Above: Janet Guthrie after qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 in 1977, becoming the first woman to drive in the race. Photo from Indystar archives.
On May 10, 1977, Janet Guthrie had to be wondering why she had entered the Indianapolis 500. In 1976, she couldn’t get up to speed. A. J. Foyt loaned her one of his backup cars for a shakedown test. She turned laps good enough to make the race. But it was just a test. The car she was assigned wasn’t fast enough.
Now, early in May, 1977, she had hit the wall. Her team, owned by Rolla Vollstedt, repaired the car, but a second weekend qualifying run looked more likely than the upcoming opening day of qualifying. She struggled to get above 179 mph. it would take a speed in the 180s to make the 1977 race.
Reader Marcia Ann Conder shared these two photos of her father, Larry Conder, assisting Guthrie after her crash. Conder was a fireman at IMS for 40 years. Thanks, Marcia, for the photos.
Guthrie earned a degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan and began racing SCCA events in 1963. In 1976 she became the first woman to drive in a NASCAR superspeedway race, finishing 15 in the Charlotte World 600. Earlier in 1977 she entered the Daytona 500 and finished 12th, earning Rookie of the Year honors.
The week after Pole Day was a long one as the team searched for speed. The third day of qualifying passed with Guthrie next in line as the gun went off. She would be first in line on Sunday, Bump Day. The field wasn’t filled yet, so she just had to get in with the best speed possible without the added pressure of beating someone else’s time.
Guthrie qualified easily with an average of 188.403. Her time was the fastest of the day and she would start the race in the middle of row nine. Guthrie said had the car not crashed she could have easily qualified at 191 mph.
Within a year, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to drive in both a NASCAR superspeedway race and the Indianapolis 500.
Her spot in the field presented Tony Hulman with a dilemma. He needed to change the command to start the race. Hulman prefaced the traditional command with, “In company of the first woman to start at Indianapolis,” before “Gentleman start your engines.” In subsequent years, the command, when necessary, became, “Lady(ies) and gentleman, start your engines.”
The race itself was not great for Guthrie. A cranky engine had her making numerous pit stops. She retired on lap 74, finishing 29th. I remember the crowd cheered every time she drove past my section.
Guthrie race in just two more 500s, finishing ninth in 1978. She participated in 11 Indycar races overall with a best finish of 5th at Milwaukee in 1979.. Guthrie also drove a total of 33 NASCAR races. Her best finish was sixth at Bristol in 1977.
Eight other women have driven in the Indianapolis 500 since Guthrie’s rookie year. Danica Patrick is the only one to have led the race.
1977 capped a decade and a half of transitions at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The race went from roadsters to all rear engine cars, the front stretch was paved to just a yard of bricks, and speeds began to approach 200 mph. More changes would be coming. It would still take another 14 years before the last driver barrier would be broken.
ESPN will air “Qualified,” a 30 for 30 documentary about Janet Guthrie Tuesday, May 28, at 9 pm EDT.