Car-racing pioneer, longtime Aspenite Janet Guthrie subject of documentary ‘Qualified’
The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Qualified’ at Aspen Mountain Film Festival
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Saturday, Aug. 24, 5:30 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com
More info: Janet Guthrie and filmmakers Jenna Ricker and Caroline Waterlow will be on-hand for a post-screening discussion; wheeleroperahouse.com
THIS WEEKEND AT ASPEN MOUNTAIN FILM FESTIVAL
FRIDAY, AUG 23
Noon Limelight Lunch Series: Explore the Louisiana Bayou
7 p.m. ‘Ernie and Joe’
SATURDAY, AUG 24
Noon Limelight Lunch Series: Explore Legacy
5:30 p.m. ‘Qualified’
8:30 p.m. ‘Diving Deep: The Life and Times of Mike deGruy’
SUNDAY, AUG 25
11 a.m. Family Time Flicks
5:30 p.m. ‘Like Harvey Like Son’
8:45 p.m. Festival Awards & Mr. Jimmy Live
Janet Guthrie found herself at the center of an international media frenzy in the late 1970s, when she became the first woman to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500.
Her trailblazing tale has since largely been lost to history, as Guthrie has lived mostly out of the public eye since settling in Aspen in the mid-1980s.
Filmmaker Jenna Ricker is aiming to restore Guthrie to her rightful place in sports and cultural history with “Qualified,” an ESPN Films documentary on Guthrie that comes to the Wheeler Opera House’s Aspen Mountain Film Festival on Saturday night for a homecoming screening.
“There is a bittersweetness in being so inspired by her and so frustrated by her experience,” Ricker said in a recent phone interview.
A University of Michigan graduate, Guthrie had been working as a pilot and aeronautical engineer while racing cars and in gymkhana competitions as a hobby before devoting herself to racing fulltime in 1972.
Guthrie qualified for the Indianapolis 500 in May 1976 and became the first woman to start the race in 1977 at age 39. She returned the following year, finishing a career best ninth at Indy while racing with a broken wrist (she hid the injury from race officials). She made her final Indy start in 1979.
Throughout, she faced a hostile racing community of men and a sports media that opposed her, refusing to believe a woman could or should compete on the racecourse.
“They expressed their skepticism and I simply stood on my record,” Guthrie says in the film.
By the time she got to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Guthrie had more than a decade of racing experience and was using her mechanical expertise to build her own engines. Her bona fides were of little help in the macho racing culture of the day: “That seemed to cut no mustard with the roundy-round boys,” she says in the film.
Guthrie did not see her competition as part of the feminist movement of the 1970s. As she put it, she just wanted to race cars. Nonetheless, she became a symbol for women seeking an equal standing with men in the U.S.
“It was a role that I did not seek but came to recognize as a responsibility,” Guthrie says in the film.
But corporate sponsors refused to back Guthrie. Texaco, one of the few that did, faced boycotts from angry men. She had struggled to find funding throughout her career, which ended prematurely in the early 1980s due to the lack of sponsors. Stars such as Danica Patrick and Pippa Mann would arrive on the racing scene decades later and find a more welcoming public and promising corporate landscape.
Guthrie settled in Aspen in 1985, embracing the speed and risk of recreational skiing after chasing thrills car racing.
Ricker first learned of Guthrie in 2016 while attending the Indianapolis 500 as a spectator. Patrick was in competition, which led the filmmaker to wonder about the history of women in racing. The inquiry brought Ricker to Guthrie’s 2005 autobiography, “Janet Guthrie: A Life at Fill Throttle,” and sparked her interest in making a film about Guthrie’s life.
“I passed around her autobiography and we were amazed by the struggles she faced, the sacrifices she made for her passion in this male-dominated sport,” Ricker said. “At the time, women were just starting to make inroads at the base level of the working world — it was really an anomaly. So we were hooked.”
Among the producers who Ricker teamed with was Caroline Waterlow, whose credits include the Emmy- and Oscar-winning documentary “OJ: Made in America.” The fact that Guthrie, this trailblazer in the sports world, was not a household name, underscored the importance of telling this story.
“We all felt this horror that we’d never heard of her,” Waterlow said in a phone interview. “It was shock and frustration that motivated us.”
Guthrie herself isn’t so surprised that she faded from history.
“Women lose their history, so it seems, in each generation,” she told The Aspen Times in 2005. “Women who want to accomplish something serious, they’re seen as freaks and their accomplishments are forgotten.”
The film, laden with the high style and glamour of ’70s car racing, with characters such as A.J. Foyt (a key ally for Guthrie) and broadcasters Jim McKay and Howard Cosell. It is packed with archival footage of races and of the shockingly blatant sexism the sports media unleashed on Guthrie. “Qualified” also makes use of Super 8 home movies that Guthrie and her brother shot during her rise in the sport.
“That was the linchpin,” Ricker said. “As it started taking shape, we wanted to have a personal, more intimate angle.”
Guthrie made herself available to Ricker and the ESPN team. The filmmaker found Guthrie’s number, through 411, and first came to Aspen to meet Guthrie in the spring of 2017, returning for several on-camera interviews. Guthrie tells her story in the film with the same humility and unflappable resolve that served her on the racecourse and in the hot seat four decades ago.
“You see this calm, cool, collected and elegant woman in the middle of this press frenzy and this macho crowd,” Waterlow said. “Then you see her today and you see the same cool, clear focus.”
The film was broadcast on ESPN in May, as part of the “30 for 30” documentary series, following a premiere at South by Southwest in Austin.
On ESPN, it reached a general sports audience rather than the niche it might have found in a theatrical release or longer festival run.
“It was great to get feedback from people who you might not have pegged as an audience for this movie — like ‘I’m a sports fan,’ not ‘I’m a girl power feminist movie watcher,’” Waterlow said.
Saturday’s screening will be the first time Guthrie sees it with an audience on the big screen. A spring snowstorm in Aspen kept her from traveling to Texas in time for the premiere.
“We’re proud and honored to be able to share it with her, in her hometown and in the place where — when the racing ended — she found a second chapter in her life that’s been so lovely,” Ricker said. “So we’re honored and excited to show it to a hometown crowd in Aspen.”