Race car driver Janet Guthrie broke the gender barrier back in 1977 by qualifying for the Indianapolis 500

Vintage race car driver Janet Guthrie - Press photo

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The year 1977 was quite the momentous one for the Indianapolis 500.

Tom Sneva broke 200 mph “officially” for the first time, driver Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the great race, and A J Foyt would go on to become the first four-time winner in race history.

Looking back at Janet Guthrie’s history-making qualification, she was about 10 mph slower than Tom Sneva’s pole speed, but it didn’t matter — long before Danica Patrick became a household name, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the 500.

She’d go on to finish 29th that year, dropping out with engine trouble, but came back in 1978 and finished 10th. She qualified one more time in 1979.

In addition to Indy, the former aerospace engineer also became the first woman to qualify for the Daytona 500 — also in 1977 — finishing a very competent 12th, the highest placed rookie.

While her fame has faded a bit as time passed, and the current crop of female racers take the headlines, it’s likely they wouldn’t be there today if it weren’t for the pioneering efforts of Janet Guthrie. – AJW

Race car driver Janet Guthrie - Press photo c1977

The pressure’s off: Janet Guthrie proves worth with solid 188.403

Anderson Daily Bulletin (Anderson, Indiana) May 23, 1977

Indianapolis — This was not to be a run-of-the-mill Month of May. The ingredients simply didn’t fit the traditional mold.

Such became evident immediately as on the first day of qualifications for the 61st Indianapolis 500, Anthony Joseph (call him A J) Foyt first qualified, then re-qualified the same car when USAC officials detected a malfunctioning pop off valve on his bright orange No. 14 Gilmore Racing Team machine.

That unprecedented second qualification run was — gasp — met by a chorus of boos from the Motor Speedway fans. Imagine, giving King A J the raspberries!

Still, on Day One, Tom Sneva sent the track timers reeling with a pair of 200-plus mile per hour laps and a four-lap average of 198.884. That was enough to warrant a few revisions in the Speedway record books.

MORE: Looking back to when Jim Clark won the Indianapolis 500 race in a rear-engined car (1965)

Quickly skipping past the more routine second and third qualification days, we arrive at Day Four. Sunday, they proved to be six of the most hectic, historical hours you’ll ever witness in auto racing.

Accounting for the final day’s briskness were 46 qualification runs. Seldom has Tony Hulman’s playground witnessed such activity in the chase for an opening in the 33 car field.

The historical aspect of Sunday’s qualifications? Her name’s Janet. Janet Guthrie. She’s the first woman to earn a berth in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

1970s Race car driver Janet Guthrie

“The pressure on Janet has been much greater than on any other rookie because she’s a woman,” offered Dick Simon, Guthrie’s Bryant Heating & Cooling teammate. “She’s had to go out and prove herself all the time and now she’s proven her ability to run here.”

Guthrie, a 39-year-old New Yorker who hides her age well, gained immediate acclaim just shortly after noon Sunday as she cranked out laps of 187.500, 188.363, 188.798, and 188.957.

The final circuit bettered Janet’s own women’s closed-course speed record and the four-lap 188.403 average was a steadfast ticket for a starting berth in the May 29 extravaganza.

“Right now I feel all of the pressure is off,” Guthrie smiled as a horde of reporters sought her attention. “And believe me, I intend to celebrate tonight with my crew. This is certainly a major accomplishment in any race driver’s life.”

Racecar driver Janet Guthrie for Kelly Girl temps (1977)

Perhaps. But few drivers have had to contend with the obstacles which have cluttered Guthrie’s progression.

After qualifying 14th and placing 15th in her first oval track race in Rolla Vollstedt’s Bryant Heating & Cooling Special May 2, 1976 at Trenton, Janet went on to become the first woman to pass a driver’s test at Indianapolis. Only snide remarks, doubting glances and disappointments were to follow.

“Initially the thing we had to fight was people thinking this was a publicity stunt,” Vollstedt said of his giving Guthrie a ride.

“But we’ve proven we’re for real. The 500 people told me last year that they would help us all they could as long as we were here making a legitimate attempt.”

“Yes, there was some hostility last year,” Guthrie nodded. “It was a very, very trying time because so many things went wrong for us.”

It seemed Guthrie was destined for an equally fruitless bid in 1977 after cranking her lime green and white racer up to 191mph during practice, she tangled with the wall. The past few days had been spent trying to regain that competitive edge.

Janet Guthrie and Marty Robbins - August 5, 1977

“The crash had no effect on my head at all,” Guthrie said, trying to explain her recent inability at finding the needed speeds. “I haven’t really crashed very much in my life and it hasn’t bothered me.

“My familiarity with the car was the big difference between Friday and today. And I’ve got to thank Dick Simon who worked an awful long time trying to get the car straightened out. He’s the greatest chassis sorter in the world and when he says the car’s ready, it’s ready.”

But Simon, who placed his Vollstedt racer in the field with an average speed of 185.615 and was then scalded after a water hose break loose inside the cockpit during a shakedown run, refused to take much credit for Guthrie’s historical afternoon on the asphalt.

“It all boils down to her inner desires,” he explained. “She wanted to make this race awfully bad.

“Last night (Saturday) I told her the car was as ready as it would ever be and if she couldn’t get the speed up today (Sunday) I’d take the car. We set the car up for myself, but then we told her ‘There it is, do what you can.’ Basically, Janet reached down and got that little bit extra.

“Janet knew she had to either get herself motivated or forget it. That was it. The car was ready.”

And at 12:03pm Sunday, so was Guthrie.

“I was just thinking ‘Don’t make any mistakes,'” Janet said while she tipped champagne glasses with Simon, Vollstedt and the remainder of her crew. “Rolla was giving me lap times so I knew how fast I was going. And I’m not exactly surprised I was going that fast.”

And Janet Guthrie’s not exactly surprised she’ll be one of the 33 drivers who rev up the engines come May 29.

“We had our doubts at times,” she nodded assuringly, “but we knew we could do it as long as we all pulled together. I’m just glad my parents didn’t bring me up saying I couldn’t do something simply because I was a woman. I’ve had tremendous support.”

Janet Guthrie in 2006

Pioneer women’s sports car and NASCAR road racer Janet Guthrie touches one of her helmets for her competitive racing heyday as USA soccer great Julie Foudy looks on at the Sports Icons Press Conference at the National Sports Museum in Lower Manhattan on October 17, 2006.

Race car driver Janet Guthrie photo by Laurence Agron | Dreamstime.com (2006)
Race car driver Janet Guthrie in 2006 | Photo by Laurence Agron | Dreamstime

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