Janet Guthrie: Setting the pace for Women in Motorsport
The world of motorsport is one area where women have, so far, made only a small set of inroads. A mere handful of trail blazers have looked to set the standards for female drivers and there are some tales of success in the minor disciplines.
If, however, we look at the pinnacle of the sport - Formula One and Indy 500 - there is much work still to be done. Hopefully that landscape will continue to change and one pioneer that can receive effusive thanks in this respect is Janet Guthrie.
Guthrie achieved some notable firsts in her career as a professional racing driver and she was the first woman to compete in both the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500. Ultimately, her efforts in the sport were to be frustrated due to her gender but not before she’d laid a track down for others to follow.
Janet Guthrie also went on to compete in NASCAR and became the first woman to lead a lap in that sport. It all began in a modest fashion before she exploded on four wheels and accomplished that series of firsts.
Janet Guthrie was born in Iowa in 1938 and, upon finishing her education, she began her working life in the world of engineering. Specifically, she worked in aerospace at the Republic Aviation company and from there, she began to indulge her love of racing cars.
It’s said that her first official appearance on the track came in 1963 when Guthrie competed at the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) circuit in a Jaguar XK140. Little is documented regarding her earlier competitions but clearly she was a force on the track because, by the early 1970s, she was getting ready for a career on the professional circuits.
Accordingly, in 1972, Guthrie had quit her job as an engineer and was now racing on a full time basis. It was to be a significant and unheralded time for women’s sport and the real milestones started to be passed in the middle of that decade.
In 1976, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to compete in a Winston Cup Superspeedway race. Her entry into the World 600 of that year would form the landmark and she would go on to take part in four further races during that season. Guthrie continued to compete in NASCAR but by this time she’d also turned her attention to other areas of motorsport.
In 1977, she became the first woman to compete and qualify for the Indy 500. Engine issues forced a retirement but a year later, in 1978, she completed the circuit and finished in a healthy ninth place.
Guthrie continued to make inroads into various areas of motorsport even though the chequered flags ultimately eluded her. Her highest finish in a Nascar event was sixth - a mark that stood until 2014 when it was equalled by Danica Patrick.
There was promise but ultimately, Janet Guthrie had to retire from the sport in 1980. It was said that a lack of corporate funding and sponsorship, which was believed to be due to her gender, was behind the decision and that’s a sad way to end such a landmark career.
When we look back at the numbers relating to Janet Guthrie’s racing career, they may seem modest but the nature of her performances make them particularly significant. That sixth placed finish in NASCAR was her best and as we’ve seen, it was a landmark that stood for nearly forty years.
In Indy 500, she competed in 11 events with a highest finish of 5th. Battling against the odds, Janet Guthrie drove in her last race at the 1980 Coca Cola 500. It’s a modest set of stats but who knows what she would have achieved with proper funding and the ability to compete with all drivers in a sector that was almost completely dominated by men at the time.
Gaps to Fill
If we look at the world of Formula One, we see little in the way of female achievements. Only two women have ever qualified and started a race with the current record held by Lella Lombardi with 12 starts.
In NASCAR, there is an improvement with five women, to date, having claimed a race pole. In addition, two women, Shawna Robinson and Hailie Deegan have actually won a race while more than 100 women have competed in NASCAR at some stage.
Perhaps the most discouraging stat is the complete absence of female drivers in certain areas in the present day. The situation is a modest one in NASCAR but it’s more of a concern in Formula One.
For those who are involved, the situation will hopefully change and every female who is involved will hopefully look back at Janet Guthrie and thank her for her groundbreaking legacy.