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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Talladega Xfinity results: AJ Allmendinger edges Sam Mayer

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AJ Allmendinger, who had had several close calls in Xfinity Series superspeedway races, finally broke through to Victory Lane Saturday, edging Sam Mayer to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

Allmendinger’s margin of victory was .015 of a second. Mayer finished second by a few feet.

Following in the top five were Landon Cassill (Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate and his drafting partner at the end), Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson, who had won four straight Xfinity races entering Saturday, was 10th. Austin Hill dominated the race but finished 14th.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

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AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

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Veteran driver AJ Allmendinger slipped past youngster Sam Mayer in the final seconds and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

As drivers in the lead pack scrambled for position approaching the finish line, Allmendinger moved to the outside and, getting a push from Kaulig Racing teammate Landon Cassill, edged Mayer by a few feet. The win ended frustration for Allmendinger on superspeedways.

Following Allmendinger, 40, at the finish were Mayer (who is 19 years old), Cassill, Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson and Allmendinger have qualified for the next playoff round. The other six drivers above the cutline are Ty Gibbs, Austin Hill, Josh Berry, Justin Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Below the cutline are Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

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“This is Talladega,” a wildly happy Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Yes, I hate superspeedway racing, but it’s awesome to win in front of the Talladega crowd.”

Austin Hill dominated the race but dropped out of the lead to 14th place  in the closing five laps as drivers moved up and down the track in search of the best drafting line.

The first half of the race featured two and sometimes three drafting lines with a lot of movement and blocking near the front. In the final stage, the leaders ran lap after lap in single file, with Hill, Allmendinger and Gragson in the top three.

MORE: Safety key topic as drivers meet at Talladega

Hill led 60 laps and won the first two stages but finished 14th.

Gragson was in pursuit of a fifth straight Xfinity Series win. He finished 10th.

Remarkably for a Talladega race, the entire 38-car field finished. The race was the 1,300th in Xfinity history, marking only the third time the entire field had been running at the finish. The other two races were at Michigan in 1998 and Langley Speedway in Virginia in 1988.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill

Who had a good race: AJ Allmendinger got the “can’t win on superspeedways” monkey off his back with a great final lap. … Sam Mayer made all the right moves but was passed in the madness of the final run down the trioval. … Landon Cassill finished a strong third and gave Allmendinger, his teammate, the winning push.

Who had a bad race: The race had to be disappointing for Austin Hill, who ran the show for most of the afternoon, winning two stages and leading 60 laps, more than twice as many as any other driver. While blocking to try to maintain the lead late in the race, he fell to 14th. … Playoff driver Jeremy Clements finished a sour 20th and is 47 points below the cutline.

Next: The Xfinity Series’ next playoff race is scheduled Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race will be broadcast by NBC.

Safety key topic in meeting for drivers at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Cup drivers met Friday with Jeff Burton, director of the Drivers Advisory Council, and discussed safety issues ahead of this weekend’s playoff race, which will be without two drivers due to concussion-like symptoms from crashes.

Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch will not race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. 

Busch suffered his head injury in a crash at Pocono in July. Bowman’s injury followed his crash last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Both were injured in accidents where the rear of the car hit the SAFER barrier first.

Two drivers injured in less than three months — and the series racing at a track where crashes are likely — raises tension in the Cup garage. 

Denny Hamlin blasted NASCAR on Saturday, saying it was “bad leadership” for not addressing safety concerns drivers had with the car. Hamlin also said that the Next Gen vehicle needs to be redesigned.

Burton, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, said in an exclusive interview that Friday’s meeting was lengthy because there were several topics to discuss. Burton didn’t go into details on all the topics.

Safety was a key element of that meeting. Burton, whose role with the Drivers Advisory Council is to coordinate the group and communicate with NASCAR, discussed the cooperation level with NASCAR.

“We feel like we have cooperation with NASCAR,” he said. “We know the commitments from NASCAR. They’ve made real commitments to us. We want to see those commitments through. I believe that we will in regards to changes to the car. 

“We want to see that come to conclusion as soon as possible. They have made commitments to us and are showing us what is happening, communicating with us in regard to timing, and we want to see it come to conclusion, as they do. 

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get some changes done before last weekend. It just takes a long time to test stuff.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on a new rear clip and rear bumper. Even if the test goes well, there’s not enough time for any such changes this season with five races left.

The frustration from drivers — and voiced by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — has been that NASCAR was informed about issues with a stiffer car for more than a year. Some questions were raised after William Byron crashed in a test in March 2020 at Auto Club Speedway.

“William Byron busted his ass at (Auto Club) Speedway and that should have raised a red flag right off the bat,” Harvick said Saturday.

Hamlin said more drivers needed to speak up about concerns with the car.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said.

Byron is looking for changes to be made.

“I want to have a long career, and I don’t want to have a series of concussions that make me either have to step way from the car or have to think about long-term things,” he said.

Chase Elliott also shared his frustrations Saturday.

“You come off a week like we had in Texas and somebody getting injured and then you come into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point (Sunday) and probably not lightly at that,” Elliot said.

So what do drivers do?

