Conquering Indy against the odds: the unstoppable Janet Guthrie

by Samarth Kanal on 24th May 2019

The first female to qualify for the Indy 500, Janet Guthrie faced down male critics, set up her own team and drove to a top ten finish - with a broken wrist. Now watch her incredible tale

Janet Guthrie at the 1978 Indy 500 Motorsport Images

Racing at the Indianapolis 500 as a driver/owner with a broken wrist and faulty gearbox on a fraction of the budget of most rivals is, without doubt, a huge challenge. How about doing it as a woman in an overwhelmingly male-dominated-sport?

The odds may have been stacked against Janet Guthrie in the 1978 Indy 500, but the former aerospace engineer didn’t just make up the numbers – she finished ninth.

Now 81, Guthrie’s achievements include being the first female driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500 and she has experience few, if any, can claim to share.

It’s a tale that begs to be made into a film, and a feature-length documentary released next month will tell her story.

Guthrie began her career in aerospace and began racing in 1963 in the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) series before turning her attention to the biggest races in America.

By 1976, she was part-time in the NASCAR Cup Series with top-20 finishes at Charlotte and in the Daytona 400. She made it to Indianapolis that year, too. And it was a few laps in four-time Indy 500 winner AJ Foyt’s Coyote Indycar that showed the baying crowd what a capable woman in the right car could do.

Janet Guthrie at the 1976 Indy 500 with AJ Foyt's car IMS

“Back when I was driving, there were 85 cars entered and only the fastest 33 in qualifying would start the race. The first year I was there – 1976 – we had a lot of trouble,” recalls Guthrie.

She made it to Indy that year in a car provided by Oregon-based team owner Rolla Vollstedt, who previously ran drivers like Jim Clark and Tony Sneva

“Eventually it became clear that this particular car [the Vollstedt Enterprises Ford] just didn’t have the speed. My team owner, Rolla Vollstedt went out looking for another ride for me in a car that would not be his.

“I owe a great deal to Rolla and in the end, AJ Foyt said I could take his backup car out and practice. Well, you can imagine under the circumstances, drive AJ Foyt’s car?!”

“But I did quickly bring it up to speed; got to qualifying speed in something like nine laps.”

Drivers would commonly “walk around” the paddock at Indy looking for a better car to qualify in – and that’s what Vollstedt attempted.

“Exactly why AJ decided to let me take his car out in practice, I’ll never know. But the fact that I brought it up to speed so quickly did, in fact, change a good many people’s minds and I’ll always be grateful to [Foyt] for that.”

Not all drivers welcomed the arrival of female racers at Indianapolis ESPN, Qualified

The welcome for Guthrie wasn’t exactly fond. The NY Times reported that Guthrie’s participation “in what amounts to an all‐male sport created an uproar when the former amateur sportscar racer broke into the Indy‐car ranks in 1976.

“However, the fears of veteran drivers that she would be “unsafe” have not materialized,” continued the NY Times article.

to come into IndyCar racing and discover that this was heresy was quite a surprise to me

One anonymous ‘auto racing figure’ said to the NY Times in 1977: “Of course, we've no way of really knowing how good, or how bad she is. She really hasn't had good equipment. And she carries the burden of the women's movement on her shoulders. She doesn't take risks because tons of publicity would come down on her if she ever had an accident. And if you don't drive aggressively, you don't win. I don't think there's any chance she can win at Indy.”

Guthrie didn’t expect such a hostile reaction when she turned up to the biggest racing coliseum in America’s heartland.

“Well it was all a great surprise to me,” she says. “I had no idea what kind of a commotion our announcement was going to arouse because I’d been racing for 13 years. I’d had a significant history.

“Rolla called me because he kept asking his road racing friends about a woman driving and the name he kept getting was mine, so I had done a few significant things in sports car racing, and being a woman was not an issue in sports car racing; [there were] not a lot of us, but we were there.

“And so to come into IndyCar racing and NASCAR Cup racing and discover that this was heresy was quite a surprise to me! But yeah, there was a lot of hostility at first. However, I figured that once they gained the experience of driving against me, attitudes would change, and indeed attitudes did change and that was very gratifying.”

Vollstedt, Foyt and Guthrie changed hearts and minds.

Once word about the lack of funding for Guthrie emerged, she received a few offers including one from Beatle George Harrison that was delivered too late. It was Texaco’s $100,000 that eventually secured her a trip to Indy in 1977, and she qualified 26th for Vollstedt Enterprises, finishing 29th.


Andretti, Alonso and the lessons of Indy


Despite showing that she deserved a drive on merit, Guthrie would never compete on a level playing field at Indy, without access to the funding and support that leading drivers enjoyed.

In 1978, she set up her eponymous squad for the Indianapolis 500 – the most difficult Month of May she had.

“It’s a very expensive sport and it takes a lot to assemble a team, to run a full season, I would’ve loved to have had that opportunity,” she says.

“When I did assemble my own team in 1978, and ended up with a top-10 finish that year [ninth], I did it on a budget of about 5 per cent of a top team running a full year. It was no secret, I did it for $120,000.

“I had all the duties, obligations, responsibilities of a team owner as well as going out to drive the car, and especially under last-minute circumstances that really was tough. Driving the car was definitely the easy part.”

Janet Guthrie and her crew at the 1978 Indy 500 Motorsport Images

Underlining just how hard it is to be a driver/owner, Guthrie had a fractured wrist during the race (for which she was later reprimanded by officials), having to steer, change gears with a broken gearbox, and use a radio for which the volume button vibrated closed during the race.

“OK, so you needed one hand for the steering wheel, one for the gearshift and had I had a long prehensile tail to operate the radio I would’ve been fine,” she says nonchalantly.

Guthrie may shrug off the difficulties that she faced, but is in no doubt about the challenge that the Indianapolis 500 still represents, even to a well-funded team, such as McLaren, which failed to qualify with Fernando Alonso this year.

“I empathise [with McLaren],” she adds. “It’s happened before. There was one year where Roger Penske astonished the whole world when his cars did not make the field at Indianapolis. The guy who walked on water and his cars aren’t making the field? People have forgotten that that happened.”

More than forty years after Guthrie first raced at the Indy 500, there’s now only one woman in the 2019 field: Pippa Mann, who starts 29th on May 26. So, has the motor sport world done enough to let the women with talent compete?

“No I don’t think we have come far enough,” says Guthrie. “Pippa Mann is a very capable driver with a very good record, but you can’t drive Indianapolis 500 as your only race of the year with a backmarker team and expect to run up front, that’s not going to happen that way.”


W Series: the case against, Pippa Mann


So what is the solution to the lack of women – not just in the Indy 500 field – but all over motor sport? Not W Series, says Guthrie.

“[The all-female W Series] seems to me to indicate that we’re not capable of competing with men which isn’t the case,” she says.

“I see that they have filled the field because there are so many women who will do practically anything to get their hands on a car but I don’t think it’s a good idea actually.

“The women with the ability are out there, it just depends on who gets the chance. There’s a young woman named Hailie Deegan who has two wins in NASCAR’s lower level K&N Series so I have my fingers crossed for her and women like Simone de Silvestre, Katherine Legge, they’re there.

Sarah Fisher is retired now but she absolutely had the capability to win IndyCar races; she just never found the money. So it is possible, I just hope it’ll happen sometime soon.”

Janet Guthrie in the pits, 1979 Indy 500 IMS

The problem is systematic, she argues, not just in grassroots motor sport, but at the top level where women aren’t in the position to make decisions to sponsor talented drivers, whatever their gender.

“As we get more and more women in executive positions in business, I hope more of them will see the advantage in having a woman driver represent their business and their product, and more and more women are coming into the executive level, so I hope that has a beneficial effect.”

Janet Guthrie documentary

Guthrie will soon appear in a feature-length ESPN documentary – Qualified – produced and directed by Jenna Ricker and co-produced by Caroline Waterlow and Nina Krstic – both Academy Award winners for OJ: Made In America.

“One of the things that fascinated me about Janet and racing, in general, is that it’s one of the only sports when once the helmet is on and the driver is in the car, nobody can tell if it’s a man or a woman,” says Ricker.

“And it’s brilliant. It’s one of the best things about it. The car does the heavy lifting, and so it is an area where men and women can compete on an equal playing field so it would be a pity to start separating that,” she says.

“Young women coming up racing sprint cars, go-karts, when they reach around 14 years old they’re told ‘you have to start making decisions, do you want to go to college or do you want a family? You can’t do that and race.’

“Young men are not told that, so there becomes this split that happens at a young age as well. We have to work towards the middle.”

Janet Guthrie on the Indianapolis pit wall, 1978 Motorsport Images

The documentary comprises archive footage filmed on Super 8 cameras by Guthrie and her brother Stewart Guthrie, also including interviews with the likes of Johnny Rutherford, AJ Foyt, Tom Bigelow, members of Janet Guthrie’s crew and of course, the driver herself.

"I’ll tell you,” continues Ricker, “the worst part was the stuff we had to leave out. That’s always the killer.”

And a biopic might be in the works. It’s just the matter of casting someone worthy enough to play Janet Guthrie.

“Well over the years I’ve wondered who might play me in a movie but they all keep getting too old!” says Guthrie.

“The last one I thought of was Gwyneth Paltrow and what interested me about her, I read that when she was young she thought of herself as being homely. And I thought, that’s rather intriguing… “

So does Janet Guthrie think Paltrow is right for the role? She chuckles, pondering the similarities between her and the actress and says: “oh me? I’ve never been a raving beauty!”

ESPN’s documentary – 30 on 30:  ‘Qualified’  – will air on  June 4, on BT Sport in the United Kingdom.

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