When NASCAR Attempted to Showcase Women Drivers at the 1977 Firecracker 400

Janet Guthrie, Christine Beckers and Lella Lombardi were all invited to the race. But did NASCAR have an ulterior motive?

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Janet Guthrie prepares for the 1976 Firecracker 400.
Janet Guthrie prepares for the 1976 Firecracker 400.
Photo: AP (AP)

In 1977, three women lined up to take the green flag at the NASCAR Cup Series’ Firecracker 400, a race held at Daytona International Speedway. American open-wheel veteran Janet Guthrie, Formula One driver Lella Lombardi, and endurance racer Christine Beckers were invited to compete as a way to highlight international female talent — or, less generously, to see it crushed by NASCAR’s popular male pros.

The last time three women started the same NASCAR event was in the series’ first year of competition. Ethel Mobley, Louise Smith, and Sara Christian took part in the 1949 Strictly Stock race on the Daytona Beach road course. Since then, NASCAR had become a largely male-dominated scene, one where women were routinely barred from even accessing the pit or garages. The 1977 Firecracker 400, though, was supposed to change that.

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Lella Lombardi (left) and Christine Beckers at the 1977 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Lella Lombardi (left) and Christine Beckers at the 1977 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Photo: AFP (Getty Images)

Since its first running in 1959, and up to 2019, the Firecracker 400 was a Fourth of July celebration race. While it was a points race, it often became something of an exhibition, where one-off drivers could jump in and compete on a large NASCAR stage.

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In 1977, three women were set to compete on that stage. IndyCar driver Janet Guthrie, endurance racer Christine Beckers, and Formula 1 driver Lella Lombardi were all invited by NASCAR to compete in the race, in some cases being promised $25,000 or more to make the event. While it could have been interpreted as a positive move from NASCAR — a way to celebrate the growing women’s liberation movement as it existed both in sport and in the world at large — not everyone was so sure the series’ motivations were pure.

Here’s a little bit about the event from Janet Guthrie’s autobiography, A Life at Full Throttle:

The Daytona/NASCAR press releases, which had been issuing forth since mid-June, described the event as a “showdown” among the three of us. Not a few reporters had taken the bait and were practically licking their chops over the anticipated catfight.

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Guthrie refused to take the bait, but she wrote that she was a little confused by the invitation. After all, she had already been competing in a handful of NASCAR races, and she wasn’t exactly met with open arms. Suddenly, she was being invited to compete in one of the largest events of the season.

Guthrie’s team owner Lynda Ferreri had her own suspicions: “If they can discredit us in the eyes of our sponsor, they’ll have taken a big step toward purging their fields of women altogether.”

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Ferreri continued:

Haven’t you read all those letters to National Speed Sport News about how if a woman can qualify at Indianapolis like you did, that proves Championship racing is a pantywaist sport, and real race fans should go back to Sprint car races where the real men are?

NASCAR isn’t stupid. They don’t want the status of their sport to be downgraded, as professions often are when women enter them.

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According to Guthrie’s book, Lombardi and Beckers were both afforded solid cars, accomplished partnerships, and coveted garage positions while Guthrie was left competing with something of a back-marker team — though she did have the benefit of NASCAR experience, which she offered to share with the two other women.

Complicating matters further was the fact that both Beckers and Lombardi lacked a strong grasp of the English language. After their first outings, Beckers wondered what she was doing in NASCAR and Lombardi was quoted as saying that driving a stock car was “like riding a buffalo.” Guthrie was able to qualify within the top half of the field. Even with all the resources afforded to Lombardi and Beckers, the two other women weren’t able to accomplish such a feat.

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The race itself, though, was something of a failure for all parties involved. Eleven laps into the race, Guthrie’s engine blew. Beckers and Lombardi both dropped out with mechanical problems as well. Lombardi was classified 31st, Beckers 37th, and Guthrie 40th in a field of 41 cars.

A woman didn’t compete in the Firecracker again until 11 years later, when Patty Moise took her turn and was classified 26th.

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In some ways, it seemed that NASCAR achieved the somewhat disingenuous goal that parties like Ferreri suspected. The series could say it had given women competitors a chance, and the women weren’t cut out for the job. Never mind that all three women had suffered mechanical failures, which had nothing to do with their driving talent.

Guthrie, though, was determined to prove the worth of women in the racing world. After that race, she finished top-10 in four NASCAR events in 1977.