Janet Guthrie still looks back at her pioneering days competing in 1970s NASCAR as filled with worthy challenges and high achievements – the off-track lessons every bit as usable as the on-track learning experience. She competed against NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty, Bill Elliott and the late Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt. And she literally created history everywhere she went.
On Friday night, Guthrie will again be recognized with a select few of those former competitors at the NASCAR Hall of Fame where she will be formally honored as the 2024 Landmark Award winner – an esteemed acknowledgement voted on annually for someone who provided “significant contributions to the growth and esteem of NASCAR.”
The 85-year-old Guthrie was the first woman to compete in the Daytona 500 — and also in the Indianapolis 500. Her 33 starts in the NASCAR Cup Series are most among her starts in a national racing series. She had five top-10 finishes with a best of sixth place at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1977 – a high mark still nearly five decades later for a female competitor in the modern era. Danica Patrick equaled the finish in 2014 at Atlanta.
Guthrie placed 12th in her ground-breaking 1977 Daytona 500 debut and 11th in her only other Daytona 500 start in 1980, proving herself absolutely up for the challenge on the sport’s biggest stage. And she did it in far less capable equipment compared to her competitors.
“For pure, flat-out enjoyment there was nothing like NASCAR,” Guthrie recalled last week. “I really did love it very much and I most particularly wish I had been able to continue longer because I had run NASCAR enough – just 33 races – but led a race, run with the leaders on several occasions and I was absolutely certain I was going to win races.
“I really, really enjoyed it.”
That’s not to say Guthrie’s path was not without hard work and a strong will, however. Finding an owner to field a car, finding sponsorship for a relative unknown driver – let alone a woman – finding a capable crew willing to work with a new driver … all were things that Guthrie needed. And ironically, Guthrie says her best help to race in NASCAR came from a NASCAR legend who had competed in the Indianapolis 500 like herself: Cale Yarborough.
A mutual friend in the industry suggested to Guthrie that she speak with Yarborough before her first NASCAR start in the 1976 World 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Yarborough, who was driving for fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer Junior Johnson at the time, “checked out” the No. 68 Chevrolet that Guthrie was to drive.
“Cale did check it out and he had only gone maybe a second faster than I had or something like that,” Guthrie recalled. “And he and Junior Johnson had some words, Cale driving for Junior at the time, and Junior turned to [crew chief] Herb Nab and said, ‘give ’em the setup.’ And that made all the difference in the world.
“It was a huge gift which I perfectly appreciated at the time. So, they changed the setup according to what Junior told them and suddenly I had a driveable car on my hands. So that was how I came to qualify right behind Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott.”
Another star driver was also kind to Guthrie that Memorial Day weekend: Donnie Allison, who coincidentally will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame this weekend too.
“Donnie Allison gave me a few tips at that very first race that were in fact quite helpful,” Guthrie recalled. “And there were others subsequently. But I soon learned not to credit anybody who had given me a hand because all the other drivers would give them a hard time.
“But it was great to find the attitudes eventually change.”
Of note, Guthrie would go on to finish 15th in her debut — ahead of the future NASCAR Hall of Famers Earnhardt (31st) and Elliott (23rd). And she would later become the first woman to lead a lap in NASCAR Cup Series competition (five laps in the 1977 race at Ontario Motor Speedway).
Guthrie has always seen her success and dedication as a result of hard work and an uncommon will. She did not necessarily set out to break gender barriers, but rather to simply achieve her own dreams. And her background shows as much.
She has a degree in Physics from the University of Michigan and earned her pilot’s license at the age of 17. She used that physics background as an engineer after college working on the Project Apollo program and then applied and passed the first selection round for a scientist-astronaut seat in the space program itself in 1964.
Before NASCAR, Guthrie was the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 (1976) and she competed three times in the race with a best finish of ninth in 1978 — driving with a broken wrist. One of her helmets and fire suits hangs in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
“Being the first in anything is tough but necessary because it shows what’s possible when it would appear to not be possible,” said Lyn St. James, who in 1992 became the first woman to win Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year honors and is a two-time class winner in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Series’ Rolex 24 herself.
“The 1970s was a time of change for women in every aspect of society. Janet was part of that change and defied the odds and options to show that women were capable to compete at the highest levels of motorsports. Fortunately, there now are women competing at all levels and areas of motorsports who thank her and celebrate with her.”
Having extraordinary talent and drive are certainly musts for a driver to succeed in the sport’s highest ranks. But in Guthrie’s case, courage and perseverance were equally as important. Not only did she have to prove herself on the track, she had to overcome stereotypes and frequent ill will that tried to keep her from the track.
“I was absolutely astonished at the commotion I caused back then,” Guthrie said with a laugh. “I had been working and playing in men’s fields all my life and so I was a woman, so what?”
“Not everybody felt that way though.
“I knew at the time, if I screwed up,” she continued, “it would be a long time before another woman got a chance. But the main thing on my mind was just not to screw up. The fact I was making it easier for other women was something really that was forced upon me. The first clue I had was probably at Indianapolis when people would come up to me and say, ‘do you know what’s going on in your wake?’ and tell business stories, which I figured were an example. So eventually I came to recognize it as a responsibility.”
It was a responsibility well-served and now, well-appreciated. She has been inducted into eight halls of fame — primarily motorsports related — but this NASCAR Hall of Fame honor is something she says is very special to her.
“I was surprised and delighted at this one,” Guthrie said.
“Most of those guys had never driven against a woman and they were sure they weren’t going to like it,” she added. “But once they figured out that I knew what I was doing and was a courteous driver and could give them some good competition, things calmed down tremendously. And that was one of my biggest pleasures to see that happen. As far as I was concerned, I was just another driver and being a woman made no difference whatsoever.”