“Do you just not show up?” Elliott said. “Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask. There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. 

“My frustration is … I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had a choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry. 

“That should have just never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that that we had years and time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t, and now we’re having to fix it. 

“I just hate that we did that. I think we’re smarter than that. I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”

Burton told NBC Sports that drivers did not discuss in Friday’s meeting running single-file in Sunday’s race as a form of protest.

“It wouldn’t be surprising for me to see single-file (racing Sunday) because of what happened at Texas and what could happen next week (at the Charlotte Roval),” Burton said. “Drivers need a period of calmness. 

“There was not a discussion, a collaborated effort or any sort of thing of how you race (Sunday). That conversation did not come up in that meeting.”

Harvick said Saturday that he’ll continue to be vocal about safety issues.

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure these guys are in a good spot,” Harvick said. “Whatever I have to do.”

Harvick later said: “I don’t think any of us want to be in this position. We have to have the safety we deserve to go out and put on a great show and be comfortable with that. 

“Obviously, we all have taken the risks of being race car drivers, but there’s no reason we should be in a worse position than we were last year.”

Harvick said it was a matter of trust.

“The reality of the situation is much different than what they’re looking at,” Harvick said of NASCAR officials. “I think that the trust level is obviously not where it needs to be from getting it fixed. I think they’re going to have to earn the trust level back of reacting quick enough to do the things that it takes. The drivers’ opinion, especially when it comes to safety side of things, has to be more important than the data or more important than the cost. Safety can’t be a budget item.”

Corey LaJoie, who is a member of the Drivers Advisory Council board, said that while challenges remain with the car, he sees the effort being made by NASCAR.

“Nothing happens quick in this deal when you have 38 teams and you have seven cars per team,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It has to be a well-thought-out process to implement the changes.

“It’s easy to get up in arms and prickly when we have guys like Alex and Kurt out. You don’t ever want that to happen. Every conversation I’m having is what we, as the Driver Council, is trying to communicate to NASCAR and NASCAR making proactive changes and moving timelines up aggressively to try to implement these changes.”

Matt DiBenedetto wins NASCAR Truck race at Talladega

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Matt DiBenedetto won Saturday’s 250-mile NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Talladega Superspeedway on a day pockmarked by numerous accidents, including a major one at the finish.

As the field swept to the finish line in overtime, a multi-car crash developed as Corey Heim lost control of his truck in the trioval. Several trucks crashed approaching the finish as the caution flag flew.

NASCAR officials studied video of the final lap to determine that DiBenedetto was in front when the caution lights were turned on, although Bret Holmes appeared to beat him to the finish line by inches. When caution lights appear, the field is frozen at that point, so any position changes after the caution are irrelevant.

MORE: TalladeTalladega Truck results

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The last lap was the only one led by DiBenedetto, who has been racing in NASCAR national series since 2009 but scored his first win.

Following DiBenedetto, a non-playoff driver, at the finish were Ben Rhodes, Holmes, Ryan Preece and Christian Eckes.

With one race remaining in the Round of 8, Ty Majeski has locked in a spot in the final four at Phoenix. Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Rhodes are above the cutline. Below the line are Stewart Friesen, Eckes, John Hunter Nemechek and Grant Enfinger.

MORE: Denny Hamlin says NASCAR needs leadership changes

A string of accidents left only two playoff drivers — Eckes and Rhodes — in the top 10 with 10 laps remaining.

Carson Hocevar dropped out of the lead group with five laps to go when he lost a tire, prompting a caution flag and pushing the race into overtime.

The race was marred by a fiery crash in the early going as Jordan Anderson‘s truck exploded in flames while running in the top five in a tight draft.

Anderson steered the truck to the inside as flames fired up on both sides of the vehicle. The truck crashed into the inside wall even as Anderson climbed from the driver-side window. He was transported to an area hospital.

On Lap 35, Lawless Alan hit the wall hard after his right front tire blew. He was evaluated and released from the infield medical center.

Another dangerous situation developed on Lap 63 as numerous trucks pitted at the same time under green. As Hailie Deegan attempted to stop in her pit, one of the crew members lost control of a tire, and it rolled into traffic and onto the grass area separating pit road from the track. A Deegan crew member chased down the tire in the grass and later was ejected from the track by NASCAR officials for a safety violation.

On Lap 79, Enfinger’s truck blew a tire and slammed the wall, starting a crash that collected Tanner Gray, Johnny Sauter and Austin Wayne Self.

Stage 1 winner: John Hunter Nemechek

Stage 2 winner: Chandler Smith

Who had a good race: Matt DiBenedetto had been waiting a very long time for this winning moment. … Alabama driver Bret Holmes almost won in front of the home crowd. He finished third.

Who had a bad race: Jordan Anderson had one of the most frightening crashes of the season, bailing out of his flaming truck after it caught fire in the middle of a pack of drafting trucks. … Playoff drivers John Hunter Nemechek (finished 24th) and Grant Enfinger (29th) had rough outings.

Next: The Truck Series is off for three weeks before racing at Homestead-Miami Speedway Oct. 22. The series’ final race is scheduled Nov. 4 at Phoenix Raceway.