NASCAR's First Female Phenom: Janet Guthrie

Bert WilberCorrespondent IFebruary 20, 2010

Long before Danica Patrick ever even thought about becoming a race car driver, a woman by the name of Janet Guthrie was busily setting the racing world on its ear with her passion and zeal for excitement.

Not to diminish or tarnish Danica’s many accomplishments, but she may well have been a non-entity, were it not for women like Janet Guthrie to pave the way for her. And Guthrie did so at a time when "the good ole’ boy club" ruled every sanctioned racing body in America: not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination.

Before becoming the first woman ever to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, Janet Guthrie was a pilot and flight instructor, an aerospace engineer, a technical editor, and a public representative for some of the country's major corporations. 

She also had 13 years of experience on sports car road-racing circuits, building and maintaining her own race cars, before being invited to test a car for Indianapolis.

She was born in Iowa City, Iowa, on March 7, 1938. Her family moved to Miami, Florida when she was three. She attended Miss Harris' Florida School for Girls for all but one of her elementary through high school years, then graduated from the University of Michigan in 1960 with a B.S. in Physics.

She joined Republic Aviation in Farmingdale, New York, as a research and development engineer, working on programs that were precursors to Project Apollo.

In 1964, she applied for the first Scientist-Astronaut program, and got through the first round of eliminations. She treasures a letter from astronaut Deke Slayton, a memento of that attempt.

Meanwhile, she had purchased a Jaguar XK 120 coupe and began competing in gymkhanas, field trials, and hill climbs. This led to the purchase of a Jaguar XK 140 for competition in Sports Car Club of America races.

Her career in physics slowly yielded to the allure of sports car racing, and by 1972 she was involved in racing on a full-time basis. Along the way, she posted two class victories in the 12 Hours of Sebring.

Her big break at the top level of the sport came in 1976, when long-time team owner and car builder Rolla Vollstedt invited her to test a car for the Indianapolis 500. That year, she also became the first woman to compete in a NASCAR Winston Cup superspeedway stock car race.

In 1977, she became the first woman to qualify for and compete in the Indianapolis 500; she was also first woman and Top Rookie at the Daytona 500 in the same year. She finished ninth in the Indianapolis 500 in 1978.

Janet Guthrie entered 19 Winston Cup races in the 1977 30-race season, successfully qualifying for all 19 (qualifying three times in the Top Ten, finishing four times in the Top Ten.)

The following is a rundown of her NASCAR Rookie Season, race by race:

1. Daytona 500, Feb. 20. Guthrie was running in eighth place about ten laps from the end when her engine lost two cylinders. She finished 12th and Top Rookie (First National City Travelers Checks Rookie-of-the-Year prize). Eighty-two cars were officially entered for this race, with a starting field of 42.

2. Richmond 400, Feb. 27. Guthrie qualified 13th, finished 12th and Top Rookie. 

3. Atlanta 500, Mar. 20. Two-thirds of the way through the race, Guthrie (though not on the lead lap) passed David Pearson, who was leading the race. She later dropped out with a burned piston. 

4. Southeastern 500, Bristol, Apr. 17. Finished 11th. Ricky Rudd finished 10th and Top Rookie. 

5. Winston 500, Talladega, May 1. Guthrie qualified 13th, ahead of Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison, USAC Stock Car Champion Butch Hartmann, and Ricky Rudd. Because of her obligation to her Indy 500 team owner, she yielded the car to Lennie Pond at the first yellow of the race, after she had moved the car up to ninth. The engine subsequently failed.

6. CAM2 400, Michigan, June 19. Qualified 12th, ahead of Ricky Rudd, Bobby Allison, and Bill Elliott. Finished 26th with a cracked cylinder head, after spending some 20 laps in the pits with a broken distributor.

7. Firecracker 400, Daytona, July 4. Broken crankshaft on 11th lap. 

8. Nashville 420, July 16. First race with Jim Lindholm as chief mechanic. Qualified and finished 15th.

9. Coca-Cola 500, Pocono, July 31. Qualified 10th, finished 11th after spinning on a flat tire.

10. Talladega 500, Aug. 7. Qualified ninth, ahead of Richard Petty, Johnny Rutherford, David Pearson, Bill Elliott, Ricky Rudd, Neil Bonnett, Buddy Baker, and Ricky Rudd. In Turn One of the first lap, another car's driveshaft came through her windshield. After it was replaced, the engine blew.

