Janet Guthrie will always be remembered as the first woman to take part in the Indianapolis 500, a feat she achieved in 1977, but what is often overlooked is that she was already a veteran of some of motorsport’s toughest races. And there is so much more to her life than racing: Guthrie is a truly extraordinary woman.
Flying high: life as a pilot
She was born in 1938 in Iowa, and her first ambition was to be a commercial pilot. While her contemporaries at school were cheerleading, she was learning to fly; she first flew solo when she was just 16. Airlines were not in the habit of employing female pilots at the time so, on the back of her PhD in physics from the University of Michigan, she worked first as an aerospace engineer and then applied to Nasa’s Scientist-Astronaut programme. She was rejected on account of her gender and turned to racing.
In 1963 she bought a Jaguar XK140, which she maintained herself and even slept in. The next year she achieved her first notable result, finishing sixth in a 500-mile race at Watkins Glen. Her career blossomed and soon she was taking part in races such as the Daytona 24 Hours and the Sebring 12 Hours, often part of an all-female driver line-up. She also raced in Trans-Am events and the North Atlantic Road Racing Championship, but just as the money started to run out, in 1976, a man called Rolla Vollstedt came on the scene.
Indy 500: if at first you don’t succeed…
Vollstedt owned a small team and was determined to get a woman on the grid for that year’s Indianapolis 500. She jumped at the chance. Opposition to her participation was widespread and she had just one IndyCar race at Trenton to prepare for the Brickyard. She passed her rookie test but failed to qualify for the big race, much to the delight of the chauvinists. She took part in a handful of IndyCar races later in the season but switched to Nascar.
Despite gaining some good results on the Nascar ovals, she and Vollstedt had unfinished business in open-wheel racing, particularly at the Indy 500. They tried again in 1977 and qualified on a starting grid that read like an honour board in the Indianapolis Museum: Tom Sneva, the Unser brothers (Bobby and Al), Mario Andretti, AJ Foyt, Gordon Johncock, Johnny Rutherford. But the history-maker was Guthrie, even though her race ended in mechanical failure after just 27 laps.
She was back at Indianapolis the following two years, finishing a very creditable ninth in 1978, but she began to wind her career down and retired in 1980; her best IndyCar finish was fifth at Milwaukee the year before.
Sports Hall of Fame
Her helmet and racing overalls are on display at the Smithsonian in Washington and she has been inducted into both the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame, but perhaps her greatest accolade came from motorsport legend Mario Andretti, who paid her a telling if backhanded compliment: “She was just another car in front of you that you wanted to pass.”
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