It’s ironic – and fitting – that a week after Danica Patrick was voted the most popular driver in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series, Janet Guthrie was honored at the Winners Circle Awards Celebration in Indianapolis.
Janet’s motorsports pioneering paved the way for Danica and other aspiring women drivers.
It wasn’t easy. I covered her efforts to race in NASCAR in the 1970s and she was forced to overcome a lot hurdles.
In 1977, Janet became the first woman to race in the Indianapolis 500. The next year she ran again and finished a respectable 9th. That finish remained the record for a woman driver until a third-place finish by Danica in 2009.
While Guthrie seemed to be accepted in open-wheel racing, the door wasn’t quite so open in NASCAR.
It was grudgingly cracked, and there definitely was no welcome mat.
There was a handful of early-era women stock car drivers, such as the colorful Louise Smith, but they were considered novelties and vanished as the sport became “professional.”
Janet encountered resistance when she became the first woman to run the Daytona 500 in 1977. That resistance – and at times outright resentment – continued to dog her throughout her decade in stock car racing.
Once during a visit to Nashville for one of the Fairgrounds Speedway Cup races, Janet appeared on “The Ralph Emery Show” with Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip. Both Yarborough and Waltrip expressed doubt that she was capable of driving a stock car.
Waltrip noted the difference between a lightweight Indy car and a bulky 3,600-pound NASCAR Cup car, to which Janet responded: “I don’t have to lift the car, I just have to drive it.”
But Waltrip was partly correct.
Janet faced a steep learning curve in making the transition from finesse racing to the beat-and-bang arena of NASCAR, and the results weren’t always pretty. Several NASCAR drivers said they were worried about racing too close to her.
But although her overall results were lacking, Janet occasionally ran a solid, competitive race. She helped dispel gender stereotypes that had hung over stock car racing since its inception in the 1940s.
As late as the 1970s women weren’t allowed in many garages or infields – except as scantily-clad beauty queens in victory lane – because they were considered too distracting. Hot girls and hot metal could create a workplace hazard. They could also spark girlfriend or wife trouble.
How absolute was the ban?
Judy Allison once was forced to climb a fence to join her husband, Bobby, in victory circle. The security guards wouldn’t allow a female through the infield gate.
Janet helped throw open that gate.
She proved that a woman could drive a stock car and the world wouldn’t come to an end just because a female dared intrude onto the track.
The contributions of Janet, now 74, are finally being acknowledged. In 2006, she was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, and now she is part of the Indianapolis Winners Circle Awards.
But her greatest tribute of all is on the racetrack, where women drivers today are accepted in every division. So far no female has won a major NASCAR race, but it will happen eventually. There are some talented women drivers in the sport, and more on the way.
When Danica or whomever gets that first victory, they should invite Janet to the podium to share the celebration. She logged the first laps of a long, hard race.