Wheel pioneer

In the 1977 Indy 500, Janet Guthrie paved a path for future women racers.

By DAN HOWLEY, Staff writer
First published: Wednesday, September 14, 2005

There was an unmistakable elegance about the soft-spoken woman sitting at the conference table in a tasteful black outfit accented by a gray silk scarf. It was difficult to picture her 27 years ago racing in the Indianapolis 500.

Janet Guthrie, the first woman to race in the Indy 500, was a pioneer who ran the gauntlet of naysayers. She was the test pilot for future racers like Danica Patrick, who finished fourth at Indy in May, and Erin Crocker, an RPI graduate who is building a reputation in the minor leagues of NASCAR.

Before Patrick's accomplishment, Guthrie's ninth-place finish in the 1978 Indy 500 was the best by a woman in what is considered the most storied event in American auto racing.

In her day, earning respect in what was a good ol' boy, macho-macho-man sport required a layer of skin thick as a brake pedal.

"I had to earn it,'' said Guthrie, who also went wheel to wheel on the NASCAR circuit with the likes of Richard Petty. "A good many of the drivers who never had the experience of competing against a woman before they saw me were busy telling the world at large that I couldn't even possibly qualify for these races.

"And if by some accident I did make the field, I'd have to get out of my car after 40 laps because I'd be all worn out and so forth and so on.''

Guthrie, whose book ``Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle'' was released in May, was at the New York State Writers Institute at the University of Albany on Tuesday as part of the institute's visiting writers series.

A lifelong journal-keeper, Guthrie started converting her memoirs into a manuscript with the help of an old Corona typewriter in 1983. There was no ghostwriter for her story, which was refined and cut like a fine piece of furniture before it reached the showroom 21 years later. Just Guthrie, her memories, her words.

``In any event, after two final rounds of cutting, it was published in 2005,'' she said. ``It's 398 pages and it started out twice that size.''

It's a coincidence that the book was published just as Patrick drove into the spotlight at Indy, she said, but Guthrie returned to Indianapolis for the first time in 25 years to watch Patrick challenge the men.

``When she came out of the pit there near the end and held the lead it was amazing to hear a quarter-million fans cheering,'' said Guthrie, 67, who lives in Aspen, Colo., with her husband. ``To be honest, I was envious.''

She said Patrick came to Indy with the kind of sponsorship racers of either gender need to win, which was a stumbling block and source of frustration for her and the reason she left racing after the 1980 Daytona 500.

``She was the first woman to come to Indianapolis with top-notch equipment and the full backing of a winning team,'' Guthrie said. ``So that's three-quarters of it. In my opinion, she has the talent to supply the other remaining quarter, and so assuming she keeps her ride I expect she will be winning races.''

There was a noticeable change in how Guthrie was viewed after she raced at Indy and had several NASCAR events under her seat belt.
``There were certainly good moments,'' she Guthrie, who qualified ahead of Petty at Talladega in 1977. ``It was gratifying to see the attitude of the drivers change, and fans had come to see that I was what I said I was, which was a race driver who just happened to be a woman.''

Guthrie, the daughter of a commercial pilot, was born in Iowa and grew up in Miami. She loved to fly and soloed in a Piper Cub at 16, and has been a flight instructor. Her love of cars blossomed shortly after she graduated with a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Michigan in 1960. She bought a Jaguar XK 140 to compete in Sports Car Club of America races and was driving for a living by 1972.

She hopes her book will give some permanence to her accomplishments and also inspire others to challenge themselves and gender stereotypes.

``I'm happy I've got it all there between hard covers,'' she said. ``Sometimes women have done things in sports and it's been forgotten over time.''

Guthrie said so far there have been no discussions about her book becoming a movie, but the idea crossed her mind as she worked on it over the years.

``I kept thinking of actresses who could play the part,'' she said, ``but they kept getting too old.''

Dan Howley can be reached at 454-5321 or by e-mail at [email protected].

Janet Guthrie