British professional race car driver Katherine Legge made headlines in February when Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLL) announced she would race the team’s No. 44 Dallara-Honda for the 107th Indy 500. The news marks Legge’s third start in the iconic IndyCar race and her first since 2013.
Legge’s return also ensures at least one female driver will be in the field this year’s field, which was absent of women in 2022 for the second time in three years. The 2020 Indy 500 was the first contest without at least one woman in the field since 1999. Legge, whose team recently finished fourth in class at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January, is one of nine women to have raced in the Indy 500, which is set for May 28 on NBC.
As On Her Turf continues its celebration of Women’s History Month, we take a closer look at the first of those nine women to race at “The Brickyard” — Janet Guthrie, who made her first of three career starts in the Indy 500 in 1977, during what turned out to be a breakout rookie season for the auto-racing trailblazer.
Born in Iowa City, Iowa, in 1938, Guthrie found the “need for speed” as a teenager growing up in Miami, Florida, where her family moved when she was 3. Both of her parents were pilots, and Guthrie’s father taught her how to fly as a teenager. She earned pilot’s license at 17, but gender barriers in the late 1950s prevented her from becoming a commercial airline pilot. That prompted her to head to the University of Michigan, where she graduated in 1960 with a degree in physics.
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Guthrie began her career as an aerospace engineer with Republic Aviation in Farmingdale, N.Y., where she worked on programs that were precursors to Project Apollo. In 1964, she made it through the first round of eliminations for NASA’s first scientist-astronauts program, but when she didn’t advance any further, Guthrie turned her attention to auto racing.
She purchased a Jaguar XK 120 coupe – and a $45 station wagon to tow it – and she learned to build her own engines and do her own body work. Guthrie might have remained relatively unknown had she not caught the attention of race car designed Rolla Vollstedt, considered one of the most influential car designers of the 20th century. Intrigued by the aerospace-engineer-turned-racing-driver, Vollstedt asked Guthrie to test a car he designed for the 1976 Indy 500.
“Racing needed a woman at Indy, and I needed a driver,” Rolla said via Reed (College) Magazine. “That’s one of the reasons I went after a woman who would call attention to the team.”
“I had no house, only a used-up race car, no money, no jewelry, no husband,” Guthrie remembered. “Then the phone rings and a man I had never heard of asks me if I want to take a test in an Indy car.”
She took the risk, and it paid off: The team didn’t qualify for Indianapolis on that first try, but they did in 1977.
That 1977 season, officially her rookie year on the NASCAR Winston Cup, unfolded with a series for firsts for Guthrie, who turned 39 in March of that year. Her first race was none other than the Daytona 500, where she became the first woman to compete in the iconic event. She finished 12th when her car’s engine blew two cylinders with 10 laps to go, but her performance still earned her top rookie honors.
Guthrie raced in 19 Winston Cup races in the 30-race season, successfully qualifying for all 19. She qualified three times in the top 10 and recorded four top-10 finishes. She had five races under her belt before switching her attention to the Indy 500.
“Just a year earlier, the preponderance of racing opinion stated firmly and passionately that no woman could possibly handle a 750-horsepower, 200-plus mph Indianapolis 500 Championship race car,” Guthrie wrote in her 2005 autobiography, Janet Guthrie: A Life in Full Throttle.
“… Established drivers complained loudly, publicly, and at length. ‘Women don’t have the strength, women don’t have the endurance, women don’t have the emotional stability, women are going to endanger our lives.’
“The records of women in European auto racing, stretching back to the nineteenth century, and those of American women sports car racers might as well not have existed, for all the roundy-round boys cared. My own thirteen years of experience on the road-racing circuits, my Two-Liter Prototype class win at the Sebring 12-Hour, my North Atlantic Road Racing Championship seemed to count for nothing in the world of oval-track racing. Tradition was all, and tradition said that women, peanuts and the color green were not allowed.”
But Guthrie advanced through the qualifying against 85 teams to earn her spot in the field of 30. She set fastest time of day on the opening day of practice and set fastest time of any driver over the second weekend of qualifying as well. She finished 39th in the first Indy 500 start, ultimately dropping out when her engine failed about 10 laps in. The following year, however, Guthrie cracked the top 10, finishing ninth.
“I think she has done a hell of a job,” Mario Andretti said after the race via the Washington Star. “She’s got a good head on her shoulders. I’ve seen many guys who had much more trouble with Indy than she has had, from the standpoint of belonging on the course. Anyone who says she doesn’t belong, just feels threatened.”
She returned to the Winston Cup circuit, and six races later she recorded her first top-10 finish in the series, placing 10th at the Champion Spark Plug 400 in Michigan on Aug. 22. Guthrie followed up with a career-best sixth-place finish and top rookie honors in the Volunteer 400 at Bristol (Tennessee) on Aug. 28. She notched two more top 10s before season’s end – finishing ninth at the NAPA National 500 in Charlotte (N.C.) on Oct. 9 and ninth at the American 500 in Rockingham, N.C., on Oct. 26.
Guthrie’s historic season culminated with another first at the Los Angeles Times 500 in Ontario, California, on Nov. 20. She led for five laps under caution (Laps 43-47), marking the first time a woman led laps in NASCAR. It was a feat that would not be matched again in the Cup until Danica Patrick at the 2013 Daytona 500. Guthrie’s engine failed 25 laps before the finish — while she was still on the lead lap — and she finished seventh.
Guthrie’s career ended after the 1980 season, when she was unable to secure any corporate sponsorship. But her legacy lives on, and Guthrie’s helmet and driver’s suit are in the Smithsonian Institution. She was one of the first athletes named to the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame, and in 2006 she was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. In 2019, Guthrie was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, becoming just the fifth woman to be inducted.
As for her role as an advocate for women in motorsports, Guthrie said it became an issue she could not ignore.
“I’m actually quite shy,” she said in a historical interview in a 2019 documentary. “But people would come up to me and say, ‘Do you realize what’s going on in your wake?’ And then they would tell me I was the key figure that women were pointing to and saying, ‘Look, she can do this; I can do this.’ It was a role that I did not seek but came to recognize as a responsibility.”
Learn more about the legendary women who blazed athletic trails in this five-part series, “Remembering History,” as On Her Turf celebrates Black Heritage Month and Women’s History Month with features on Alice Coachman, the 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup champion U.S. Women’s National Team, tennis great Althea Gibson, race car driver Janet Guthrie and the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King‘s win over Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.”
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