The history of motorsports is chockablock with tales of people who broke down barriers, accomplishing huge achievements that naysayers would have told you were impossible. There was Henry Ford skidding his cycle-wheeled 999 across Lake St. Clair in Michigan. Bill France was considered crazy for believing that stock cars would last a 500-mile race. Mickey Thompson eyeball-engineered the slingshot layout that revolutionized drag racing. And then there was Janet Guthrie.
Janet Guthrie is an unsung racing heroine of the 1970s. Not only is she the first woman to qualify for the Indianpolis 500, but is also the first to race in the Daytona 500, where she ran with the lead pack among NASCAR’s good ol’ boys in 1977 until her engine let go with two laps remaining. She showed up at Brickyard that same year, qualified Rolla Vollstedt’s Lightning-Offy but finished 29th after that engine failed, too. But in 1978, as this Indianapolis Motor Speedway photo demonstrates, she stuck the Texaco Star Wildcat-DGS solidly in the field despite breaking her wrist in a celebrity tennis match just before qualifications. She placed ninth in the race. Janet competed in the 500 three times, the last being in 1979, and this week, she joined the late Dale Earnhardt as the newest inductees into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame. I got to know her when I interviewed her for the late, lamented Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car about her early exploits with an all-female team that competed at the 12 Hours of Sebring earlier in her career. An athlete, aerospace engineer and physicist, Janet is a seriously smart lady with a competitive streak that’s immediately evident. She endured an awful lot of hazing and ostracism when she first arrived at Indianapolis. Her experiences mirrored those of another female motorsports trailblazer, the late Denise McCluggage, who came of age in sports cars during the glory years of the 1950s and also related the discrimination she faced when I interviewed her for HS&EC. I’m proud to have made Janet’s acquaintance, and I’m glad to see she’s getting the accolades she deserves. I only hope the same thing happens to another Indy veteran I know, Willy T. Ribbs, the 500’s first African American driver, whose new Netflix documentary biopic, Uppity, recounts his own struggles for acceptance as a racing equal.