her life.

It was a year that not only gave Guthrie the self-satisfaction of a job well done, but more importantly proved to the racing world that yes, a female could successfully pilot a car in the most famous race in the world and do it with aplomb.

Janet Guthrie sits in her Lola T500B HU03/Cosworth during practice for the 1979 Indianapolis 500. (Photo by Bob Harmeyer/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Janet Guthrie sits in her Lola T500B HU03/Cosworth during practice for the 1979 Indianapolis 500. (Photo by Bob Harmeyer/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

What’s more, Guthrie was in control of her own destiny that year, owning the car that she’d finish in the top-10 with.

“It was a real (close) thing getting there,” Guthrie said. “I spent the whole winter of 1977-78 looking for funding. It wasn’t until one month before the opening of practice when I finally found the funding.”

Guthrie brought the same pit crew that had led her to a 12th place finish in the 1977 Daytona 500 with her to Indianapolis. Despite most of the crew never having worked on an Indy car before, they not only prepared the car well, but also got it through the race and to the finish.

It wasn’t easy, though. Guthrie endured a number of issues in the race including:

* The fuel tank vent was blocked and it wasn’t until late in the race that the team figured out the issue. But by that point, Guthrie had already lost three to four laps, eventually completing just 190 of the 200-lap event and costing her a potentially higher finish.

* The car was originally built for fellow driver Gordon Johncock. Because Guthrie was taller, she had difficulty being comfortable in the seat, which led to losing feeling in her right foot several times during the race as she held down the accelerator.

* She put on a new and untested head sock that did not fit well inside her helmet. “The helmet pushed (the sock) down into my line of sight,” Guthrie said. “I basically had to drive with my head tilted back to see where I was going.”

* A borrowed radio from another driver who did not make the race proved defective, leaving Guthrie unable to hear her team in the pits. It took nearly half the race before repairs could be made.

And then there was the biggest issue of all:

“I had fractured my right wrist while attempting to pretend to play tennis at a charity match on that previous Friday,” Guthrie said with a laugh. “So I had to shift with my left hand.

“The right hand could hold the steering wheel okay, but you had to shift with the flick of your wrist and my right wrist wouldn’t flick, so I shifted with my left hand.

“Of the various issues that we had during the race, I figured the best I could do with that car if everything went perfectly was probably fifth. Instead, we had a number of difficulties and I finished ninth. Well, I’ll take it.”

Following her breakthrough showing in 1978, Guthrie would visit Indianapolis for the 500 two more times.

In 1979, she enjoyed her highest qualifying effort (14th), only to have a virtual flashback of sorts to her debut in 1977. She completed just three laps in the 1979 race before major engine damage – four burned-out pistons – left her on pit road, helpless to be able to do anything more than be just another interested spectator.

As cruel as fate had been for her on that day, Guthrie didn’t let it get her down. Less than three months after her disappointing showing in her final 500, Guthrie would enjoy the best performance of her Indy car career when she finished fifth in the Tony Bettenhausen 200 in Milwaukee.

It would be the last Indy car race Guthrie would ever compete in.

The following May, she came back to Indianapolis for one more try, but bookended her tenure at the Speedway in the same way she began it: she once again failed to qualify.

And that would be that for Guthrie. Not only would she never drive over the bricks in competition again, her overall racing career had also come to a halt.

“Oh, it was a really terrible period of time,” Guthrie said. “I mean, ’78, ’79, ’80, ’81, ’82, ’83, all those years I spent every living moment attempting to find backing to continue racing at the top levels.”

But no matter how hard she tried, it was a rough time economically in the world and Guthrie hung up her firesuit for good.

“Finally, in 1983 I realized that if I kept it up, I was going to jump out of a high window. That was when I quit doing that and started working on the book.”

Janet Guthrie’s autobiography is “Janet Guthrie: A Life At Full Throttle.” (Photo by D Dipasupil/FilmMagic)
Janet Guthrie’s autobiography is “Janet Guthrie: A Life At Full Throttle.” (Photo by D Dipasupil/FilmMagic)

Her autobiography, “Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle,” was a labor of love that took 23 years to complete, with Guthrie meticulously recalling everything from her racing career – in particular her Indy 500 tenure – that was finally published in 2005.

“I really thought of that book as my own legacy,” Guthrie told NBC Sports. “Sports Illustrated called it, I’ll never forget this, ‘An uplifting work that is one of the best books ever written about racing.’ I thought that was pretty nice.”

With the book now out of print, Guthrie hopes to republish it on her own on the Kindle platform so she can introduce her life story to a new audience, particularly young, aspiring female racers.

She plans on writing a new preface to update the contents of her original tome, but one thing remains the same today as it did when she was making history at the most historic sports facility on the planet.

“The problem for women, in my opinion, is they still have a harder time finding funding for this very expensive sport than does a man of similar accomplishments,” she said.

Now 82, the long-time Aspen, Colorado resident has never considered herself a pioneer or trailblazer. “All I ever wanted to do was just be known as a good race car driver,” she said.

But what she did in both Indy car and NASCAR racing was to open a door for many other females such as Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher and Hailie Deegan to follow her through.

“I knew back at the time that if I screwed up, it would be an exceedingly long time before another woman got a chance,” Guthrie said. “I came to feel it as a responsibility, really.

“I mean, I didn’t do what I did to prove anything for women. I did it because I was a racing driver right through to my bone marrow.”

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How Janet Guthrie changed the Indianapolis 500 forever originally appeared on NBCSports.com

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