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Janet Guthrie did not set out to be a race car driver. Her early aspiration was to become an aerospace engineer. She earned a pilot's license when she was 17. Guthrie graduated from the University of Michigan in 1960 with a degree in physics. This is when she started working with a company called Republic Aviation. Guthrie worked in research and development as an engineer at the company for six years.
Janet Guthrie was born on March 7, 1938, in Iowa City, Iowa. She is the oldest of five children. Her parents were Jean Ruth Guthrie and William Lain Guthrie. Both parents were pilots. When she was three, her family moved to Miami, Florida after her father accepted a job to be a pilot for Eastern Air Lines. For all but one year of her education from elementary through high school, Guthrie attended Miss Harris' Florida School for Girls.
Allure of Racing
Guthrie's attraction for car racing began after she purchased a Jaguar XK 12 coupe in 1963. This is when she started racing in gymkhanas hill climbs and doing field trials. She then bought a Jaguar XK 140, so she could race in the Sports Car Club of America races. She slowly started to lose enthusiasm for her career at Republic Aviation. Car racing began to take more of her time, interest, and money. By the time it was 1972, she was dedicated to car racing on a full-time basis.
Guthrie faced significant resistance from many people who did not like the idea of a woman being a professional race car driver. She was often insulted by other drivers and harassed by members of staff. A man who invited Guthrie to race told her that she would never win because nobody would provide her with a winning car. He explained it was because nobody wants women drivers in the sport. She still persevered and got attention for her clean racing and impressive skills. Guthrie silenced her critics and made it possible for female racers like Danica Patrick and others to succeed in the world of car racing.
For 13 years after Guthrie started racing, she struggled to work as an engineer when her mind and heart were in the world of race car driving. She made a good wage as an engineer and poured everything she could financially into her racing. The money she made as an engineer was eventually not enough. Guthrie built her own engines as well as slept in her car. By the time it was 1975, Guthrie was exhausted and feeling very stressed. She was thinking about giving up her dream of being a top race car driver. That's when she got a call that changed everything. There was a man on the other end of the line asking her if she wanted to try to qualify for competing in the Indianapolis 500.
Janet Guthrie got her big break in 1976. This is when a race vehicle owner and car builder Rolla Vollstedt asked Guthrie to test one of his cars for the Indianapolis 500. This is the same year when she became the first female to compete in a stock car race at the NASCAR Winston Cup superspeedway. In 1977, Guthrie made history as the first woman to qualify and compete in the Indianapolis 500. She was also the first female as well as Top Rookie at the Daytona 500 during the same year.
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A Male-Dominated Race
In 1976, many of the other race car drivers in the Indianapolis 500 stated the main reason Guthrie was unable to qualify for the race was because of her gender. A.J. Foyt is a three-time champion. He was angered by these comments. Foyt lent Guthrie one of his backup cars to use in a shake-down test. Guthrie's top practice lap in Foyt's car would have been sufficient for her to qualify to be part of the field. This made it obvious her gender was not a problem. Guthrie qualified to be in the Indianapolis 500 the next year.
Indianapolis 500 Races
In 1977, Guthrie finished 29th in the Indianapolis 500, her car had engine troubles. She competed in two additional Indianapolis 500 races. In 1978, she finished ninth as she drove with a fractured wrist. Guthrie was injured two days earlier when she was in a charity tennis event. She hid this injury from officials. During her racing career, Guthrie competed in eleven Indianapolis 500 car races. Her best place finish was fifth.
In 1979, there was a trading card set produced and distributed by a company called Supersisters. One of the cards had Guthrie's picture and name. The helmet and racing suit used by Guthrie are on display at the Smithsonian Institution. She is one of the first females selected for induction into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame (IWSHF). On April 27, 2006, Guthrie was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame. Her autobiography titled Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle has received critical acclaim from various sports publications.
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