CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Janet Guthrie says she grew up “out in the woods of southwest Miami,” the oldest of five children with a reclusive mother who limited the family social life to time with relatives. Despite the limitations, she was extremely adventurous, making her first solo plane flight and a free-fall parachute jump when she was just 16.
She went full throttle chasing her ambitions the summer after high school graduation, right before she headed to the University of Michigan to study physics.
“I borrowed my sister’s horse and rode across the tomato fields — those are all housing developments now — to this little grass (air) field and asked for a job working the line, starting the planes by swinging the props, checking their oil, this and that,” Guthrie said. “They wouldn’t do that. But they said I could have a job in the office answering the telephones.”
Guthrie in 1978 and 2006 (AP)
And so began Guthrie’s lifetime fight against gender stereotypes, which she nearly always won and proved that being a woman would not hold her back in any of her pursuits. Nearly 44 years after her 33rd and final race in NASCAR, she is set to be honored for her career.
Guthrie was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday night as the recipient of the Landmark Award that honors “significant contributions to the growth and esteem of NASCAR.” She was elected the 2024 recipient in August, three years after she’d initially been dropped from the nominee ballot.
Guthrie becomes just the third woman to be inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame, joining Anne B. France, the wife of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., as a Landmark Award winner. Norma “Dusty” Brandel is in the Hall as part of a media award as the first woman to report from inside the NASCAR garage in 1972.
The initial ballot snub was nothing new to Guthrie, the first woman to qualify and compete in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. She was hardly ever welcomed in the NASCAR world, starting in 1976 when she became the first woman to compete in NASCAR’s longest race after Charlotte Motor Speedway officials persuaded her to try to make the field for what was then known as the World 600.
Already an aerospace engineer and full-time racer on the SCCA circuit, Guthrie got an ice-cold arrival in Charlotte.
“When I shook hands with Richard Petty I thought I’d get frostbite,” Guthrie wrote in her book, “Janet Guthrie A Life at Full Throttle.”
“Later, he would be quoted as saying of me: ‘She’s no lady. If she was she’d be at home. There’s a lot of differences in being a lady and being a woman,'” she wrote.
Now 85, Guthrie is able to joke about the lack of respect of she received from her male peers, largely because she is certain she proved herself on the racetrack. In an interview with The Associated Press, she said her lone regret was that she never had the financial backing to have the equipment she needed.
If she’d had it, Guthrie is certain she’d be a NASCAR Cup winner.
“I can confidently assert that had I been able to continue, I would have won in NASCAR,” she said. “I’d led a NASCAR race, I’d run with the leaders on several occasions. I drove enough races to be confident that it was going to happen. But without the sponsorship, it doesn’t.”
Guthrie ended her career with five top-10 finishes and her sixth-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1977 is shared with Danica Patrick for the top finish by a woman in NASCAR’s top series in the modern era. Her NASCAR career ran from 1976 to 1980.
She had a simultaneous career in what is now called IndyCar, with 11 starts and a career-best fifth-place finish at Milwaukee in 1979. Guthrie ran in the Indianapolis 500 three times and received a huge boost when A.J. Foyt allowed her to use his car in a practice session in which she was able to prove that, with good equipment, she was fast and could hang with the greatest racers in the world.
Guthrie after her ninth-place finish in the 1978 Indy 500. (AP)
Her best finish at Indy was in 1978 when she finished ninth — three places ahead of Mario Andretti. She twice finished 11th in the Daytona 500, and in 1980, her final 500, she finished ahead of NASCAR Hall of Famers Bill Elliott, Richard Childress, Cale Yarborough, Petty and Darrell Waltrip.
It was “definitely not good enough,” Guthrie said of her finish that day.
“I had a crew chief that perceived me as a physically tiny person and set the car up for a physically tiny person,” Guthrie said. “With that team, I had expected to finish in the top five and that did not happen, so I was extremely disappointed. The crew chief was 23 going on 15.”
Guthrie also believes she had a top-10 finish in her Daytona 500 debut in 1977, when she was running eighth until burned cylinders caused her to drop from eighth to 12th in the final 10 laps.
Guthrie has lived in Colorado for 30 years now, and although doctors have told her she needs an oxygen tank 24 hours a day, she refuses to use it in public. She has not traveled since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and isn’t attending the Hall of Fame ceremony.
But she still follows racing — she said she gets her fix from National Speed Sport News, the publication started by Hall of Fame media member Chris Economaki in 1934.
Guthrie declined to comment on Patrick’s career, called Sarah Fisher the best woman to race at Indianapolis, said she has high hopes for Hailie Deegan in NASCAR and believes 17-year-old Toyota development driver Jade Avedisian has the most promise of the current crop of female racers.
Guthrie doesn’t consider herself a pioneer, instead preferring to look back at her career as a professional racer who happened to be a woman. She does acknowledge the pressure she felt.
“I knew that if I screwed up, it would be a long time before another woman got a chance,” she said. “So I was careful not to screw up.”
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing