Janet Guthrie changed auto racing history by becoming the first woman to drive in the Indy 500, Daytona 500, and the NASCAR Winston cup.
Janet Guthrie grew up seeking danger and adventure. After a failed bid to become an astronaut in 1964, Iowa-born Guthrie changed racing history by entering the world of motor sports.
With her path inspired by adventurous parents — both pilots — and her own inquisitive nature, Guthrie learned to fly planes by the age of 16. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in physics at the University of Michigan, which led to a job in engineering after graduation. Guthrie loved her work on Project Apollo at Republic Aviation, but she still craved something a little more thrilling. It wasn’t long before she landed in the driver’s seat at some of America’s biggest auto races.
The Start of a Racing Legend
Despite outrage from fellow competitors and even some fans, Guthrie made a name for herself as the first woman to race in the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500, and a NASCAR Winston Cup stock car race. Her entry into the sport paved the way for today’s female racing phenoms, including Danica Patrick, Shawna Robinson, and Pippa Mann.
What Guthrie was missing in support, she made up for in grit and tenacity. Lacking the funding, sponsorships, and crew afforded to her male counterparts, she doubled down and did the work herself, including building her own engines and towing her own race car — a Jaguar XK 140. To save money, she slept in her car at night between races and freshened up onsite each morning.
Recognition at Last
Guthrie raced on her own for more than ten years before capturing the interest of team owner Rolla Vollstedt. Oregon-based Vollstedt wanted to be the one to bring the first woman driver to the Indy 500, and he was impressed by Guthrie’s talent. Backed by Vollstedt, Guthrie qualified for the race and competed in 1977, in spite of continued protests and disparaging remarks about “a woman’s place” not being on the racetrack.
Bolstered by her engineering background and years spent building her own engines, Guthrie easily proved herself to her crew and team. She went on to finish ninth in the 1978 Indy 500 — the highest rank ever achieved by a female driver, a record that went unbroken until Danica Patrick’s fourth place finish at the race almost 30 years later in 2005.
Guthrie experienced her highest career finish in 1977 at Bristol Motor Speedway, when she placed sixth. Not long after, however, she was forced into early retirement due to lack of sponsorship funds.
Despite a career cut short, Guthrie’s contributions to the racing field didn’t go unnoticed. In 1980, she was inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. It took longer — 2006 — to claim her rightful spot in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, but she ultimately earned that well-deserved honor as well.
“If your desire is strong enough, anything is doable,” Guthrie once said, and she proved it as an impressive pioneer in motor sports, paving the way for improved equality during her racing tenure.
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