What drives Janet Guthrie?
Special to The Aspen Times
Speed is not that thrilling to Janet Guthrie. So why would the renowned female auto-racing driver want to tear around a track?”What matters is how fast your car gets around the turn – exercising the machinery was the turn-on. It’s like doing a snap roll in an airplane or a good turn in a car, finding the edge of adhesion,” she explains. “Speed itself is not terribly interesting.”
The problem for Guthrie, though, wasn’t finding the “edge of adhesion” in racing cars, it was the world of race-car driving belonged to men, who told her time and again: “Women don’t do that kind of stuff … shouldn’t do that kind of stuff, so good luck.”Guthrie, who moved to Aspen in 1985, didn’t need luck; she had tenacity.”A true pioneer” in race-car driving, according to fellow speedster and Basalt resident Wally Dallenbach, Guthrie’s list of accomplishments could overlap a racetrack. She was the first woman to qualify for and race in the Indianapolis 500. In 1977, she logged the fastest time of the day on the opening day of practice and the fastest time overall during the second weekend of qualifications; a year later, she finished ninth out of 92 entrants. Guthrie was also the first woman to race in the Daytona 500, and the first female to compete in a NASCAR super speedway race. Her helmet and driver’s suit are in the Smithsonian Institution, and she was one of the first athletes named to the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame. Plus, she built and maintained her own race cars.Not bad, for a woman.
Guthrie’s career in the driver’s seat began not in a car, but in an airplane, as a pilot, flight instructor and aerospace engineer. It is an adrenaline-filled ending to a fairly subdued start.Born in Iowa City, Iowa, and raised in Miami, Guthrie graduated from the University of Michigan in 1960 with a degree in physics, which is what she thought her life would be centered around.Then Guthrie saw a newspaper ad that changed the course of her life: “1953 Jaguar XK 120M coupe, $1200.” It was love at the first purr of the engine. In her engaging new book, “Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle,” Guthrie describes slipping into the classy, super-fast Jag. “[The] sweet deep sound of the XK engine went straight to the center of my nervous system. The thing was far more a work of art than a car, and it was a revelation.”She began competing her new Jag in gymkhanas (a sort of skills test on wheels), field trials and hill climbs. She loved it – so much so that she put the brakes on her career in physics and, by 1972, was racing cars full time.
As she handled larger and more powerful engines, her passion for racing increased. “It saturated my soul,” she wrote in her book.”I guess it’s like the feel of all this power in your hands and you’re going to make the best possible use of it,” says Guthrie, sitting in a small park by the Roaring Fork River on a recent sunny morning. She pauses, thinking of an analogy even nonracers can relate to: “I remember what an airline captain who used to crew for me told me. He said he was in a jet plane and had just advanced the throttle for takeoff – and you know what it’s like as a passenger, when you feel the pressure on you when you’re taking off – well, he said to his co-pilot, ‘Gee, this is fun!’ [A race-car engine] is such a great machine, and you’re in command of it.”
Guthrie’s passion, as powerful as the engines she drove, should have propelled her right into the racing world. It wasn’t that easy. The prejudice against women competing in race-car driving in the 1970s was deep; Guthrie wrote that “incursions by women were vigorously resisted … promoters usually hid their exclusion of women behind ‘insurance reasons.'”That attitude made Guthrie more determined. “On the oval track, most men hadn’t the experience of driving with women drivers and weren’t shy of telling the world,” recalls Guthrie. “But most of the slurs were before they saw me drive.”In her book, Guthrie details the long, arduous road to the Indy 500. Qualifying for the race was as much as of an accomplishment as finishing in the top 10. And the obstacles didn’t end there: Finding sponsorship and a car fast enough to win were her biggest challenges. Car builder Rolla Vollstedt, however, believed in Guthrie’s racing ability and invited her to test-drive a car for the 1976 Indianapolis 500. But his endorsement was akin to stepping into a doorway but not being able to walk through – Guthrie didn’t want to test-drive cars for the Indy 500, she wanted to race in the Indy 500. Big dreamer. Reality deemed she secure a car and sponsorship, which is much harder to do if you’re a woman. But with ironclad tenacity, Guthrie wheeled and dealed, and by 1978, she had broken through the men’s-only club – she was going to race in the Indy 500.Ironically, she drove the Wildcat Offenhauser, a car that Dallenbach once raced. And Texaco agreed to be her sponsor. It was a controversial move for the fuel company, as angry customers would send them cut-up Texaco cards in protest. “I made sure to say, ‘I hope every woman in the country remembers that Texaco was the only company that would sponsor my car,'” Guthrie wrote in her book.
