Janet Guthrie: Breaking Indy's Glass Ceiling
Janet Guthrie at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 1979 / detail from THF140173
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Janet Guthrie worked as an aerospace engineer while also serving as a pilot and flight instructor. But her passion was driving her Jaguar in Sports Car Club of America road races, and by the time she was 35, Guthrie was a full-time racer.
In 1976, she arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) as a 38-year-old rookie with the eyes of the world upon her. Several prominent drivers publicly criticized her presence. "Most of the oval track drivers never had the experience of running with a woman driver, and they were sure they weren't going to like it," recalled Guthrie, now 81. "That got calmed down within the course of the races that I ran in 1976. But the public, I think, needed to be convinced."
When the controversial newcomer didn't find enough speed in her primary car, A.J. Foyt offered his spare Coyote, and Guthrie showed enough pace in practice to become the 500's first female qualifier. But that historic achievement would have to wait another year. "Those were the glory days of the Indy 500, with 85 cars entered, so qualifying for the first time was really a major moment of my life,” she said.
The autographed racing glove worn by Janet Guthrie in 1977, when she became the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500, will be on display in the Driven to Win: Racing in America exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF166385
Guthrie's car broke early in the 1977 race, but more importantly, Indy's gender barrier had been broken. She returned to IMS a year later and drove to a ninth-place finish despite concealing a broken wrist. In all, Guthrie drove in 11 Indy car races between 1976 and 1979, earning a career best fifth-place finish at the Milwaukee Mile in her final open-wheel start. She also competed in 33 NASCAR Cup Series races in the same period, earning five top 10 finishes.
Besides being the first female to qualify and compete in both the Indy 500 and Daytona 500, Guthrie was inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1980, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006, the Sports Car Club of America Hall of Fame in 2018, and the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2019.
In retrospect, Guthrie did much of the heavy lifting for the female drivers who followed her into the American motorsports arena. Respect for her achievements, from both a sporting and sociological standpoint, only increases with the passing of time. "The 'first woman' thing was more of a responsibility than anything," Guthrie said. "I think I took the heat, and then the drivers discovered that I was competitive, I was courteous and that I was getting the most out of my equipment."
Guthrie is convinced that a female circuit racer will one day demonstrate the kind of championship-winning success women have achieved in NHRA drag racing. "There's a lot of talent at the lower levels, and it all depends on who gets the chance," she said. "I'm sure that eventually we will see a woman win the Indianapolis 500, and similarly with the Daytona 500."
This post was adapted from an article by John Oreovicz that originally appeared in the January–May 2020 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.
Indiana, 1970s, 20th century, women's history, The Henry Ford Magazine, racing, race car drivers, Indy 500, Henry Ford Museum, Driven to Win, cars, by John Oreovicz