Monday, August 27, 2012

Janet Guthrie. A very impressive lady

Most race car fans, at least those that are old enough, remember Janet Guthrie as the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500. That took place way back in 1977 and yours truly just happened to be in attendance at that race, partying with the rest of the maniacs in the infield.

Times were quite different back then. The mere idea of a woman being admitted to Augusta National, the exclusive all-male country club and home of the Masters tournament, would have brought loud guffaws. It was much the same with Guthrie attempting to race in the Indy 500. Most open-wheel race fans considered it a novelty and/or publicity stunt. She must be kidding, right? But she wasn't kidding, and went on to earn her way into the field -- fair and square. Still, male chauvinism ran rampant, particularly amongst some of the other more established male drivers. This was their stag party, and Guthrie was no more than the entertainment. "Have fun racing your car", they grumbled, "but stay out of the way". Indeed, Guthrie didn't fare particularly well in that race, eventually having engine problems and finishing 29th out of 33. The following year she would be back and finish 9th. Not too shabby for a sophomore who never had the top-notch equipment many of her better known male counterparts had become so accustomed to.

Yet Janet Guthrie was so much more than just an Indy car driver. She graduated from the University of Michigan in 1960 with a Bachelors of Science in physics, then proceeded to go to work for Republic Aviation in New York as an aerospace engineer. While there, she worked on many programs that would eventually become part of the Apollo moon shots that we all remember so well. Along the way, she became not only a pilot, but a flight instructor, and even entered the astronaut program herself. Let's not forget that back in the 1960s the notion of a female astronaut wasn't even on the drawing board. In retrospect, it's no great surprise, considering the times, that Guthrie never made it far enough along in that process to suit up for an actual NASA mission. Nevertheless, she deserves the highest respect for getting as far as she did.

While many mostly remember Guthrie for breaking the gender barrier at Indy in 1977, her racing career was far more accomplished than that. She'd been road-racing at various levels for 13 years, building and maintaining her own cars along the way, before ever getting a shot at qualifying for Indy. Unlike Danica Patrick, who was handed a top-notch ride at Indy when she was only 23, Janet was 39 years old when she finally made her way into the Indy 500 field in 1977. She did it the old-fashioned way -- she earned it. It's funny, or maybe not, how Danica was so quickly accepted and became a crowd favorite, while Janet endured all the abuse 35 years ago. A sign of the times.

Another not so minor detail often overlooked is Janet Guthrie was also the first woman to compete in a NASCAR superspeedway event. That happened the year before, in 1976. If male chauvinisn was dominant at Indy back then, it probably goes without saying what the state of such attitudes were on the NASCAR circuit at the time. She finished 15th. In 1977, a mere 3 months before she would qualify for the Indy 500, Guthrie also qualified and raced in NASCAR's Daytona 500, and was rookie of the year. Despite an engine malfunction with 10 laps to go, she finished 12th. Very impressive stuff.

Janet Guthrie was a lot of things besides being the first woman to race at Indy. She was a true pioneer, in many ways. Her helmet and race suit are in the Smithsonian, and at the maybe not so tender age of 68, was finally honored by being admitted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006.

Now 74, Janet Guthrie has a lot of miles under her belt, in more ways than one, and she's earned every last one of them.

This Indy infield maniac, that watched her car go by over and over again back in 1977, salutes her.

1 comment:

  1. Janet Guthrie remains an inspiration not only to female race car drivers, but to all women as well. Racing has long been considered a male sport, but that image is gradually being broken down. She is proof that, when you work as hard as you can, you can get anything that you set your eyes on. Thanks for sharing this, John!