Still, there were potholes. Two days before the 1978 Indy 500, Guthrie fractured her wrist playing tennis; she wore an elastic bandage on race day. “I was worried,” Guthrie recalls. “I swore I wouldn’t be a hazard to other drivers, so I was prepared to use a relief driver if necessary.”History shows it wasn’t necessary. Guthrie climbed into her car and cleared her mind. It was one of the things her male competitors most admired about her.”I think she has done a hell of a job,” said Mario Andretti in a 1977 interview. “She’s got a good head on her shoulders. I’ve seen many guys who had much more trouble with Indy than she has had, from the standpoint of belonging on the course.” A book excerpt vividly illustrates her race-day psyche and her intense passion for racing the sport: “You can’t drive well in a competition if your mind is muddled. You must find your way to a different place. It’s a crystalline state, like when a saturated solution of some chaotic liquid is lowered a hundredth of a degree in temperature, and instantly reorganizes itself into a geometric structure of infinite precision. That is what enables the soaring sensation of committing yourself to fly through a turn at the highest speed your machine will bear, with only the most tenuous grip on the pavement. There may be serious penalties for error, and you must acknowledge that and accept it.”
One memory of the 1978 Indy 500 stands out for Guthrie: the simple phrase, “Gentlemen, start your engines!” at the race start. This time, there was a woman on the track. In her book, Guthrie recounts that the announcer supposedly said, “Lady and gentlemen, start your engines!” and that the PA system “mysteriously clipped off the first two words of the announcer’s command.”And this was just at the starting line. After roaring off, more obstacles were hurled her way: a headsock obscured her view and, perhaps most frustrating, a problem with her fuel tank prevented air from going in and fuel from coming out. “It caused excruciatingly slow pit stops,” she recalls. Her average pit stop was 12-14 seconds; the first one dragged on for 19 seconds while the longest was 1.18 minutes, just under the time it takes to do two laps around the course. But true to her nature, she says, “You cannot let that mess up your mind.”While on the course, Guthrie was one with her car. “If my heart was beating really fast, I didn’t notice it.” Instead, she focused on the little mistakes the racer ahead of her was making, looking at who was ahead of her and behind her.
The euphoria of racing comes after the race is finished, she says. It’s then that “you know when you’ve done something really difficult and done it well.”A candid woman, Guthrie adds that unlike today, when it’s hard to find enough cars to fill the Indy 500 field, making it to the start line was an accomplishment in and of itself. In 1977, for example, there were more than 90 entrants; to qualify, Guthrie had to be faster than 33 other racers.”Back then … many great drivers weren’t able to do it, so when I found I qualified, it’s a moment I’ll never forget. Of course when you’ve done that, you want to win,” she grins.
For young women jonesing to get behind the wheel of a fast car, Guthrie hopes her book will be a motivator. “One of the reasons I wrote this book is as a steppingstone for the next generation of women,” Guthrie says. “Women lose their history, so it seems, in each generation. Women who want to accomplish something serious, they’re seen as freaks and their accomplishments are forgotten.”Of her own accomplishments, she wrote, “I was simply the woman at the right place at the right time with the right background, and an overwhelming passion for the sport.”Yet she has mixed feelings about women such as Danica Patrick making Indy 500 history (This year, Patrick became the first woman ever to take the lead in the race; she ultimately finished fourth, usurping Guthrie’s record top finish). “She is the first woman to get in with top-notch equipment and team; none of us others had that kind of opportunity,” Guthrie notes. “In the Indy 500 in 1977, I was driving for the last of the shoestring team owners [Rolla Vollstedt], always scrounging for engines and parts. I can compare that to A.J. Foyt, who arrived with a trailer of 12 engines. He blew them all during practice, and they came back with 12 more engines. Now that makes a difference. If I had Danica’s equipment and crew, I would have done better.”Still, she is happy for Patrick. “I hope her success will open doors for more young women.”
Guthrie retired from racing in 1983, when she tired of finding sponsors, and moved to Aspen soon after. Of course she didn’t give up her sense of sport; she simply switched to skiing, which “is perhaps the most similar to motorsports – the same balancing on the edge of adhesion, the same joyful acceptance of risk,” she wrote in her book.Kate McBride-Puckett can relate to Guthrie’s love of skiing. Having competed in six 24 Hours of Aspen endurance ski races, McBride-Puckett knows about speed, risk and the addiction to adrenaline. And she, too, would love to get behind the wheel in a race car herself.”I can imagine how it would be … absolutely, I’ll start drooling if you mention the chance to race to me,” she says.McBride-Puckett has nothing but respect for women like Guthrie, with whom she once shared the speaker podium at a “Girls To Women” seminar. “She has an amazing stick-to-it-iveness – something you need in sports of that nature. But she’s more than a race-car driver, she has a sense of humor and integrity.”Although Guthrie has put the competitive part of herself away like “a dragon in its cave,” she still she finds herself immersed in memory at times. “Three weeks ago I was at a Road America race in Wisconsin, and a woman was racing my old 1972 Toyota Celica race car in the vintage race. She did really well, and after the race a male racer came up her, and they were reliving the race and going over every moment they just experienced and the excitement of the race. “It’s like you ride a really tough race against someone, and it creates a relationship like nothing else – each is responsible for each other’s safety, and yet you want to beat that person. So I watched this exchange and I thought, that’s the real reward, right there,” she say. “It took me right back to my racing days.”