Woman makes history with desire to race

Oh, how the girl could fly ... literally.

On the gloriously sunny days in south Florida, she would strap herself into a small private plane, hit the ignition and watch the propellers turn. Excitement? Sure.

But 16-year-old Janet Guthrie wanted more.

She wanted to be an aviation engineer and an astronaut. And, for a time, she was headed in that direction.

She wanted to fix cars and build engines. And she did that, too.

There was always something special deep inside the heart of a young girl with big dreams and endless ambition. There was a yearning to go faster and farther.

"I always knew I wanted to race," Guthrie wrote in her autobiography, "A Life at Full Throttle."

So, for those who knew her then, it surprised no one on that on a May afternoon in 1977, Guthrie sat in a race car at the world's biggest race on the world's most famous track as the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500.

Just a few years earlier, women were not allowed into the press box at Indianapolis, much less the garage area or the pits.

"A woman on the track itself was unthinkable," she wrote.

But they didn't know Guthrie.

Born in Iowa in 1938 and raised in Florida, she knew all about speed. Her father, a pilot, had encouraged his daughter to pursue her goal of flying and Janet eventually did a solo flight for the first time at age 16.

She went on to study physics at the University of Michigan, worked as a research and development engineer and passed the first tests to be a NASA astronaut.

Racing? That was the hobby she yearned for. She had 13 years of road-racing experience, including building and fixing her own cars, before that ground-breaking day years later at Indianapolis.

Her goal had been to build her own race car from scratch. She bought a brand new Toyota off the showroom floor and promptly tore it down. It took her a year to rebuild it so that it would be able to compete.

In 1963 she bought a Jaguar XK 120 coupe and began competing in hill climbs and other minor races. That led to the purchase of a 1956 Jaguar XK 140 roadster that she used in Sports Car Club of America races. By 1972, she was involved in racing on a full-time basis, posting wins in the 12 Hours of Sebring and Daytona, Fla., endurance races.

Guthrie did all of the work on the car, spending endless hours in a rented barn in New York. All of the knowledge paid off.

In 1976, when lumber executive and longtime United States Auto Club car owner Rolla Vollstedt decided to sponsor the first woman in the Indianapolis 500, he chose Guthrie. She passed the rookie test at Indy and was set to go. The criticism/sexism was "blistering," Guthrie recalled.

"The preponderance of racing opinion stated firmly and passionately that no woman could possibly handle a 750-horsepower Indianapolis 500 race car," she wrote. "There must surely have been moments when (Vollstedt) regretted it."

Fellow drivers weren't Guthrie's only critics. One Boston Globe newspaper story that appeared before Guthrie drove at Indy predicted that she would delay the race by "fishing in her 3-feet-by-2-feet handbag for her keys," and that at the start she would be "working on her eyelashes in the rear-view mirror," as the other drivers blew their horns.

Guthrie tried, but failed, to qualify for the 500 that year but she wasn't done, not by a long shot.

In that same year, she became the first woman to compete in a NASCAR Winston Cup event. Guthrie took home a 15th-place finish in the Charlotte 600 in Charlotte, N.C.

The next year, Guthrie made history when she became the first woman to earn a starting spot in the Daytona 500, the first big race of the NASCAR season. She was running eighth with 10 laps to go when her engine lost power. She finished 12th and was the top rookie of the race. Of 19 NASCAR races she drove in that year there were 10 times when she finished 12th or better.

Guthrie gave Indy another shot in 1977 and on May 29 became the first woman to compete in the yearly event.

Of course, there was one modification to the starting procedure.

"In company with the first lady ever to qualify at Indianapolis, gentlemen, start your engines," they said that day.

Twenty-seven laps into the race, though, Guthrie's day was done when the car developed mechanical problems.

She came back in 1978 with a team she formed and managed herself and finished an amazing ninth out of 33 starters despite driving with a broken wrist.

"She did a helluva job," said driver Gordon Johncock in 1978. "The woman drove 500 miles with a broken wrist. I don't know if I could have done it."

There would be other big finishes including 11th at Daytona to begin the 1980 NASCAR season.

Guthrie kept banging away at the racing establishment, "seeking sponsorship through the beginning of 1983, then realized that if I kept it up, I was likely to jump out of a high window."

Hampered by a lack of funding, she eventually left the sport.

In her brief career at the top levels of racing, she proved she could be competitive. But she also proved so much more. Guthrie's greatest pleasure was her gradual acceptance by drivers on the NASCAR and Indy-car circuits.

"Racing is a matter of spirit, not strength," she once said.

No one would doubt she had both.

Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.