JANET GUTHRIE’s role as an Indianapolis 500 pioneer in the mid-1970s cannot be understated, but she built an incredible resume years before. Born in Iowa, she grew up in Florida then received a degree in physics in 1960 from the University of Michigan. Having earned her pilot’s license at age 17, she went to work in the aerospace industry and, in 1964, applied for and made it through the first round of eliminations for NASA’s Astronaut program.
After first racing locally, Guthrie started competing in the Sports Car Club of America in 1963 and turned professional in 1972, earning two class victories at the 12 Hours of Sebring. Guthrie became the first woman in history to start a NASCAR Cup Series race on a superspeedway, at the World 600 in Charlotte.
Guthrie’s Indianapolis 500 opportunity came at the invitation of longtime car owner and mechanic Rolla Vollstedt. She tested one of his cars at Ontario Speedway in early 1976 and became the first woman to be named to drive a “500” entry that year but did not make a qualification attempt.
After becoming the first woman to qualify for and compete in the Daytona 500 (finishing 12th) in early 1977, Guthrie returned to Indianapolis with Vollstedt in 1977 and qualified 26th—cementing her place as the first female qualifier in Indy 500 history. Unfortunately, her race ended early due to engine problems, finishing 29th.
Guthrie made more “500” history a year later by finishing the race ninth, the best finish by a female until Danica Patrick finished fourth in 2005. Guthrie’s result was remarkable because she cracked her wrist in a charity tennis match two days before the race; she secretly wore a cast and essentially drove 500 miles one-handed.
Ironically, Guthrie’s superspeedway debut in the World 600 saw her start directly behind fellow 2020 IMS Hall of Fame Inductee Dale Earnhardt: inside Row 14 vs. inside Row 13, respectively. She finished 15th while Earnhardt dropped out early with engine problems.