Indy 500 Pioneer Janet Guthrie Savors The Day She Made History

May 27, 2018
Originally published on May 27, 2018 11:51 am

Janet Guthrie made history 41 years ago when she became the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500, paving the way for drivers such as Danica Patrick, who'll mark her last run in the race on Sunday.

For Guthrie, who had been a trained physicist and an aerospace engineer, the biggest moment of her life came not on the track that race day in 1977, but when she qualified the weekend before and sealed her spot among the 33 drivers in the race-day lineup.

On that hot, dry May Sunday, nothing seemed to be going right. As she attempted her qualifying run, breaking the Indy 500's gender barrier was hardly top of mind.

"As far as I was concerned I wasn't a 'woman driver,' I was just a driver," Guthrie, now 80, tells NPR.

For Guthrie, there was more pressing concern: engine trouble.

She had hit the wall while on the track during practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier in the month, and the collision left her car crumpled. Her team got it back roaring in time for the very last day of qualifying, but there were still lingering issues.

"In practice that morning, the engine had started making bad noises. I thought it might be the timing chains," she says.

So Guthrie opted to start her four-lap qualifying run after only a short warm up.

"I said, 'We don't have a lap to spare' because I knew engines and the noises I was hearing meant that the engine could come unglued at any moment," she says.

"The Longest 3-odd Minutes"

Guthrie had hoped to qualify the prior year. At her 1976 Indy 500 debut, she had broken yet another barrier: she was the first woman to drive around the Speedway in practice. She had mechanical problems that year though, and didn't qualify. She faced serious backlash from her male competitors and intense scrutiny from the media.

Speaking to All Things Considered host Melissa Block in 2010, when four women competed in the Indianapolis 500, Guthrie says back in 1976, men were not shy about sharing their opinion that women shouldn't race:

"The general idea was women don't have the strength, the endurance, the emotional stability, women are going to endanger our lives. And you could read that on the newspapers most every day."

But at the Speedway in 1977, Guthrie tells Block, the hostility toward her had died down:

"The only way to deal with that was on the racetrack. There was no other way to do it. The guys just had to get the experience of driving against me and then, as I say, things changed. You could call it cognitive dissonance. If the guys were saying this driver is a female and therefore, she is no good, and then the no-good driver blows your doors off, you have to change your position a little."

On her return to the Speedway in 1977, it was Guthrie who had the fastest speed of any driver during practice on opening day — but that was before the collision with the wall and the engine problems.

She was first up on the last day of qualifying. For Indy 500 time trials, race car drivers compete one at a time on the track — just them against the clock for four laps around the 2.5-mile oval. The qualifying time is the average of the four laps.

For Guthrie's time trial, her car felt twitchy and her oil pressure gauge fluctuated wildly.

Coming out of the last turn into the straightaway toward the finish line, she remembers she pushed hard on the accelerator — and hoped the engine wouldn't blow up. She says she looked at the oil gauge. It read "0."

"I'll tell you, those four laps of qualifying for Indianapolis are the longest three-odd minutes in the world," she says. "I don't think I breathed between there and the checkered flag and I knew I was in the field for the Indianapolis 500."

Her average speed: 188 miles per hour.

"During the qualifying run you're just intensely focused on what the car is doing, how you can get through each turn, just a little bit faster. Your focus is very narrow. Once you've gone under the checkered flag and it's done, your vision sort of opens up. It takes in the green grass, the trees, the clouds," she says. "On the cool down lap ... I was thinking 'I did it. We're in the field.' "

And at that point, she says, she absorbed the significance of the moment.

"It was such a big deal 40 years ago. It's hard to imagine now, but the general idea was if a woman can put a car in the field for the Indianapolis 500, then women can do anything – which was rather a revolutionary thought at that time," she says.

So revolutionary, in fact, that it required a change to the announcer's familiar pre-race prompt to drivers.

"In company with the first lady ever to qualify at Indianapolis," announcer and Speedway owner Tony Hulman told them, "gentlemen, start your engines!"

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