- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Janet Guthrie was about to take another practice spin at Indianapolis Motor Speedway when TV star James Garner (“The Rockford Files”) walked over and introduced himself.

“Oh hi,” Guthrie said. “Do me a favor, will you?”

Garner nodded even before hearing Guthrie’s request — to give her sister a spin in the $20,000 Oldsmobile pace car that would be driven by Garner. Their exchange was significant because Garner wasn’t the biggest celebrity on the premises. That distinction belonged to Guthrie, the first female driver to gain a spot in the Indianapolis 500 field.

Four days later, on May 30, 1977, Guthrie, then 39, hurdled another gender barrier in sports and society by finishing 29th after enduring engine troubles. A year later, she came in ninth at Indy — the best showing by a female driver at the Brickyard until 2005. But as tennis champion and women’s rights pioneer Billie Jean King told Guthrie years later, “Without you, there wouldn’t have been a Danica [Patrick].”

Guthrie’s road to Indy was long and littered with figurative potholes. Auto racing was a sport for good ol’ boys mostly from the South, and women were tolerated only when a beauty queen showed up to plant a kiss on a race winner. For years, females weren’t even allowed in the garages, much less behind the wheel.

A veteran of SCCA events, Guthrie first was invited to drive at Indy a year earlier by team owner Rolla Vollstedt. She failed to qualify for the nation’s most famous auto race, but her mere presence was enough to alarm traditionalists.

“When I shook hands with Richard Petty, I thought I’d get frostbite,” Guthrie said in her 2005 autobiography, “A Life at Full Throttle.” She added: “Later he would be quoted as saying of me, ‘She’s no lady. If she was, she’d be at home. There’s a lot of differences in being a lady and being a woman.’ ”

Thirty years later, King Richard hadn’t changed his mind on the subject of women in auto racing.

“I just don’t think it’s a sport for women,” the seven-time NASCAR champion said in an interview with the Associated Press. “It’s really not. It’s good for them to come in [because] it gives us a lot of publicity. It gives them publicity. But as far as being a real true racer, making a living out of it, it’s kind of tough.”

Yet even Petty was able to appreciate Guthrie’s true grit.

“She come in just as herself and done a decent job,” said Petty, obviously no grammarian. “She said, ‘I’m here, I’m going to do it,’ and she was able to get it done.”

Well, sort of.

All told, Guthrie competed in 33 NASCAR races over four years, finishing as high as sixth, before a lack of money and sponsors forced her to end her driving career. Yet her race suit and helmet are in the Smithsonian Institution, and she was elected to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame not because she won but because she tried.

Today relatively few women drive at the sport’s top level, but the sight of them no longer scandalizes fans and competitors. Pioneers like Guthrie and Lynn St. James have made it easier for successors like Patrick and Shawna Robinson to be accepted.

“From an initial attitude that was skeptical to hostile with quite a bit of hostility, that has changed to an attitude of acceptance and camaraderie, both in Indy cars and NASCAR [racing],” Guthrie said. “It took a little longer to see that happen in NASCAR, but it did happen.”

Before her debut in qualifications at Indy in 1976, Guthrie had to pass a rookie test requiring her to drive 20 laps between 159 and 164 mph. She did so but failed to qualify for the 500 until the following year, when she reached a speed of 188.403 and started 29th in the field. Problems with the timing gear knocked her out of the 500 after 27 laps, but she returned a year later and qualified 15th at 190.235.

“In my opinion, when we started that [1978] race, the best that car could finish was probably fifth,” Guthrie recalled. “We didn’t get a fifth, but we got ninth, so I was happy.”

Guthrie completed 190 of the 200 laps and earned $24,115. She raced at Indy for the last time in 1979, qualifying 14th but departing after three laps because of a blown piston. Her last major race was an 11th-place finish in the 1980 Daytona 500.

“I ran out of money,” she said. “I was doing everything I could to find sponsorship, but I couldn’t do it.”

Nowadays Guthrie, 69, is happy for — and perhaps just a little envious of — the glamorous Patrick, who finished fourth at Indy two years ago but has done little else worthy of note.

“Danica was the first woman to reach Indianapolis with top-notch equipment and the backing of a winning team,” Guthrie said. “I never got the acclaim that Danica did because I never had the equipment that was capable of running that fast. If you try to make a car go faster than it is capable of, you kill yourself.”

Guthrie would like to see many more women driving on the sport’s major circuits, but she said it won’t happen easily or quickly.

“Money is still a big problem,” she acknowledged. “The last I heard, it was $15 million a year to run a [Nextel] Cup car. That kind of money doesn’t come easily for anyone and less easily for a woman. … Most of the executives, the guys with the moneymaking decision, are still men. Then there’s also the macho-by-association factor.”

But in today’s supposedly enlightened society, should a driver’s gender make any difference? Guthrie doesn’t think so — and didn’t three decades ago.

“I knew the woman part was irrelevant, but nobody else seemed to,” she said. “Sometimes I could laugh at it. But sometimes it could make me mad. The important part was that I was able to go out and compete at that level. I was a racer right though to my bone marrow, and that’s what it was all about.”

Nonetheless, she has reason to feel unfulfilled about her driving career.

“I am definitely not satisfied,” she insisted. “I did enough NASCAR racing to feel absolutely certain I would have won races if I had been able to continue. I only drove 33 Cup races, but that was enough to know what I could do.”

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