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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).”
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.
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.