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Janet Guthrie Broke Indianapolis 500 Gender Barrier

Woman enters all-male world of racers

"There was the experience of handling high-powered machinery in an environment that posed certain hazards just to keep things interesting," Guthrie said, "and there was the direct person-to-person competition. That was really what made racing so very compelling."

Male drivers upset

Guthrie had planned to race at Indianapolis a year earlier, but her car was so lacking in power that she didn't even try to qualify. Even so, she was greeted that year with resentment, anger and disdain.

"A lot of that was through ignorance," former Indy 500 winner Mario Andretti said from his office in Nazareth, Pa. "Some of it perhaps came from male drivers that were quicker than she was but thought they weren't getting a ride while she was because she was a woman."

Bobby Unser, part of a revered racing family, told a New York Times reporter he "could take a hitch-hiker, give him a Corvette off a showroom floor, and turn him into a faster driver" than Guthrie.

A.J. Foyt, another racing legend, laughed at the recollection. "Bobby Unser's a little narrow between the eyes anyway," Foyt told the Bulletin in an interview from his racing headquarters in Waller, Texas. "He could not see things like this happening."

Longtime car builder Rolla Vollstedt signed Guthrie to drive at Indy in 1976. "I had participated at Indianapolis for over 10 years," he said from his home in Portland, Ore., "and I got this crazy idea — I don't know why — that I would like to take a woman to [race at] Indianapolis.

"I thought it would get me some sponsorships. Besides, it hadn't been done before. So I started calling my friends as to who was a capable woman driver, and the name that always came up was Janet's. I knew that if she qualified and ran in the race it would be a historic event."

Although Guthrie didn't try to qualify for the May 30, 1976, Indy 500, Howard "Humpy" Wheeler, general manager of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, saw an opportunity to promote his World 600 (now Coca-Cola 600) NASCAR race run on the same day.

He quickly helped Guthrie secure a car and engine and flew her to the track, where she qualified 27th among 40 drivers. "When she made the field," Wheeler said, "we sold more tickets the next day than we'd ever sold." She was 15th and still running at the end.

Guthrie and Vollstedt were back at Indy with a faster car in 1977. She qualified 26th.

"Janet was always very professional," Andretti said. "If anything, I thought she was probably the safest one to be around because she struck me as a very intelligent individual. She was not going to do anything stupid or foolish."

Next: Guthrie ends her racing career. >>

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