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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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May 10 in NASCAR: Dale Jr. announces departure from Dale Earnhardt Inc.

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In a press conference at JR Motorsports on May 10, 2007, Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced the end of an era.

Earnhardt revealed the final 26 Cup races of the season would be his last as a driver for Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team founded by his father, Dale Earnhardt.

“It’s time for us to move on and seek other opportunities,” Earnhardt said while sitting next to his sister, Kelley.

Earnhardt was in his seventh full-time season driving the No. 8 Chevrolet for DEI. Up to then he had won 17 races, including the 2004 Daytona 500. He had also been voted NASCAR’s most popular driver four times.

But he’d only won one race each in the last two seasons. In 2007, he’d go winless for the first time.

“It is time for me to compete on a consistent basis and compete for championships now,” Earnhardt said.

The NASCAR world waited a little over a month to find out Earnhardt’s destination. On June 13, it was announced he was signing with Hendrick Motorsports. He’d spend the rest of his Cup career with the powerhouse before retiring after the 2017 season.

Also on this date:

1956: Buck Baker won a Grand National race at Greenville-Pickens (S.C.) Speedway after running all 200 laps without a pit stop. The result was protested by the Schwam Motor Company team, which owned the car driven by second-place finisher Curtis Turner, who finished one lap down. The team believed Baker’s fuel tank was illegal. NASCAR ruled it was legal.

1969: LeeRoy Yarbrough came back from being a lap down with 30 laps to go, survived a three-car incident with Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough to win at Darlington.

1975: In his 50th Cup Series start, Darrell Waltrip claimed his first career win in a race at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville. Waltrip triumphed after Cale Yarborough blew an engine on Lap 321 of 420. Waltrip beat Benny Parsons by two laps.

1997: In a caution-free race at Talladega, Mark Martin led 47 of 188 laps and beat Dale Earnhardt for his second and final Cup points win on a superspeedway.

2014: Ryan Blaney made his Cup Series debut at Kansas Speedway. In a race won by Jeff Gordon, Blaney started 21st and finished 27th.

May 8 in NASCAR: Matt Kenseth gets Darlington Xfinity win after Kyle Busch cuts tire

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It was Kyle Busch‘s race to lose and he lost it under caution.

On May 8, 2009, Busch dominated the Xfinity Series race at Darlington Raceway, starting from the pole and leading 143 laps.

But Busch’s chances at a victory ended in a whimper.

Busch led when the caution came out on Lap 147 of 153 for a wreck between Joe Nemechek and Scott Lagasse, Jr.

As the field slowly made its way around the 1.366-mile track, Busch’s No. 18 car drove through debris from the wreck on the backstretch.

The team soon realized Busch’s right-rear tire was going down.

After a few more circuits of the track, Busch was forced to bring his car to pit road. That gave Matt Kenseth the lead as Busch returned to the track in 18th.

Kenseth wouldn’t have to worry about keeping the lead very long. Moments after the field took the green flag as part of a green-white-checkered finish, Morgan Shepherd crashed into the inside wall on the frontstretch, bringing out the caution and effectively ending the race.

It gave Kenseth the win, his only Xfinity victory in 15 starts in 2009.

Also on this date:

1955: Tim Flock completed a marathon of running in two races in two states on back-to-back days. After finishing second in a 100-mile race at Hickory (N.C.) Speedway, Flock took the private plane of team owner Carl Kiekhaefer and flew to Arizona. At Fairgrounds Raceway in Phoenix, Flock started second and led all 100 laps on the 1-mile dirt track to claim the win over Marvin Panch. According to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Beginning,” Panch was able to compete in the race due to receiving a weekend pass from the U.S. Army. After competing in the following weekend’s race in Tucson, he wouldn’t race again until July.

1976: Cale Yarborough led all but 22 laps to win the Music City 420 at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville. An 18-year-old Sterling Marlin made his first of 748 Cup Series starts. He started last and fell out after 55 laps due to an oil pump failure.

1982: Darrell Waltrip led all but one of 420 laps to win at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville. It was his fifth win in the first 10 races.

1993: Ward Burton led 227 of 300 laps to beat Bobby Labonte in a Xfinity Series race at Martinsville. It was his only national NASCAR victory in his home state of Virginia.

2004: Martin Truex Jr. led 123 laps and won the Xfinity Series race at Gateway International Raceway. He was joined by two other “Juniors” in the top five. Ron Hornaday Jr. placed second and Bobby Hamilton Jr. finished fourth.

 

May 6 in NASCAR: Harry Gant gets controversial aid from teammate for Talladega win

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Darrell Waltrip objected.

Dale Earnhardt’s team objected to Waltrip.

Every one of the top-three finishers in the May 6, 1991 Winston 500 at Talladega thought they should be declared the winner.

When the dust settled, Harry Gant would remain the victor of the controversial race.

The events leading to the objections began when Gant pitted on Lap 132 of 188. He would attempt to go the rest of way on a tank of gas. Earnhardt made his pit stop on Lap 168 and teamed with Waltrip for a two-car draft. Meanwhile, Gant ran with his teammate, Rick Mast, who was a lap down in 10th.

