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Janet Guthrie Broke Indianapolis 500 Gender Barrier

Woman enters all-male world of racers

Janet Guthrie the first female NASCAR driver at the 1977 Daytona Beach 500 Winston cup

At the Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 20, 1977, Janet Guthrie was just months away from breaking the Indianapolis 500 gender barrier and driving into history. — ISC Archives/Getty Images

"Gentlemen, start your engines" was an ironclad tradition at the Indianapolis 500 — until Janet Guthrie drove her way into the 33-car grid 34 year ago.

See also: Lee Talbot shares the cars he's raced and loved.

There had been women in long-distance racing as far back as 1888 and in European open-wheel Formula One racing in 1958.

And by Sunday, May 29, 1977, Guthrie already had raced sports cars, had driven in an IndyCar race in Trenton, N.J., and had raced on a stock car super-speedway.

But when she challenged the all-male fraternity at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that year, drivers and fans chose up sides over whether a woman belonged in the cockpit of an Indy car.

Track owner Tony Hulman figured out a way to maintain tradition, yet modernize it. "In company with the first lady ever to qualify at Indianapolis," he intoned, "gentlemen, start your engines."

Guthrie proved she did, indeed, belong behind the wheel of a car that could circle Indy's 2 1/2-mile track at nearly 200 miles an hour. In three successive years, 1977 to 1979, she qualified for the Indy 500, finishing as high as ninth in 1978.

It was the best finish by a woman until 2005, when rookie Danica Patrick started and finished fourth. Seven women now have competed in the Indy 500. Since 2007 the call has been, "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines."

Guthrie, now 73, "knew at the very beginning that I was not allowed to make any mistakes," she told the AARP Bulletin from her home in Aspen, Colo. "If I'd done in my first Indianapolis 500 what Danica did in hers — spinning out, taking one or two other drivers with her, stalling on a pit stop — if I'd done those things, there wouldn't be a woman at Indy to this day."

Her father managed an airport in Iowa when she was born in 1938. Within three years he was a pilot for Eastern Air Lines and the family was living on the outskirts of a small, tourist-driven Miami, Fla.

"We were far out in the country, surrounded by piney woods," she said. "My only playmates were my little brothers and sisters. I was born adventurous and grew up insufficiently socialized."

She piloted a plane at 13, made her first parachute jump at 16, had a pilot's license at 17 and, by the time she earned a degree in physics at the University of Michigan in 1960, she had a commercial pilot's license and was a qualified flight instructor.

Guthrie became a research and development engineer at Republic Aviation on Long Island, N.Y. In 1964 she applied to join the scientist astronaut program and made it through the first elimination round.

By then she had bought a used Jaguar XK140 and was competing in Sports Car Club of America events. Racing gradually became a priority; by 1972 she was at it full time.

Next: Male drivers greet Guthrie with resentment and disdain. >>

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