NASCAR Then and Now: Janet Guthrie
As the first female to compete in a NASCAR premier series superspeedway race, Janet Guthrie has secured a place in stock car history. She achieved another milestone in her NASCAR career recently, with her nomination for the prestigious Landmark Award.
Guthrie joins four other nominees, H. Clay Earles, founder of Martinsville Speedway; Raymond Parks, NASCAR’s first champion car owner; Ralph Seagraves, who formed the legendary Winston-NASCAR partnership during his tenure with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company; and Ken Squier, legendary radio and television broadcaster and namesake of the Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR media excellence.
“Well obviously it’s quite an honor, especially the company I’m in with the other nominees,” Guthrie told POPULAR SPEED. “My understanding is that just one of the nominees will be chosen by a vote of a mixed group of people. I don’t really expect to be chosen, but I’m honored to be named.”
Guthrie’s path to the superspeedway took many interesting twists and turns before she landed behind the wheel of a stock car.
“I was born adventurous and grew up insufficiently socialized. I started flying when I was around 14 years old. I soloed when I was 16, made a parachute jump when I was 16, and had a private pilot’s license at 17,” Guthrie said. “I was a commercial pilot and flight instructor before I got out of college and then I went to work in the aerospace industry as a research and development engineer.
“I had my eye on an AT-6, a WWII training plane stress for 6 G’s positive and 6 G’s negative. You could do all sorts of stuff with it. But I was living and working on Long Island, NY where air traffic was perfectly horrible. There was no place to go and have any fun.”
“So, instead of the airplane, I bought a seven year old Jaguar XK 120 M coupe,” she continued. “That was the big watershed between flying and racing. Then I found out that sports car racing existed and I started running solo competitions.
“And things went on from there.”
Guthrie’s big break in racing actually came in the IndyCar Series, when an owner called out of the clear blue and asked if she wanted to take a shot at the Indianapolis 500.
“My first thought was oh yeah, right, aha, certainly,” Guthrie said. “But it turned out to be true. He was a very experienced team owner who was never heavily funded but ran on passion, just as I had run my racing career up to that point.
“We had a test and that was successful. I took a shot at Indianapolis in 1976 but I was not able to bring his car up to speed. So, on the last day of qualifying at Indianapolis in 1976, AJ Foyt let me take his backup car in practice. Obviously I ran that car fast enough to make the field. But he decided not to let me make a qualifying attempt with it.”
While Guthrie was dealing with her disappointment, consummate NASCAR promoter Humpy Wheeler had been carefully watching from his racetrack in Charlotte, N.C.
“Apparently, Humpy Wheeler had been ticked off because the headlines were about what I was doing in Indianapolis instead of about his race on the same day, the Charlotte 600 mile race,” Guthrie said. “When it looked like I wasn’t going to make the field at Indy, he had everything in place to bring me down there to make a qualifying attempt for the World 600. I did make the field there and qualified right behind Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Bill Elliott. I finished 15th and things went on from there.”
Although Guthrie loved every minute of her time in NASCAR, she often encountered the ‘good ole boys’ philosophy.
“In the early races, during driver introductions, there would be all these shouts of ‘Go back to the kitchen,’” Guthrie said. “But that wasn’t important to me. What was important was what happened on the racetrack. And I had been passionately in love with racing for a long time. That was how I was able to do what I did.”
So, what ended Guthrie’s NASCAR career? Unfortunately, this trailblazing female driver experienced the same thing that too often ends so many other budding racing careers.
“We had no money,” Guthrie said ruefully. “It came down to the lack of sponsorship. I deeply, deeply regret that I wasn’t able to continue.”
Guthrie, now 78 years old with her driving years behind her, continues to share her passion for the sport, as well as keeping her finger on the pulse of other female racers in all series.
“I gave a couple of speeches last year, one of them at Porsche’s new headquarters in Atlanta and one at the new Museum of Speed, just south of Portland, Oregon,” Guthrie said. “I also try to keep track of what the women are doing.
“I just made tentative plans to get together with Sarah Fisher at Indianapolis in May. And I’m so glad that Katherine Legge at the Rolex 24 in February led a large number of laps before she handed over the wheel and her teammate crashed into something. She deserves a spot at Indy and I hope she gets it.”
“Simona de Silvestro deserves a full-time ride as well,” Guthrie continued. “There are a number of women out there who are certainly have the capability. It all depends on who finds the money.
“I used to keep an eye on women in the lower levels of NASCAR more carefully than I do now. Danica Patrick has settled in and she is a capable driver but I don’t see any other women out there at present who have the money to get it done.”
While she keeps an eye on other female racers, Guthrie’s recent nomination for the Landmark Award honor has allowed her to once again take a trip down NASCAR memory lane.
“There was that sixth place finish at Bristol,” Guthrie said. “That remains the best finish by a woman in a top-tier NASCAR race, although I’m now tied with Danica Patrick for that record.
“In my first ever Daytona 500, I was running in eighth, ten laps from the end when I dropped two cylinders, limping around to a 12th place finish. But I still earned the honor of Top Rookie in that race.”
“Finally, there was Atlanta which I think was my third race in 1977,” Guthrie said. “That was when I actually passed David Pearson. My team owner Linda Ferrari said to me 50,000 people stood up and screamed.”
Guthrie has not only fond memories of her time in the sport, but also has one regret.
“I only wish that I had been able to continue racing in NASCAR. I really do feel that had I been able to continue for another full year, I would have won a Cup race in less than the usual average of five years at that time.
“I really, really enjoyed NASCAR Cup racing. It was tremendous fun and I loved every minute of it.”
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