Where Are They Now? Catching up with Janet Guthrie

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Janet Guthrie never set out to be a pioneer or trailblazer. All she wanted to be was a race car driver.

The Iowa native considered herself just like every other racer out there: she loved going fast.

That she was a female was inconsequential. She never sought attention just because of her gender. Rather, she wanted to be judged solely on her merits behind the wheel.

Unfortunately, many in the racing world – particularly fellow competitors and fans in NASCAR and IndyCar – thought otherwise.

To those jaded observers, a stock car or open-wheel car was no place for a woman to be in. Yet that’s precisely where Guthrie aspired to be.

Janet Guthrie led the way for generations of female racers to follow, becoming the first woman to race in both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500. (Photo by D Dipasupil/FilmMagic/via Getty Images.)

May 30 marks the 44th anniversary of Guthrie’s first appearance in a NASCAR race. She started 27th in the World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and finished 15th, a remarkable showing considering it was her first-ever foray into the world of NASCAR.

The male-only world of NASCAR, that is.

Her Charlotte debut – which would mark the first time a female raced on a NASCAR superspeedway – would be the first of 33 appearances for Guthrie in the then-Winston Cup Series between 1976 and 1980.

Even to this day, more than four decades later, Guthrie’s name remains synonymous with opening the door for other female racers who wanted to make their mark in the world of motorsports, particularly in NASCAR and IndyCar.

Virtually every female who has come along in some form of stock car racing, from NASCAR Cup to the lowest levels of sportsman racing, from Danica Patrick to Hailie Deegan, has Guthrie to thank for paving the way for them.

Even now, at the age of 82, Guthrie has never forgotten the weight that rested on her shoulders when she took the green flag at Charlotte.

“I knew back at the time that if I screwed up, it would be an exceedingly long time before another woman got a chance,” said Guthrie, who was 38 at the time of the Charlotte race. “I came to feel it as a responsibility, really.

“I mean, I didn’t do what I did to prove anything for women. I did it because I was a racing driver right through to my bone marrow.”

Guthrie achieved a number of firsts in her career, with the most notable year of her life being 1977 when she became the first woman to compete in both the Daytona 500 (finished 12th and was named the race’s top rookie) and the Indianapolis 500.

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After graduating from the University of Michigan, Guthrie began what she thought would be a long career as an aerospace engineer.

The desire to make airplanes go faster rubbed off in four-wheel form with Guthrie, who began racing sports cars in her mid-20s. She would become quite successful, including earning two wins in her class in the 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race.

Guthrie said she was much more accepted as a female racer in sports car racing, particularly on the Sports Car Club of America circuit. The more she raced, the more opponents and fans looked at her solely as a very tough competitor, not as a female.

But by the mid-1970s, when she was racing sports cars full-time, the lure – particularly IndyCar racing – kept getting stronger for Guthrie.

It was that lure that eventually led to an unexpected career detour into NASCAR.

In 1976, Guthrie was offered a ride to become the first woman to race in the Indianapolis 500, but her car wasn’t competitive enough and she failed to make the field.

When her effort fell short at Indy, Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler offered Guthrie a ride in NASCAR’s longest race, the World 600 – which ran later on the same day as the Indy 500.

Despite having never been in a stock car, Guthrie jumped at the chance to further show her four-wheeled versatility.

David Pearson (inside front row) won the 1976 World 600, which was where Janet Guthrie made her NASCAR debut, finishing 15th. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

While there was quite a bit of insolence among her male competitors, Guthrie got some help from some competitors including Donnie Allison and Buddy Baker.

But some others that initially helped Guthrie were soon forced by peer pressure to ultimately ignore her.

“Somebody would give me a little hand and I would credit them when talking to a newspaper reporter and then that driver wouldn’t speak to me,” Guthrie said. “Oh my God, they’d apparently get a hard time from everybody else – so I learned not to do that.”

That is, until she got the Junior Johnson and Cale Yarborough seal of approval.

“The single most significant thing that happened was when (team owner) Rolla Vollstedt called Cale, who agreed to take my car out and practice it. Cale took it out and his speeds weren’t any more competitive than mine had been.

“Then Junior Johnson walked over to where we were standing and he and Cale talked and Junior looked at me and he said to Herb Nab (Yarborough’s crew chief) ‘give her the setup.’ And that made all the difference in the world. That was a gift that was truly priceless. I’ll never forget Junior Johnson for doing that.”

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Guthrie earned five top-10 finishes in her 33 career starts in stock car racing’s highest level, including a career-best sixth-place finish at Bristol in 1977.

That would remain the highest finish by a woman in modern day Cup racing (from 1971 to the present day) until Patrick equaled Guthrie’s finish at Atlanta in 2014.

