As the saying goes, we’ve come a long way, baby … or have we? There are only a handful of women who have been able to crack the testosterone-charged world of auto racing.
It was only 40 years ago that Indianapolis 500 race officials first let women into the pit area.
It would take six more years for Janet Guthrie, a brazen driver with an insatiable appetite for adventure, to take it one step further.
At a time when Hollywood portrayed women as “sex kittens” in a movie sharing the same title, Guthrie was a fast girl of another kind who wasn’t content to merely watch the event. She wanted to be in the middle of it.
But her journey to become the first woman to earn a starting spot in the Indianapolis 500, the first since the race’s inception in 1911, didn’t come without a struggle.
In her autobiography, Guthrie, who had 13 years of experience on road-racing circuits, building and maintaining her own cars before being invited to test a car for Indianapolis, recalled that the other drivers thought women didn’t have the guts to drive professionally.
“A woman on the track itself was unthinkable,” she wrote.
She showed them what they could do with their opinions on May 22, 1977, when she set the fastest qualifying time of the second weekend (the lead-up to the Indy is a month-long festival of speed) and made history as the first woman to take on the famed race; the man’s race, up until that point.
It would be 15 more years before another woman joined the elite crew. In 1992, Lyn St. James, who made her racing debut in 1973, became the second woman to compete in the Indy 500 at age 45. (There’s hope for me yet.)
St. James, an intelligent woman and a wife and mother who also worked as an adviser for Ford, started Indy 15 times. According to her biography, she set 31 international speed records and was the first woman to have won a professional road race as a solo driver.
Her career highlights are too numerous to mention in detail, but eight years after her Indy debut, in 2000, St. James would become one of two women qualifying for the starting lineup. The other was racing legend-in-the-making — and a teenager at the time — Sarah Fisher.
When most members of her high-school graduating class were settling in as freshmen in college, Fisher was the fresh face of the Indy Racing League as the youngest driver ever to compete in that series. She actually began in 1999, but had been racing just about everything with wheels since childhood.
In 2001, Fisher, then just 21, placed second at the IRL race in Miami, Fla., which was the best result ever by a woman in Indy-style racing.
“I’m very competitive,” she told a sports magazine. “The biggest thing is to win races. That’s the only thing that drives me.”
Along with Danica Patrick, Fisher made Indy 500 history by being part of the first trio of women drivers to start the race in 2007.
It’s that drive that separates the girls from the women. Guthrie, St. James and Fisher didn’t just fantasize about driving professionally, they made it happen; they were determined not to let a bunch of boys stand in the way of their dreams.
As Fisher, who was only 3 years old when Guthrie opened the door for women to be “allowed” onto the track, has always maintained, she wants to be known for her driving, not her gender.
Has life changed since Guthrie took those first laps, at least not in terms of acceptance from what remains of an old boys’ club? You could say yes or you could say that we still have a long way to go. While the women pioneers of auto racing deserve our respect and recognition, the pace of change is still, unfortunately, snail-slow.
Among her numerous accomplishments, Courtney Hansen is the author of “Garage Girl’s Guide to Everything You Need to Know About Your Car,” the host of Spike TV’s “Power Block,” the former host of TLC’s “Overhaulin’ ” program and a writer with Wheelbase Media and Auto Shift Weekly magazine. You can email her by logging on to www.wheelbase.ws and using the contact link.