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Janet Guthrie – The woman who could do literally everything

Written by Mina Jigau, Edited by Sharifah Zaqreeztrina 


Most people refer to her as a pioneer, but she represents more than just the beginning of a new era for women in motorsports; she is the epitome of having it all.


Image Credits: Robert Alexander via Getty Images

Becoming a pilot at 17 and competing in races at 34 years old with a self-made engine, are the not the only astonishing facts about Janet Guthrie, though they’re a pretty good start.


The Iowa-born racer had always striven for success, and after graduating from University of Michigan in 1960, she worked as an aerospace engineer at Republic Aviation for six years. During that time, she was one of four women selected to join NASA’s astronaut program. 


Her path, however, wasn’t meant to be walked on the moon, but on the racetrack. By 1972, Guthrie was a full-time racer. 

 

Her racing career began in 1963, coincidentally through her interest in the car she drove to work every day, a 1953 Jaguar XK120 M coupe. Guthrie soon joined the Sports Car Club of America driving school and won several races, propagating her love for life in the fast lane. 


Though failing to qualify at first in the 1976 Indianapolis 500, Guthrie’s tenacity drove her (pun intended) to NASCAR Winston Cup Superspeedway, where she was the first woman to ever enter the race, finishing 15th. In the same season, she would go on to compete in four more NASCAR races.

 

1977 was the year Guthrie would become the first woman to qualify and compete in the Indianapolis 500, placing 29th due to engine troubles.


Her results would establish a gateway for women in this sport and Guthrie went on many interviews to talk about the isolation of women in the industry before her races. That same year, she won the ‘Top Rookie’ honors after securing 12th position in the Daytona 500, also being the first woman to enter the race. 

 

Guthrie’s racing career would continue to flourish, and her incredible potential to succeed would relentlessly be noticed with every race she would complete. Interestingly enough, at a time where women weren’t even allowed in the paddock, Guthrie was collaborating with her team to build the engine of her car. 


She broke through so many barriers and restrictions, pulverizing doubts about women behind the wheel. Her evolution not only behind the wheel, but as a public figure, was so elegant, with the sexist questions receiving smart and subtle quips from the skilled racer. 

 

Throughout her racing career, the American managed to finish most of her races, with only a few exceptions owed to engine failure.


What is considered her highest race result ever came in Bristol 1977, where she placed sixth. But by far her most impressive race, where her expertise truly showed, was the 1978 Indianapolis round where she drove one-handed. 


Prior to the race, Guthrie suffered a broken wrist. Knowing that would disqualify her, she instead chose to silently slip into her car and drive as if nothing was wrong. Though this injury prevented her from winning, Guthrie’s ambitions had blazed past the point of extinction as she came ninth. 

 

In total, Guthrie competed in 11 IndyCar events and 33 NASCAR races. She is also one of the first women to be inducted to the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1980, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006 as well as the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2019. 

 

Currently retired, Guthrie remains a historical spearhead for women in motorsports, and her ambitions of inexorable nature, an inspiration to all of us. 

 

There is very little in civilized life that demands everything you got intellectually, physically, and emotionally. Driving is living. It's aggressive instead of passive living.”

– Janet Guthrie 


Image Credits: NASCAR Archives & Research Center/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

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