Sara Christian was the only woman in NASCAR history to earn a top-5 finish — finished fifth — in a dirt race in Pittsburgh in 1949, but that preceded the Grand National Series, which eventually became the Winston Cup Series in 1971. Christian also recorded a sixth-place finish three races earlier in 1949 at Langhorne (Pa.) Speedway.

“We had run high on previous occasions, but something always happened,” Guthrie said. “Bristol was a ferociously difficult track, so short, so many high-banked turns, no time to relax.

“Everything went right for us that time. Nobody spun where I couldn’t avoid them, the engine didn’t blow and we didn’t have any significant handling issues. I really felt very, very good about that race.”

Doing so well on one of NASCAR’s most challenging tracks also marked a breakthrough when it came to how fellow drivers treated her. Instead of their dwelling on her being a female, Guthrie finally began to be treated like one of the boys – and she loved it.

“The most gratifying thing was to see attitudes change — and they did change,” Guthrie said. “They were starting to joke with me and give me a hard time and that kind of stuff. That really made me feel very good.”

Another high point of Guthrie’s NASCAR career was the 1977 season-ending race at Ontario Motor Speedway, when she became the first woman to ever lead a Cup race.

“That was one my very greatest pleasures,” she said. “The high point of that race really was going at it hammer and tongs with Bobby Allison for lap after lap after lap.

“I mean, I had so much fun. I’d pass him, he’d pass me back. We just went back and forth and back and forth. It was wonderful. I just loved it – until the head gasket failed and I ended up in some insignificant position (24th).”

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After competing in 31 NASCAR races between 1976-78, Guthrie couldn’t get a ride and was forced to sit out the 1979 season. She returned for two final starts in 1980, including being Dale Earnhardt’s teammate in that year’s Daytona 500 – he finished fourth, she was 11th.

Janet Guthrie became the first woman to race in the Daytona 500 in 1977. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

Guthrie’s NASCAR career abruptly ended after her final Cup start in the 1980 Coca-Cola 500 (finished 28th) at Pocono Raceway.

The reason for her departure was perhaps the one element Guthrie ultimately had most in common with countless male race car drivers over the years – lack of sponsorship.

She failed to get even one overture from other teams, including small, underfunded operations.

“Oh, it was a really terrible period of time,” Guthrie said. “I mean, ’78, ’79, ’80, ’81, ’82, ’83, all those years I spent every living moment attempting to find backing to continue racing at the top levels.

“Finally, in 1983 I realized that if I kept it up, I was going to jump out of a high window. That was when I quit doing that and started working on the book.”

Unable to race, Guthrie’s book – “Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle” – became a labor of love. It took her 23 years to write before it was published in 2005.

“I really thought of that book as my own legacy,” Guthrie said. “Sports Illustrated called it, I’ll never forget this, ‘An uplifting work that is one of the best books ever written about racing.’ I thought that was pretty nice.”

With the book now out of print, Guthrie is looking to republish it on her own on the Kindle platform, to introduce her life story to a new audience, particularly young, aspiring female racers.

While opportunities for women in NASCAR have increased since her time in the sport, including initiatives such as Drive for Diversity and a number of rising stars such as Hailie Deegan, Guthrie admits things are still not equal.

“The problem for women, in my opinion, is they still have a harder time finding funding for this very expensive sport than does a man of similar accomplishments,” she said.

A resident of Aspen, Colorado for the last 30-plus years, Guthrie is active in the town’s arts scene as well as belongs to a garden club. She also keeps up with racing by watching on TV but doesn’t attend many races.

Guthrie has been inducted into more than a half-dozen motorsports halls of fame and is again among five nominees – the others are Mike Helton, Alvin Hawkins, Dr. Joseph Mattioli and Ralph Seagraves – for the 2021 Landmark Award for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Because she didn’t log the minimum 10 years in NASCAR to be eligible to be inducted into the Hall as a driver, winning the Landmark Award would still acknowledge all that she went through in her NASCAR career.

While she calls being considered for NASCAR’s Landmark Award “very flattering,” Guthrie admits there remains one big lament in her life.

“I wish with all my heart that I had been able to continue racing so that I would have the 10 years in NASCAR necessary to be considered for the Hall of Fame itself,” she said. “I really feel that I would have won Cup races.

“I mean, I led a race, I had run with the leaders on various occasions and I knew what I could do there. Now in Indy cars, I only drove 11 races, so I can’t make the same assertion with the same confidence. But in NASCAR I can.

“Oh, I’d give anything to go back to 1980.”

Editor’s note: We will have another story focusing on Janet Guthie’s IndyCar career – most notably the Indianapolis 500 – next week on MotorSportsTalk. 

