Janet Guthrie changed motor sports when, in 1977, she became the first woman to qualify for and compete in the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And, in fact, that same year, she was also the first female driver to compete in NASCAR’s Daytona 500.
Guthrie was an aerospace engineer whose interests shifted from aviation to racing. She faced a mountain of backlash from her fellow drivers, the media and fans when she began racing at top American motor sports series, and her racing career is chronicled in ESPN Films’ new 30 for 30 documentary, Qualified, which premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Now, Guthrie, 81, is regarded as a trailblazer who helped people shed their skepticism about female drivers, opening the door for others like Danica Patrick, Lyn St. James and Pippa Mann — who will compete in her seventh Indy 500 on Sunday.
For The Win spoke with Guthrie and Qualified director Jenna Ricker about the film, Guthrie’s Indy 500 highlights — including her ninth-place finish in 1978 — and how the retired racer’s views on feminism changed.
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This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What went through you mind when you got that first call to try qualifying for the Indy 500?
Guthrie: I had at that point been racing for 13 years but what went through my mind was, “Oh yeah, right. Another joker.” Because really what I had been aiming at was the Targa Florio, Le Mans. I wanted to drive those races. It never occurred to me that I would have a shot at Indianapolis.
When it became known you were going to attempt to qualify for the Indy 500, there were some pretty hateful headlines. How did you react to that?
Guthrie: Some of it I could laugh at. Sometimes it made me mad. The only important thing was getting my hands on that car on the race track, and I figured whatever came with the territory, I could deal with.
You said you didn’t really have thick skin, but you’d deal with people’s insults. How would you deal with their hate and misogyny?
Guthrie: The important part is to be able to go out onto the track and make all the rest of it go away – just vanish – so that the only thing that’s in your consciousness is the car and the track and what the car is doing and how you can get through the turns faster. That kind of focus was what I had developed over 13 years of sports car racing, so that was what counted.
What do you hope viewers take away from the documentary?
Ricker: I hope the takeaway will be my experience with Janet’s story and my team’s experience with Janet’s story, which was both inspired and frustrating. You really realize what could have been, had she received the backing and had the full career that she was so very capable and worthy of. So there’s some frustration there, but there’s really an overarching sense of inspiration and pride in watching someone so truly connected to what they want to do in their life, so tenacious about it, that they’ll do whatever it takes. And I think that transcends sports.
Both the environments at the Indy 500 and in NASCAR seem fairly hostile toward you, but was one more welcoming?
Guthrie: Oh, they were both about equally hostile, but I felt confident that once they had gained the experience of running against me, they would figure out I was what I said I was: Just another race car driver. The fact that I was a woman was completely irrelevant, and to see attitudes change was very gratifying.
Did any fellow drivers ever apologize for things they said to you or about you?
Guthrie: I can think of one (in the USAC Championship Car series, which was once the Indy 500 series). Bill Simpson, who had been quite hostile, came up to me after the Pocono race. He had been quite vocal about how I had no place there, and after the Pocono 500, where the start was fixed by some rather arcane rules because qualifying had been rained out, Bill came to the garage and said, “Hey, lady!” I looked at him, and he said, “I thought you were going to be a problem at the start, and I was wrong.” And I just said, “Thank you.”
You said it was “delicious” to qualify in front of Richard Petty in 1977 at NASCAR’s Talladega Superspeedway race. You also called him a “longtime enemy.” Why?
Guthrie: Oh, Richard said things like, “She’s no lady. If she’s a lady, she’d be home.” Or somebody asked him if he thought I could finish the first NASCAR Cup race at Charlotte (the 1976 World 600), he said, “No.” And there are other things he said that I have forgotten at this point, but he was a major antagonist.
After not qualifying in your first attempt at the Indy 500 in 1976, what did it feel like to do it the next year?
Guthrie: It was really amazing. Anyone who put a car in the field in that era – when as many as 85 cars were entered and only the fastest 33 were going to start the race – would tell you it’s a moment they’ll never forget. And I never will either, especially under the circumstances with an engine that could fail at any minute, with a car that had a handling issue. And when the engine lasted past the checkered flag, oh that was such a wonderful feeling.
Do you have a favorite Indy 500 memory?
Guthrie: The first time you put a car on the field there is a moment you’ll never forget. But of course, then you figure out what you really want is to win the thing. And putting a car in the top 10 the following year with a team I formed and managed myself on a very low budget, that was a good one also.
In the film, you confess you never saw yourself as a feminist. Why not?
Guthrie: I was a beneficiary of the women’s movement. I had not contributed anything to the politics of the women’s movement. Before I got the chance at the top levels of auto racing, my feeling was, well, I’m all right. I’ve been working and playing in men’s fields for a long time and hadn’t had any problems, except here and there. So it just didn’t occur to me.
But eventually, I came to feel it as a responsibility, and I dug into the history of women in racing, of whom there have been quite a few who have done remarkable things, and tried to bring that history forward whenever I spoke to groups. You don’t have to dig very far or very hard before you find there have always been women doing amazing things. It’s just that their history gets lost.
Was there something that didn’t make the cut in the film that you wish had?
Ricker: When Janet had to change into her driver’s suit in the grandstands (because the garages didn’t have a women’s restroom), there was a gentleman in the film, Leo Mehl, who was an executive for Goodyear, and he had this little office in the garages. And he gave Janet a key. And I remember how much that meant to Janet. Other drivers had a place to go and hide away and compose themselves and just think about the race or just rest, and Janet didn’t have that.
Guthrie: I would leave the garage area and by the time I got to the public women’s room, there would be this crowd of at least 50 following me and all the women following me inside and back out again. That key that Leo Mehl gave me – which gave access to the only private restroom in the entire garage area – was my most precious possession.