Janet Guthrie received a degree in physics from the University of Michigan back in 1960, and she started her career working as an aerospace engineer. She made it through the first round of eliminations for the Scientist-Astronaut program that was a precursor to Project Apollo. She was a pilot and a flight instructor. In the meantime, she was taking her Jaguar XK140 out to the race track to compete in Sports Car Club of America events, where she often did the repair work on her own machines. And somehow those aren’t even the coolest things Guthrie did, because she was the first woman to qualify and compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500.
(Welcome to Today in History, the series where we dive into important historical events that have had a significant impact on the automotive or racing world. If you have something you’d like to see that falls on an upcoming weekend, let me know at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com.)
I have to say that Guthrie is one of my personal heroes. I first learned about her through the Dinner with Racers podcast and was blown away by the stories she told and by how articulate and generous she was with her thoughts. I immediately bought her autobiography, Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle, and continued to be blown away by how eloquent her writing was. I still refer to that book when I describe racing scenes in my fiction stories. She’s one of the few drivers I’d love to meet, just purely from a fan’s perspective.
Guthrie was born on March 7, 1938 in Iowa, but her family moved to Miami, Florida soon after, where she developed a love for all things airplane. That led her to pursue a career as both a pilot and an engineer—both of which were highly unlikely careers for a woman of her era. It certainly primed her for some of the chaotic experiences she’d have on the race track years later.
But the big thing I want to talk about today is her Indy 500 runs. Yes, the NASCAR races in which she competed weren’t exactly welcoming a woman with open arms, but when Guthrie started pursuing Indianapolis, she came up against one hell of a rule: no women were allowed in the pit lane. That didn’t stop her from pursuing a stunning, if brief, career.
“It seems I was born adventurous and grew up insufficiently socialized,” Guthrie said back in 2017. And I’ll be damned if I don’t love her all the more for it.
I have plans for a more expansive Guthrie feature in the future, but I’ll end with this. Her sixth-place finish in a 1977 NASCAR race at Bristol is still tied for the best finish by a woman in the sport. Her ninth place in the 1978 Indy 500 was achieved despite a fractured wrist. Legendary racer A. J. Foyt got so sick of hearing people complain about Guthrie’s inability to race due to her gender that he lent her his car—objectively the quickest in the field—and proved she could damn well qualify for the Indy 500 if she wasn’t driving an insufficient car.
Guthrie built her own engines. She did her own bodywork. She’d haul her car to the track herself and sleep behind the wheel to save money. And she did it for 13 years before she got her big break in Indianapolis and NASCAR. But she denies that it was uncomfortable.
“It was doable,” Guthrie said to the Indianapolis Star with a shrug. “If your desire is strong enough, anything is doable.”