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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Since Janet Guthrie broke gender barrier at Indy, progress for women drivers has been in low gear

The pioneer qualified at Indy in 1977, had a promising NASCAR season but lack of sponsorships bumped her off the track within a few years.

Janet Guthrie, the first woman to have an

Janet Guthrie, the first woman to have an entry accepted for the Indianapolis 500-mile race, takes one last look at the 2 1/2-mile oval after the rack closed, May 24, 1976, the last day of qualifications. Photo Credit: AP/Mary Ann Carter

Fans greeted her with lewd signs, drivers threatened a boycott and journalists peppered her with hard-hitting questions like whether she wore makeup or if she worried her purse would get in the way of the steering wheel.

This was the reception Janet Guthrie received when she first arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway 43 years ago. Her ability to endure and become the first woman to qualify and compete in the Indianapolis 500 opened the door for so many others, including Lyn St. James, Danica Patrick and Pippa Man, who will be competing in her seventh Indy 500 on Sunday.

“The truth is until I got there, I had no idea that hostility toward women in men’s fields ran that deep,” Guthrie, 81, told Newsday in a phone interview last week. “I had been working and playing in men’s fields my whole life and never encountered it.”

Guthrie’s fight to become the first woman to qualify and race in the Indy 500 is chronicled in the ESPN documentary “Qualified,” scheduled to air May 28 as part of the "30 for 30" series. The film, directed by Jenna Ricker and premiered earlier this year at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, mixes incredible archival footage with current interviews of Guthrie, former drivers, owners and others in the industry.

The result is a compelling portrait of a reluctant feminist turned trailblazer by her desire to compete against the best in the uber macho mid-Seventies world of auto sports.

Guthrie’s path to the Indy 500, and the documentary, begin on Long Island in the early 1960s. Guthrie, recently graduated from the University of Michigan, was living in Northport and working as an aerospace engineer for Republic Aviation in Farmingdale. On her new salary of $125 a week, she bought a Jaguar.  Driving it on the way home from work one day, she stopped in a restaurant on Northern Boulevard and saw a flier for an autocross competition, where drivers raced around rubber pylons.

“I thought, gee that looks like fun,” Guthrie said. “I’d like to try that.”

By 1972, Guthrie had quit her engineering job and was involved in racing full-time. She did all her own work on her own car, spending most of her spare time in a rented barn. She began turning her attention from Sports Car Club of America competition to bigger races.

In 1976, she caught a big break when team owner and car builder Rolla Vollstedt decided to sponsor her in the Indy 500. Guthrie had never driven an Indy car, and other drivers were so livid that she was forced by the USAC to enter an April race in Trenton to evaluate her readiness.  

Bobby Unser, the defending Indy 500 champ, made it known he didn’t want her in Trenton, declaring he could teach a random hitchhiker to drive better than Guthrie could.

“Can a woman come in and concentrate and keep that train of thought on what she’s doing at 200 miles an hour?” Hall of Famer Tom Bigelow said in the documentary when asked to describe some of the drivers’ concerns.

Guthrie said: “I kept telling myself the only way I could answer the insults was on the race track. I said to myself this race is like any other you’ve driven, it’s just more important.”

Guthrie qualified for the qualifying race in Trenton. And though problems with a subpar car kept her from qualifying at Indy in 1976, she had earned some respect, especially from A.J. Foyt, who had let her run some laps in one of his backup cars.

Guthrie instead raced at the NASCAR World 600 in Charlotte on the same day as the 1976 Indy 500, and finished 15th. She followed that up by finishing 15th in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona on the Fourth of July, and the following February was 12th in the Daytona 500.

Guthrie was back at Indy in 1977 and became the first woman ever to qualify. The announcement at the start of the race was changed to, "In the company of the first lady to ever qualify at Indianapolis, gentlemen, start your engines."

Twenty-seven laps into the race, Guthrie's car developed mechanical problems and she was done. She came back the next year, in 1978, and, despite driving with a broken wrist, finished ninth, which stood as a record for women drivers until Patrick finished fourth in 2005.

In 1977, Guthrie finished 23rd on the NASCAR circuit with 12 top 20 finishes, including four top 10s, with a best of sixth in the Volunteer 400 at Bristol.

Guthrie had proven herself, but it wouldn’t be enough. The sponsorship money just wasn’t there for her to keep racing after 1983, a problem that women drivers continue to encounter today. Guthrie believes that sponsorship problems are the only reason there is just one woman in the Indy 500 today.

“There’s plenty of capable women drivers out there today capable of competing at the top level,” Guthrie said.

And in that way, Guthrie’s story is more than a bit bittersweet. Against all odds — sexism, skepticism and subpar equipment — she proved that she could drive with the big boys. And her career was cut short, anyway.

It’s something she has come to terms with, though it took awhile. This is something Ricker did an excellent job of capturing in the film, of painting how sexism continues to persist despite the achievements of women.

Said Ricker: “I think she’s made peace with the fact time marches on. I just don’t think she’s made peace with the fact she didn’t get the opportunities she should have.”

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