11. Champion Spark Plug 400, Michigan, Aug. 22. First Top-Ten finish (10th.)

12. Volunteer 400, Bristol, Aug. 28. Qualified ninth, finished sixth and Top Rookie.

13. Southern 500, Darlington, Sept. 5. Sandwiched practice, qualifying, and race with the Ontario (Calif.) 500-mile Indy-car race, held the previous day. Was caught in the crash between Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip, but regained the race and finished 16th. 

14. Capital City 400, Richmond, Sept 11. Finished 12th.

15. Delaware 500, Dover, Sept. 18. Finished 11th.

16. NAPA National 500, Charlotte, Oct. 9. Finished ninth and Top Rookie. Drafted winner Benny Parsons and A. J. Foyt the last several laps to the finish, after passing Bill Elliott for position.

17. American 500, Rockingham, Oct. 26. Finished ninth and Top Rookie. 

18. Dixie 500, Atlanta, Nov. 6. Ran eighth. Finished 16th.

19. L.A. Times 500, Ontario, Nov. 20. Led laps 43-47. Waged a long battle with Bobby Allison, who finished seventh. Cylinder head cracked at midpoint of race; engine failed 25 laps before the finish, while she was still on the lead lap.

Janet Guthrie's helmet and driver's suit are in the Smithsonian Institution, and she was one of the first athletes named to the Women's Sports Hall of Fame. Despite her prominence among women’s sports legends, Guthrie downplays her role as a cart-turner: 

"There has been a big change in reaction to me. The hostility has cooled down quite a bit. I think the worst is over. The initial reaction to me was one of a lack of respect. What you really need is endurance. And some tests show women have more endurance than men. But that is not the point. I'm not trying to establish the superiority of one sex over another. I'm a good driver but no superwoman.

"What I'm trying to emphasize is that a driver is primarily a person, not a man or a woman, and a great deal of driving is mental. You can not afford to get angry behind the wheel. A good driver needs emotional detachment, concentration, good judgment, and desire."  —Guthrie on the subject of women competing in NASCAR

In comparing Guthrie to Danica, one has to remember that Guthrie raced against the best in the world and still managed some really great performances. She was cool under pressure and calculating as a driver, preferring to coolly catch and pass rather than perpetuate drama in the pit lane.

Bottom line? Guthrie consistently produced good to great results with mediocre to poor equipment. Danica has had the best of everything from the very start, from the very best equipment, to enormous support and sponsorship; things Guthrie only dreamed about.

When Danica competes against the likes of Gordon, Johnson, Kenseth, Edwards, and the Busch brothers, at Darlington or Bristol, and comes away with a top-10, or top-15 finish, then Danica will have earned my respect. Until then, it remains solely with the Grand Dame of NASCAR and Indy car racing, Janet Guthrie.

Here are some comments made, as testament, by some of the best drivers in the world:

"Asked to name competitors against whom he did not mind battling inches apart at 200 miles per hour, Sneva said, 'Foyt and Janet Guthrie. They know their equipment and they know how to drive'." —Tom Sneva, Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch, Dec. 5, 198 

"She done a helluva job. The woman drove 500 miles with a broken wrist. I don't know if I could have done it." —Gordon Johncock, (on the 1978 Indianapolis 500), Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, May 13, 1979.

"There is no question about her ability to race with us. More power to her. She has 'made it' in what I think is the most competitive racing circuit in the world." —Cale Yarborough, Rochester (NY) Times-Union, Dec. 2, 1977.

"I probably ran more laps next to her than anybody else. She'll give you just enough room but no more...she has proved to me that she can run up front. And as daring as she is, I'd never think she was a woman." —Ricky Rudd, Rochester (NY) Times-Union, Dec. 2, 1977.

"I think she has done a hell of a job. She's got a good head on her shoulders. I've seen many guys who had much more trouble with Indy than she has had, from the standpoint of belonging on the course. Anyone who says she doesn't belong, just feels threatened." —Mario Andretti, Washington Star, May 29, 1977.

"If she had a better ride, she'd probably win one of these [Winston Cup] events." —Richard Petty, Jacksonville (FL) Journal, Feb. 17, 1978.


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