Gant’s team had been warned Mast couldn’t push him across the finish line to take the checkered flag. It appeared Mast pushed or drafted closely to Gant as they raced into Turn 3 on the final lap. Mast was again on Gant’s bumper as they neared the tri-oval.

Mast pulled to the left before the finish line to show he wasn’t pushing Gant.

“The motor cut off and I was out of gas,” Gant said according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: Forty Plus Four.” “Rick gave me a good boot when my car cut off in Turn 3. He gave me another good push and I was able to make it to the finish line.”

The protests quickly began.

“You can’t push the lead car in on the last lap,” Waltrip declared according to “Forty Plus Four.” “If they don’t take the win away from him I’m going to be mad. That’s plainly spelled out in the rule book. It’s not a judgement call.”

The objections from Earnhardt’s camp, via team owner Richard Childress, were about Waltrip’s rear spoiler.

“Waltrip’s spoiler was less than the 30 degrees allowed, we ought to get the win,” Childress said according “Forty Plus Four.”

It took three hours for NASCAR uphold Gant’s win, ruling his No. 33 car was “tapped” by Mast’s car and “not assisted.”

As for Waltrip’s spoiler, official Dick Beaty said it wasn’t checked until after cars had gone to the garage.

“Anybody could have adjusted that spoiler in the garage area,” he said according to “Forty Plus Four.” “We’ll do things differently in Daytona.”

Also on this date:

1961: After a fender-banging battle, Fred Lorenzen passed Curtis Turner with two laps to go and won by six car lengths at Darlington. “If I could have caught him before he got to the checkered flag, I guarantee you he never would have finished the race,” Turner said afterward according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Superspeedway Boom.”

1962: Joe Weatherly won at Hickory (N.C) Speedway in a 200-lap race plagued by track conditions so poor that Ned Jarrett made one lap and withdrew from the event, according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Superspeedway Boom.” Weatherly survived the last 50 laps with a jammed accelerator. To navigate the turns, Weatherly would turn the car off before re-engaging the ignition on the straightaways.

1973: In a race that began with 60 cars and saw a 21-car crash on Lap 9, David Pearson survived to beat Donnie Allison by one lap.

1984: In a race that saw 75 lead changes among 13 drivers, Cale Yarborough passed Harry Gant on the last lap to win at Talladega.

2000: Dale Earnhardt Jr. passed his father for the lead with 31 laps to go and went on to win at Richmond over Terry Labonte. Dale Jr. was the first repeat winner of the season after earning his first Cup win in April at Texas.

 

May 5 in NASCAR: Front Row Motorsports’ stunning Talladega win

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Over the course of his NASCAR Cup Series career, David Ragan proved to be one of the more consistent restrictor-plate racers, earning both of his Cup wins on superspeedways.

The last and most surprising of those occurred on May 5, 2013, at Talladega Superspeedway with Ragan competing for Front Row Motorsports, a team that hadn’t won a race since its founding 2005.

A rain delay caused the Aaron’s 499 to end near darkness as the race concluded with a green-white-checkered finish.

Ragan restarted five rows back on the outside as Matt Kenseth led the field.

When the field took the white flag, Carl Edwards led as Ragan raced around the fifth position. Right behind him was teammate David Gilliland.

Going down the backstretch, a shove from Gilliland helped Ragan split a gap between Kenseth on the outside and Jimmie Johnson on the inside as Edwards still led.

Kenseth was quickly moved aside as Ragan assumed his spot hugging Edwards’ rear bumper.

That lasted only a moment as Ragan darted to the inside with his momentum as they entered Turn 3. He nosed ahead of Edwards in the middle of the turn and had the lead as they entered the frontstretch.

As Ragan dodged-and-weaved his way through the tri-oval, Gilliland side-drafted Edwards. After Ragan took the checkered flag, Gilliland barely beat Edwards to the finish line, giving the aptly named Front Row Motorsports a 1-2 finish.

“I don’t know what to say, this is a true David vs Goliath moment here,” Ragan told Fox in Victory Lane. “They’re not all this easy, but man, this is special to get Front Row Motorsports their first win. Feels like I’ve never been here before.”

Also on this date:

1963: Jim Paschal led the final 69 laps to win a Grand National race at Tar Heel Speedway in Randleman, North Carolina. Paschal beat Joe Weatherly for the victory on the quarter-mile dirt track. It was the second of only three Grand National races the track hosted, all coming in the 1963-64 season.

1968: David Pearson led all but one lap to win a 300-lap event at Asheville-Weaverville (N.C.) Speedway. He beat Bobby Isaac by two laps for the victory on the half-mile paved track. It would only host three more Grand National races for a total of 34.

1974: David Pearson won his third and final race at Talladega Superspeedway, beating Benny Parsons by .17 seconds.

1985: Without the aid of a caution, Bill Elliott came from nearly two laps down to win at Talladega after a broken oil fitting sent him to pit road on Lap 48. Elliott passed Cale Yarborough with 20 laps to go and then beat Kyle Petty by 1.72 seconds. It was one of the three wins Elliott claimed in order to achieve the Winston Million that year.