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Ryan Newman to be sponsored by Progressive Insurance at Atlanta

Ryan Newman
Roush Fenway Racing
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Ryan Newman and his No. 6 Ford will be sponsored by Progressive Insurance this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Fox), Roush Fenway Racing announced Wednesday.

“We’re excited to welcome Progressive Insurance to the team this weekend in Atlanta,” Newman said in a press release. “A major brand such as theirs fits well into the NASCAR space. Atlanta makes for a challenging and entertaining race with the differing options of the preferred line, so we’re looking forward to it with Progressive on board.”

This is the first time Progressive has been a primary sponsor on a car in a national NASCAR series.

“We’re inspired by the resolve of Ryan and thrilled to be working with him and the team at Roush Fenway Racing this weekend in Atlanta,” Jay VanAntwerp, Progressive’s Media Business Leader, said in the press release. “Racing fans, and sports fans in general, are craving live events, so everyone should be thrilled at the chance to see Ryan and his fellow drivers out on the track. Progressive’s competitive spirit is a great fit for the dynamic, fast-paced action of NASCAR, so we’re looking forward to being part of that excitement with the No. 6 car wrapped in blue and white and sporting the Progressive name. Hopefully we will see Ryan take the checkered flag on Sunday afternoon.”

Newman enters Sunday’s race coming off a 15th-place finish at Bristol. In the five races since NASCAR returned on May 17 at Darlington, Newman’s best finish is 14th in the second Darlington race.

Cup drivers preparing for hotter, slicker Atlanta race after March postponement

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It’s time for NASCAR to go racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway, finally.

Almost three months after it was scheduled, NASCAR will head back to Georgia for its annual race weekend at the 1.5-mile track Atlanta.

Cars were hours away from being on track on March 13 when NASCAR announced that weekend’s races were postponed due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.

All three national series will be in action, with the Cup Series highlighting the weekend with its race on Sunday (3 p.m. ET on Fox).

This is the first time the Cup Series has competed at Atlanta in June since 1965. The last five Atlanta weekends have been held in late February or early March after it was moved from Labor Day weekend in 2015.

With a forecasted temperature of 81 degrees at the start of the race, it will be the return of “Hotlanta.”

The series is preparing for the combination of warm weather and the track’s rough surface that hasn’t been repaved since 1997, thanks to petitioning by drivers.

“Atlanta is always a fun place to race because of the surface and how worn out it is,” Martin Truex Jr. said in a media release. “It has been a few years since we’ve raced there when it’s really hot to bring out just how slick the track can get, so that will be a bit of a challenge going in with no practice.”

Truex, who finished second in this race last year, is seeking his first victory of the year and his first win at Atlanta. Atlanta is one of two 1.5-mile tracks he hasn’t won at, joining Texas Motor Speedway.

Truex has failed to finish in the top 10 once in his last eight starts at Atlanta. He heads into Atlanta coming off a 20th-place finish at Bristol. Before that he had four consecutive top 10s.

“I feel pretty good about how we have ran on the bigger tracks where handling comes into play,” Truex said. “We need a little bit of speed overall, but we’ve been able to run pretty well at tracks where the surface is slicker, so I feel confident about the car we’ll unload and how we’ll run on Sunday.”

With the track’s rough surface, restarts will be vital according to Kyle Busch, a two-time winner at Atlanta.

“I don’t know if it has to do with the asphalt mix or whatever when they paved that place that now you can definitely tell the difference between the inside lane and that outside lane,” Busch said in a media release. “Also, the inside guy has a straighter launch than the guy on the outside – he’s always kind of turning so that’s something to be said for it. Overall, it’s just some places are that way. Atlanta is the worst for the launch. The application of throttle to not spin the rear tires is so crucial there and it’s so easy to do when you’re in that outside lane.”

Busch was the winner of the 2013 Atlanta race, which was held Labor Day weekend. That was also Toyota’s last Cup win there.

“Atlanta is one of those places where anything can happen and we’ll definitely have to be on our toes there this weekend,” Busch said. “You have to have good grip there, you have to have good (tire) fall-off – you have to be fast to start a run, yet you don’t want to fall off more than anybody else. So you have to take care of your stuff and bide your time a little bit. That lends itself to options by the driver to either push hard early (in the run) or save a little and be there late. We went there several months ago and didn’t get to race there, so expecting the weekend to be much different this time around than when we traveled there in March.”

Like Truex, Busch is looking for his first win of the year. Should they or any other Toyota or Chevrolet driver win, they would end a three-year reign by Ford on the 1.5-mile track.

Brad Keselowski won two of those races and Kevin Harvick claimed the other.

Bubba Wallace joins Mike Tirico on Lunch Talk Live on NBCSN

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Bubba Wallace will be on today’s “Lunch Talk Live” with host Mike Tirico. The show airs at Noon ET on NBCSN.

