Janet Guthrie at Talladega 500, May 1977
"I wanted it a lot. Any racing driver of that era would have given their eye-teeth for an opportunity to tackle the Indianapolis 500. And I wanted it very, very much."
Janet Guthrie was born on the 7th of March, 1938 in Iowa City, Iowa. Prior to her career in racing she attended the University of Michigan where she graduated in 1960 with a B.Sc. in Physics. She then worked as a pilot and flight instructor, a technical editor, and also as an aerospace engineer for Republic Aviation, but her true passion was for racing. Guthrie bought her first car, a Jaguar XK120 in the early 1960s and was racing full time by 1972. Her breakout point was in 1976, when she caught the attention of team owner Rolla Vollstedt who invited her to test a car.
In the male dominated world of motor racing, Janet Guthrie stands out as the first woman to ever compete in the NASCAR Winston Cup (now the Sprint Cup) Series in 1976, finishing in 15th place out of 40 cars. She is also the first woman to compete in both the 1977 Indianapolis 500 (where she placed 29th) and the 1977 Daytona 500 in which she was named 'Top Rookie' (Guthrie came 12th). However, Guthrie still had obstacles to overcome, despite sometimes out qualifying top NASCAR drivers. For example, she was once denied entry at the Darlington Raceway as women were banned from the garage. She did eventually get to her car and race. Attitudes towards her gradually began to change as she continued to perform well, and proved that she was a capable and competent racer. Amongst her most memorable career highlights is finishing 6th place in the 1977 Spring Bristol race. Overall, Guthrie competed in 33 NASCAR races over four seasons, and in 11 IndyCar events where she finished as high as 5th place.
Janet Guthrie at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on 29th May 2011
Having competed against NASCAR elite, including Richard Petty, David Pearson, and Buddy Baker, Guthrie proved to critics that women could make it in the world of motor racing and later drivers like Danica Patrick have her to thank for paving the way for women in racing.
In 1980, Guthrie became one of the first athletes to be entered into the Women's Sports Hall of Fame, then in 2006 she was introduced to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. You can see Janet Guthrie's helmet and driver's suit at the Smithsonian Institution.