Janet Guthrie is a former racing driver who pioneered a way for women racers in the American stock car racing and open-wheel racing. She was the first woman to compete in both greatest North American races – Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500.
In total, Guthrie recorded 33 starts in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series between 1976 and 1980, finishing best in the sixth place at Bristol, what is still the best finish by a woman (tied with Danica Patrick) in the premier stock car division.
In open-wheel racing, Guthrie started three times at Indianapolis 500 and eleven times in total in the USAC/CART championship races.
But, that's not all, because Janet Guthrie was also the first class sports car racer, even scoring two class victories at Sebring 12 Hours.
A wannabe astronaut became a race car driver
Janet Guthrie was born in Iowa City in March 1938. Her family moved to Miami, Florida when she was three. She graduated from the University of Michigan in 1960.
After a graduation, she worked for Republic Aviation as a research and development engineer. In 1964, she applied for the first Scientist-Astronaut program and got through the first round of eliminations. Meanwhile, she had purchased a Jaguar XK 120 and began competing in gymkhanas, field trials and hill climbs.
1966 - Daytona 24h debut for an all-female crew
Guthrie soon became infected by races and her career in physics slowly yielded in the following years as she was expanding her racing commitments. Her next car was a Jaguar XK 140 which she was using in SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) races.
In February 1966, Guthrie made a debut at Daytona 24 Hours in the all-woman crew with Donna Mae Mims and Suzy Dietrich. They competed in a Sunbeam Alpine and finished in 32nd place. A year later, Guthrie returned to Daytona in a Ford Mustang, sharing a car with Anita Taylor and Smokey Drolet. They finished in 20th place.
Two class victories at Sebring 12 Hours
In April 1967, the first big success came. Janet Guthrie and Liane Engeman were the class winners at Sebring 12 Hours. They won GT1.3 class in the #62 Ring-Free Oil Racing Team's Matra Djet 5S. A year later, the same two girls came to Sebring in the #26 AMC Javelin, not being classified.
Guthrie became regular Sebring entrant, returning in the next two attempts in an Austin-Healey Sprite. In 1969, she was 23rd overall and 6th in P2.0 class. In 1970, sharing the #73 Austin-Healey Sprite with Rosemary Smith and Judy Kondratieff, Guthrie scored a victory in P2.0 class.
In 1971, Guthrie and Rosemary Smith raced at Sebring in a Chevron B16-Cosworth, not finishing the race. Guthrie waited five years for the next attempt at Sebring, in 1976, together with Stephen Behr in a Chevrolet Monza, not finishing the race.
NASCAR and Champ Car debut in 1976
However, the season 1976 was a milestone year in Guthrie's career because she made a debut both in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series and the USAC Champ Car Series.
In May 1976, Rolla Vollstedt gave her his #17 Vollstedt-Offenhauser to compete in the USAC race at Trenton Speedway. The next was a attempt at Indianapolis 500. She passed a rookie test but was unable to find a speed to qualify for the race. AJ Foyt borrowed his #1 car to Janet on the Bump day but she didn't make an attempt.
Soon after unsuccessful Indy 500 attempt, she made a sensational debut at NASCAR's World 600 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, driving the #68 Chevrolet for Lynda Ferreri. She finished in the 15th place. On July 4, she was 15th again at Firecracker 400 race at Daytona International Speedway.
Top Rookie at 1977 Daytona 500
In total, Guthrie recorded five NASCAR starts and four USAC Championship starts in 1976 but she was still missing to start in two greatest races. That happened in 1977. She spent almost the entire season in NASCAR Winston Cup Series, recording nineteen starts in the #68 Kelly Girl Chevrolet, including a debut at Daytona 500. She stopped eleven laps before the end, being classified in 12th place and taking the Top Rookie honor.
In August, Guthrie finished sixth at Volunteer 400 at Bristol International Speedway. That result is still the best ever finish for a female driver in NASCAR's premier division.
DNF at Indianapolis 500 debut
In 1977, Guthrie made just three starts in the open-wheel championship but one of those races was the Indianapolis 500. She was again driving the #27 Lightning-Offy for Rolla Vollstedt. She retired early with engine troubles, being classified 29th.
Guthrie's other two USAC races in 1977 were at Pocono International Raceway (17th) and Ontario Motor Speedway (19th). In 1977, Guthrie also recorded a start at Watkins Glen 6 Hours sports car race, finishing 10th in a Porsche 934.
A trip to Australia to race at Bathurst 1000
One more proof that Janet Guthrie was a universal racer is her trip to Australia in October 1977. She went across the world together with fellow USAC racer and two-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford to compete at famous Bathurst 1000 race.
The American pair was driving the #17 Holden LX Torana SS A9X Hatchback for Ron Hodgson Motors. They retired after just 13 laps.
Ninth place at 1978 Indianapolis 500
In 1978, Guthrie continued with a versatile schedule, participating in seven NASCAR races, one USAC race (Indianapolis 500) and a couple of sports car races. The highlight of the season was the ninth place at Indianapolis 500 in the #51 Texaco Star Wildcat-DGS. It was the highest finish for a female driver at Indianapolis 500 until Danica Patrick's fourth place in 2005.
In NASCAR races, Guthrie failed to qualify for Daytona 500 and finished 10th at Atlanta International Raceway. In sports car races, Guthrie was driving a Porsche 935 at Watkins Glen 6 Hours (DNF) and Trans-Am Mexico round (4th).
Fifth place as the best Champ Car result
In 1979, Guthrie managed to qualify for Indianapolis 500 for the third time in a career, driving the #45 Texaco Star Lola-Cosworth for Sherman Armstrong. She was 14th on the grid but engine failure stopped her after just three laps. Later in the season, Guthrie drove the same car in two more races, finishing 19th at Pocono and fifth at Milwaukee, what remained her career-best Champ Car result.
In 1979, Guthrie was out of NASCAR, participating in two USAC Stock Car races but also returning to Sebring 12 Hours. There she was driving the #2 Ferrari 365 GTB/4 for Thunderbird Swap Shop, sharing a car with Bonnie Henn and Lyn St.James. They were 17th.
One more Daytona 500 in 1980, last Sebring 12h attempt in 1982
Janet Guthrie recorded her last two NASCAR starts in 1980, including a start at Daytona 500. She managed not just to qualify for the race in the #82 Osterlund Racing Chevrolet but finished in 11th place. Later in the season, she was driving the #57 Buick for McClure Motors at Pocono, finishing 28th,
Janet Guthrie's last great race was on a race track where she scored few good results, at Sebring International Raceway. In March 1982, she was a part of the all-female crew in the #6 NART Ferrari 512 MM , together with Desire Wilson and Bonnie Henn. They didn't finish the race.
A special place in a history of motorsport
With all her achievements, Janet Guthrie definitely deserved a special place in a history of motorsport. She was one of the first inductees into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame which is founded in 1980. In 2006, she gets a place in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. All about her amazing life and career you can read in an autobiography 'Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle'.