“Lunch Talk Live” focuses on the current state of the sports world, providing guests with a platform to discuss the state of sports, voice their personal stories and detail how they are adapting their daily lives during this challenging time.

You can also watch the show online here.

Wallace is also a guest on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download, which airs at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Today’s scheduled guests are:

  • 12:00 p.m. – Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills head coach
  • 12:15 p.m. – Bubba Wallace
  • 12:30 p.m. – James Hinchcliffe, IndyCar driver
  • 12:40 p.m. –  Ken Niumatalolo, Navy football head coach
  • 12:50 p.m. – Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets captain

 

Bubba Wallace encourages drivers to speak on social issues

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Bubba Wallace, at times emotional in discussing the recent killings of unarmed black men, said on the Dale Jr. Download that he needs to be more vocal on such matters and encouraged fellow NASCAR drivers to do the same.

“Through all the chaos that has gone on in the world, all of the African Americans, all of the unarmed black men and women being killed, I’ve been silent,” Wallace said on the Dale Jr. Download. “I’ve read all of them and I’ve been silent. I just felt that wasn’t my place. That was a huge mistake.”

Wallace, the only black driver competing in the Cup Series, said he’s reached out to fellow competitors and NASCAR officials and encouraged them to speak out in the days after George Floyd was killed while in custody of Minneapolis police on May 25. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who placed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Wednesday, the murder charged was changed to second-degree murder. Also, three other former Minneapolis police officers were charged with aiding and abetting murder on Wednesday.

“We have got to do better, we’ve got to step up,” Wallace said on the show about a message he sent to fellow Cup drivers. “I encourage everybody to say what they feel. … This is way more important than any race win, any championship that you’ve ever accomplished. This is something that can change on a global impact.”

Wallace also discussed a conversation he had with Chase Elliott.

“I texted him (Monday) night,” Wallace said. “I said, hey man, you’re the biggest name in our sport right now bud, like it or not. You’re the biggest name and your voice carries over much more than mine in our sport. I said don’t be silent on this please, don’t let it go under wraps.

“He was like, I know it’s tough to comment on and I’ve been trying to come up with something. What’s really going to change? I said Chase I don’t know but think about this. Imagine a follower, two followers that you have in how many you got. One is a person that is going to go hate somebody, go kill somebody today and the other one is somebody that is getting discriminated against.

“Imagine you saying something and both of those people look at that and they’re like, ‘Wow, that changed who I am today. I’m not going to hate on anybody anymore. I’m not going to be discriminated against. I’m going to stand up for what’s right.’

“Imagine your words changing somebody else’s life. Being silent on that they could have just (said) ‘I was waiting for somebody to tell me something.’ We have that platform and that voice to tell people we have got to stop and change our ways. That’s how to think about it.

“Could my words have helped people? Pissed off people for sure. It could have helped that one person that needed it and didn’t know it. Wow Bubba Wallace just said that, he’s my favorite driver. You know what, I’m going to change my life today because of that. That makes me feel good.”

Wallace became emotional on the Dale Jr. Download as he described seeing the video of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man, gunned down in February in Georgia after a white father and son followed him. They and a third man have been charged with murder in connection with Arbery’s death.

“My heart was broken and my stomach was ripped out of my body when I saw that video and even thinking about it I’m getting emotional about it now, thinking about that video and seeing how an unarmed black man … to be jogging down the street and being hunted by two armed civilians and shot and killed in broad daylight with the other guy videoing and it sounded like he was loading his gun and ready to do the same thing.

“So that’s my take on that, and I’m just like what kind of world do we live I where we hunt people and take their life away because we assume something? We assume that this is a black guy that is terrorizing our neighborhood so we’re going to go kill him? What in the hell, man? I don’t see how people can wake up and think like that.”

Wallace later said: “I’m taking an effort to understand where all the hate, where all the anger, the pain, the suffering is coming from. I’m doing my research, I’m learning about things. I feel better about speaking out about it.”

Wallace also told the story of a cousin who was killed in a police shooting in 2003 in Tennessee.

“We were at my sister’s basketball tournament, I can’t remember where,” he said. “I was running around the gym with all the brothers and sisters there and all of a sudden I hear a scream like the worst scream that you want to hear, not like somebody scared you straight, like something bad had just happened. I look over and I see my mom running out the door and we had just found out that my cousin was shot and killed by a police officer.”

A judge later cleared the officer in the shooting. The family filed a civil suit and lost in court on appeal.

Wallace will appear on Lunch Talk Live with host Mike Tirico on Wednesday on NBCSN. The show airs at noon ET.

The Dale Jr. Download with Wallace airs at 6 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBCSN.