Hall of Fame gives Guthrie green light

Nate Peterson
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times file

Janet Guthrie broke into the old boys network of Indy Car racing and NASCAR in the 1970s by refusing to be intimidated.Today, the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500 will enter the most hallowed club in auto racing with none other than “The Intimidator” himself.Guthrie, who retired from a pioneering career in auto racing in 1983 and moved to Aspen in 1985, will be inducted at the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala., with the late Dale Earnhardt. NASCAR driver Harry Gant, team owner Jack Roush and promoter Humpy Wheeler will also be inducted as members of the Class of 2006.”I just couldn’t really believe it when I heard that I’d been voted in,” Guthrie said Wednesday via cell phone while taking a guided tour of the Hall. “I was just absolutely amazed. It’s quite an honor to be in this kind of company and, of course, I’m really thrilled.”

The induction ceremony comes just 12 days after the death of Louise Smith, who raced on the NASCAR circuit from 1945-1956 and was the first woman to enter the Hall of Fame, in 1999. Guthrie, who is the third woman in the Hall, said she plans to recognize Smith and other trailblazing female drivers in her induction speech. She will also mention the bright future that awaits the female racers of today, including Indy Racing League star Danica Patrick. Patrick’s fourth-place finish at Indy last year displaced Guthrie’s ninth-place result in 1978 as the best finish by a woman at Indy racing’s marquee event.While Patrick’s accomplishment are hard to overlook, Guthrie noted that her result came under much different circumstances. There was a reason no woman had raced at Indy before her – no one had the mettle to overcome the widespread prejudice against women in racing at the time. Guthrie refused to be denied. The road to the starting line was full of stops and starts, but in 1978, after finding enough funding to support a team she had put together on her own, she qualified for the race among a deep and talented field. She then finished ninth – despite having an obstructed view because she put her headsock on wrong and a fuel-tank problem that led to slow, drawn-out pit stops.”[Danica] is the first woman to reach Indianapolis with top-notch equipment and the full backing of a winning team,” Guthrie said Wednesday. “That’s what it takes. There are a lot of women out there with the talent, it’s the question of who gets the opportunity.

“You have to have it all – the car, the crew, the driver. If one of those elements is missing, you’re not going to win races. I think more women are being given a chance at top-notch equipment, and I’m pretty hopeful that pretty soon we’ll see one of them winning.”Guthrie never did have it all – she raced on a shoestring budget for her entire career – yet she continued to prove that she belonged among the best racers in the world. Her fifth-place finish in an IRL race at Milwaukee in 1979 and a fourth-place qualifying run at Pocono, Pa., in the same year stood for more than 20 years as the best results by a woman. In her rookie season in NASCAR’s Winston Cup Series in 1977, she finished in the top 12 in 10 out of 19 races. She was named Top Rookie at the Daytona 500 that season after she finished 12th in her debut. She also led a Winston Cup race in Ontario, Calif., that year.In 1980, Guthrie surpassed her previous best result at Daytona when she crossed the line in 11th.”I feel like I’m being acknowledged for what I might have done if I had been able to continue,” said Guthrie, had to leave racing when the sponsorship money dried up. “There wasn’t any doubt in my mind that had I been able to continue, that I was going to win Winston Cup races. I had led one, and I had passed a number of the winning drivers at one time.” NASCAR legend Darrell Waltrip will present Guthrie to an expected crowd of 1,500 tonight.

“I was just thinking that I actually passed Darrell one time,” Guthrie said. “It was in Michigan. He was running second to Cale Yarborough. I passed Darrell, then I said, All right, Cale, you’re next. Then my distributor broke, and that was that.”Guthrie also recollects racing against Earnhardt in her very first NASCAR race at Charlotte, N.C., in May 1976. At the time, Earnhardt was also just a young racer looking to make a name in the sport.”He certainly is a legendary figure, but every time I think of him, I can’t help but thinking about that race,” Guthrie said. “The row in front of me consisted of Dale and Bill Elliott. It was probably only Dale’s third race, and the same for Bill.”Earnhardt went on to win seven Winston Cup championships in a 25-year career before dying in a crash at Daytona in 2001. Elliott won 44 races and grossed more than $73 million in winnings in a 28-year career.As for Guthrie, she regrets that she was never fully allowed to blossom as a driver because of the obstacles she faced as a woman. However, she is certainly proud of the tracks she left for others to follow.”I had enough experience running with the winning drivers to be reasonably certain that I was going to win in less than five years, but it didn’t happen,” she said. “I ran out of money, and that’s the way it goes: No money, no racing.”Now, women are getting opportunities to race with the best equipment and the best teams. Someday soon it’s going to happen – a woman is going to start winning races.”Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is


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